(Shutterstock illustration)

Dilemma of the Month: Can I Make My Remote Workers Come Back?

Back Article Jan 6, 2022 By Suzanne Lucas

We’ve been working remotely since March 2020, and lots of my staff have moved away. Even though we want to stay largely remote, we want employees to come into the office at least a few times per month. But some of our employees are living in other states. No one asked permission to move, as we just all did what we thought was necessary to get through the pandemic. Can I force them to move back? Can I terminate people? If we had known people would move out of the area, we would have put restrictions on where they could work much earlier.

This story is part of our January 2022 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

My first question is: Is this working for you? I know you want people to be in the office a few times a month, but do they need to be? They might. I don’t know your business. But if you’ve been working for almost two years this way, do they really need to come back?

That said, having employees in different states brings many headaches. Employees are subject to the employment laws and taxes for where they work, not for where the company is headquartered. You can be as flexible as possible and still reasonably say to your employees, “You need to stay in California.” If they choose not to come back, you can give them fair notice and terminate them. 

Most likely, they are at-will employees (workers who can be terminated at any time without cause), and legally you can just terminate them without notice or severance. But terminating  your good employees because you want to change your policy will be bad for the morale of your remaining employees. So I suggest you give them notice or severance — or both.

Having all your employees in California is one thing, but then you have to answer the question of whether or not they need to be within a reasonable commuting distance to your office. California requires you to reimburse all business expenses. A regular commute isn’t included in that, but if someone has a 9-hour drive or requires a plane flight, you’ll probably be on the hook for that reimbursement even if the employee went voluntarily.

So think long and hard about what your business needs. Do you need employees who can come into the office regularly? Do you need employees in the state? How often will they need to be in the office? How much will travel reimbursement cost you?

It may well be that the reduction in your office space will more than cover the costs for occasional travel. It may not. It may be that your business operates just fine at 99 percent remote, or it may be that your business really will be more successful with more people in the office. You may be much more profitable and effective, and your employees more engaged when they come into the office from time to time.

Make sure you ask your employees their thoughts. Some who don’t want to come back may not give you honest answers, but most will. They will let you know if they feel things are effective with the company at 100 percent remote or if the business is likely to prosper by returning to the office.

If the latter is the case, then yes, it’s utterly reasonable to require employees to live within a commuting distance. Some employees, of course, won’t want to come back. That’s fine. When you hire to replace them, you need to be very honest with your candidates about expectations.

Explain that the job is a hybrid one and not remote. Don’t try to lure in top candidates with the “remote” job headline, only to spring on them that it is only “mostly” remote. It will waste your time and theirs.

For days in the office, make it clear when people need to be there and when they can work from home. You can set a number of days per week or month that employees must be in the office. Or it can be project-based. “On days when we’re finalizing marketing plans, everyone on the marketing team needs to be in the office. All finance people need to be in the office the last two and first three days of each month to get month-end reports done.” Whatever you do is OK as long as you are clear and keep the expectations realistic. Don’t say it will be once a week and then get mad if people aren’t there every day. 

Keep in mind requiring people to live in a certain radius will reduce your hiring pool, but if that’s what your business needs, that’s OK. You had that hiring pool before the pandemic, and you can go back to it again.

And feel free to re-evaluate (although people who moved back might be angry) and change things after a year. Do give the new method a bit of time. Change is difficult, and some people may not appreciate the new system. 

And lastly, keep in mind that none of this has been easy on anyone, so act with compassion if you ask people to come back to the office.

Stay up to date on business in the Capital Region: Subscribe to the Comstock’s newsletter today.

Recommended For You