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Will WFH become a new legal right?

Because of Covid-19, nearly half of all U.S. workers are now working from home, and a majority of those want to continue working from home after the outbreak ends. Have we reached the point when some employees will have a legally enforceable right to work from home?

Asked another way: If workers can do their jobs remotely, should employers still have the right to require them to work from a company office?

About 90 percent of Goldman Sachs’ 34,000 employees worked from home in 2020. But last week, Goldman’s CEO David Solomon called WFH “an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.”

Similarly, the heads of JPMorgan and Barclays said they want their people back in the office.

In the face of such opposition, is a legal right to work from home possible?

New rights for workers emerge more often than you’d think. Recent examples are family leaves, minimum wages, defined work hours and holidays, access for employees with disabilities, workplace safety standards, and more.

Like those examples, there are good reasons for work-from-home to become a legal right.

It’s safer. Even in perfect weather in daylight, traffic accidents happen. Why risk commuting any distance if it’s not necessary?

It’s more efficient. Should employers stipulate work times? Assuming I meet my company obligations (Zoom meetings, Slack responses), why shouldn’t I work when I can work best, even if it’s dark outside?

It’s healthier. If I don’t need to rub elbows with others at the office, why should I? Even post-pandemic, there will be a lot of dangerous germs around. My healthiest workplace is home.

Life is more balanced. From home, I can work for my employer and serve my loved ones and neighbors. I’m more valuable as a human being when I stay plugged in where I live. Unless my location impacts job productivity and performance, why should an employer care where I live or have any say in it?

Employees save money. According to one job site, people who work from home half time say they already save around $4,000 per year. They spend less on gas, car repairs, parking, office clothes, and meals out. Who gets paid for commute times? Does anyone collect bonuses for sitting in traffic jams? So WFH is a double win for employees. They spend less money and make more on a per-hour basis.

What are some arguments against WFH?

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said last year remote work was hitting productivity and reducing “spontaneous creativity.” He and other executives also voiced concerns about losing their firms’ unique cultures.

Fact check: Nearly two-thirds of WFH workers in the same job now as before Covid-19 report no change in their productivity.

Less creative? If corporate innovation depends on collaboration, as some argue, won’t tele-collaborating work just as well?

What about threats to company culture? Here, Jamie Dimon has a point. WFH does threaten the cultural status quo.

But that might be a good thing.

We shouldn’t assume different corporate cultures will be worse. Maybe WFH will produce better, less toxic cultures — more diverse and authentic, with richer community perspectives.

Back to our initial question: After Covid-19 is no longer a daily threat, will WFH become a recognized legal right for workers who can meet their responsibilities remotely?

Why not? Today’s workplace may be due for a legal earthquake —  like child labor laws a hundred years ago or OSHA 50 years ago.

The next big change in the workplace? How about the legal definition of “workplace” itself.

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  1. Indeed we are living a break in the curve. Covid will be in our history as an ERA and not only a pair of years. It will last long and is requiring everyone to be flexible, find new alternatives and be more creative than ever. A new civilization, professions, relationships will emerge out of it.

  2. Companies will evolve to stay competitive, cut costs, improve employee recruitment and retention, and many other reasons mentioned here. Why add more unnecessary government regulation and enforcement to a voluntary relationship?

  3. Your point about just letting things evolve without regulation fails to consider reality. Dinosaurs don’t evolve fast enough, and “voluntary” relationships don’t really exist when the power imbalance between employer and employee is too great. Unless you create the right to work from home, or somehow create incentives for it, employers will simply mandate a return to the office, and employees will have no choice. Case study: you think companies wanted OHS implemented 50 ears ago? I makes human and business sense to have OHS rules, but they only came into force universally when they were mandated by government. That is the reality of capitalism. It requires regulation for it to work optimally.

    • You assume a government sanctioned “right to work from home” is a good and necessary thing in the first place. I submit to you that it is fraught with complex legal and social issues and unintended consequences.

  4. Working from home is necessary for some workers – not a “right.” Resident field engineers, field loss adjusters, translators, all categories of self-employees fall in need of WFH.

    Some other functions need personal engagement with their managers and peers on a routine basis. You just can not get too far from your superiors; you need to have visibility and build trust/credibility within your organization.

    The government has no business to do with WFH, right or no right. Why would WFH become a “right”? This is silly, or is an idea coming from the minds of the liberal left; this idea is very popular in socialist governments in Europe. We have enough laws already regulating employment. Employment is at will.

    Let your employer and the employee set the total reward package at the time of hiring, and decide when and if your job is set WFH, part-time or full-time.

    WFH, instead of interacting with your peers and your managers, is a career killer.

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