Can my boss force me to return to the office when Sweden scraps home-working recommendation?

Can my boss force me to return to the office when Sweden scraps home-working recommendation?
With home-working recommendations set to disappear from September 29th, office workers might either be dreading or longing for the return to the workplace. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT
From September 29th, Sweden's national recommendation to work from home if possible will be lifted, along with most other pandemic restrictions. But can your boss force you back to the workplace?

While many people have been going to work as usual throughout the pandemic, such as healthcare, retail and school staff, national public health recommendations to work from home if possible have been in place for over a year.

This guideline will be removed on September 29th, along with most other pandemic recommendations and the legal restrictions on restaurants and events. 

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What this means in practice will depend on your employer, the work you do, and any other special circumstances. Several major companies have announced a permanent shift to optional home-working, while others may have cut down on office space during the pandemic. 

So can your boss force you to return to the workplace?

The answer is yes. An employer always has the right to decide where work should be carried out, and that includes the option to mandate office-working.

This was even true during the pandemic. The national recommendations and guidelines obliged employers to allow home-working if possible (including making reasonable adjustments to facilitate it) and to make other arrangements to reduce the risk of infection, such as staggered working times or increased distancing at the workplace, but it was ultimately up to the employer to decide whether working remotely was feasible.

But if your boss asks you to return to the workplace and you don’t want to, you have a few options.

“It should always be possible to agree with your employer on what applies to you,” union lawyer Sofie Malmkvist told the TT newswire. “Then, there are several collective agreements which include sections on distance work.”

If there is nothing specific in your collective agreement (kollektivavtal) or individual employment contract about your place of work, you can speak directly to your manager or HR department about what would work best for you.

Even if your employer is bringing in a company-wide policy, there may be room to make exceptions for a good reason. This could be anything from requesting more time or specific days in the office or at home to fit around childcare commitments, or explaining if you are at a higher risk of serious illness from Covid-19 and don’t feel safe commuting. Even if it’s just a matter of your personal preference, after a year of home-working you might find that workplaces formerly opposed to allowing remote work will now be more open to it, especially if it means retaining happy employees. 

If you are concerned that your employer isn’t taking reasonable precautions against Covid-19 at work, there are a few routes you could take. You could speak directly to your manager, especially if they have taken a proactive approach on Covid-19 or other work safety issues. Your employer should be able to explain the steps they have taken to ensure a safe working environment, and this now includes reducing the risk of infection.

If you are a member of a union, you can speak to your union representative. Even if your workplace doesn’t recognise a union, you can still get advice on the best course of action, but in that case the union itself will have less influence.

And if your workplace does not recognise your union, you might still have a skyddsombud (work place environment representative), and if you don’t, the employees of the company can elect one. A skyddsombud is responsible for representing employees on the subject of workplace safety and environment, including involvement in discussions and risk assessments about the work environment, requesting additional measures, and even asking for work to be paused if they judge there is a high risk to employee safety.

Another option to consider is speaking to your colleagues. If you have concerns, it’s likely others do too, and speaking up as a group often helps employees feel more secure and may make employers more inclined to listen.

At the other end of the scale, some workers might be keen to return to the workplace, for example if their home environment makes their work difficult to do. In that case, it’s unlikely your manager can force you to keep working remotely, according to Sofie Malmkvist.

“Just like before the pandemic, it depends on what you and the employer have agreed on. If you worked exclusively in the office before the pandemic, I have a hard time seeing that the employer can decide that you should work from home,” said the legal expert.

There may be exceptions, for example if your company has made a permanent switch to distance-working. 

A final thing to remember is that in Sweden, your employer is always responsible for your working environment, regardless of where that is. They need to take all reasonable steps to keep you safe and healthy, which might include providing office furniture if you work from home, or ensuring good ventilation if you return to the workplace.

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