Legal

COVID-19 and the return to the office

The return to the office is proving to be complicated.
September 17, 2021
Michelle Caton
COVID-19 and the return to the office

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life around the world in all sorts of ways, not the least of which being how and where employees work. With many employees working remotely, some employers have had to adapt quickly to utilizing and managing globally distributed teams. Now, previously locked-down cities are unlocking, temporarily shuttered businesses are reopening, and some employers are asking their employees to return to the office. As the pandemic continues to run its course, this return to office life is proving to be complicated. 

For the foreseeable future, employers will need to stay updated about the evolving restrictions, requirements, and risks impacting their teams, whether they are remote or office-based. While each locality is charting its own course, here are a few notable developments we’ve seen from around the world that may be relevant to your team.

Quarantine for international travelers

Even for remote workers, a face-to-face meeting can sometimes be a necessary part of the job. If that meeting requires the employee to cross international borders, he or she may be subject to quarantine restrictions upon entering the destination country. Quarantine times vary by location, and typically the associated costs (hotel, food, transport) are the traveler’s responsibility. That can add up quickly for a multi-week quarantine. 


Some countries are allowing limited exemptions for individuals who are traveling for work-related purposes and who meet certain criteria. For example, the government of the United Kingdom has published a list of jobs that qualify for travel exemptions. The requirements for an exemption vary by occupation, and in some cases the employee is required to provide documentation to substantiate their qualification for an exemption. That documentation may include a letter from the employer confirming information like the employee’s personal details, the employer’s contact information, and a description of the work the employee will be doing while in the country.

Employer liability for COVID-19-related costs

Many countries have laws in place that protect workers who are injured or become ill while on the job. When that happens, the employer may bear some or all of the costs associated with the employee’s treatment and recovery. But, it’s not always clear whether an employee’s illness resulted from their job or other activities. The magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic has made that determination even more difficult.

Some countries, like Mexico, are addressing this issue by enacting laws or providing guidance regarding when and how COVID-19 will be treated as a workplace-related illness. The Mexican Institute of Social Security (IMSS) issued an ordinance early in the pandemic to help clarify when an employee’s COVID-19 infection will be deemed an occupational illness.  The ordinance identifies the criteria that must be met for the infection to be considered an employment-related disease, such as performing a job with a very high inherent risk of exposure to the virus. These risks increase when employees move back into office spaces and co-located workplaces.

Remote work entitlements

Governments worldwide have struggled to cope with the economic impact the pandemic has had since it began and have looked for ways to shield workers from the financial fallout. In some places, this has resulted in the adoption of new or expanded teleworking laws. Chile, Italy, and El Salvador have all taken this approach, though the specifics of each country’s rules differ. For example, Italy’s law requires certain employees to complete teleworking training, while Chile’s and El Salvador’s statutes do not. 

The scope of who is covered by teleworking laws also varies among countries. In some cases, employees are entitled to work remotely, regardless of whether the employer has formally agreed to a remote work arrangement. Some jurisdictions also require the employer to provide adequate remote working equipment to the employee or to reimburse the employee for expenses associated with working remotely. 

Restrictions on laying off or terminating employees

Another way some governments are trying to combat the potential financial impact of the pandemic is through restrictions on employee layoffs or terminations. These restrictions often limit or establish additional criteria for when an employer may lay off or terminate employees due to redundancy. 

Alternatively, some governments are reinterpreting existing laws or providing pandemic-specific guidance to employers to help them navigate their obligations. New Zealand, for example, has published guidance to employers about terminating employment agreements during COVID-19 response and recovery. The guidance emphasizes the importance of both the employer and the employee dealing with each other in good faith and trying to identify alternatives to termination. These alternatives can include suitable remote work arrangements.

Mandatory employer-provided COVID-19 testing

Some employers with employees returning to the office will be faced with the logistical and financial burdens of providing COVID testing to employees. For instance, a recent ordinance issued by the German government requires companies to make COVID tests available to employees at least twice a week, at the company’s expense. Notably, the ordinance also eliminated an earlier requirement for employers to offer employees the option to work from home. In places where employers have the option of mandating office-based work, they would be wise to consider the risks to employee health, as well as the potential financial impacts of a return to the office.

At Oyster, we know what it’s like to manage a globally distributed team and all the complications that come with cross-border employment. 

Disclaimer: This blog and all information in it is provided for general informational purposes only. It does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or tax advice. You should consult with a qualified legal or tax professional for advice regarding any legal or tax matter and prior to acting (or refraining from acting) on the basis of any information provided on this website.

Have questions about dealing with HR issues in distributed teams? Learn all about global HR compliance in this blog post.

About Oyster

Oyster is a distributed HR platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop and take care of a thriving distributed workforce. It lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches or the expense.

Oyster enables hiring anywhere in the world—with reliable, compliant payroll as well as great local benefits and perks.

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