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Managing Accommodations During the Great Return to Office

Learn how to manage accommodations as employees are asked to return to the office.

As the U.S. moves beyond pandemic-era policies, employers are increasingly calling workers back into the office full- or part-time. This continuing shift in work environment creates tension for many employees, including some workers with disabilities who recognize that telework has improved their ability to access and do their jobs over the last several years. For these employees and many others, workplace flexibilities have contributed directly to improved productivity, quality of life, and stress management.
This great return to office also creates hurdles for employers, who may feel overwhelmed with employees’ accommodation requests, including those related to telework or the process of returning to the office. The following are a few practical suggestions for evaluating and handling these requests:

✓ Do not enforce a blanket policy that no one can telework.

Some employers are creating new telework policies that were not in place before the pandemic, such as limiting the number of days employees can telework. Some employers are eliminating telework altogether and refusing to modify their policy for any reason. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require an employer to offer a telework program to all employees, but employers cannot eliminate a category of accommodation through policy.

The ADA's reasonable accommodation obligation, which includes modification of workplace policies, may require an employer to waive certain eligibility requirements or modify it's telework program for someone with a disability who needs to work at home. The ADA may also require an employer to change an employee's work location to their home, even if the employer does not allow other employees to telework. However, an employer is not obligated to adopt an employee's preferred or requested accommodation and may instead offer alternate accommodations if effective.

Under the ADA, whatever telework policy is in place, employers must consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether modifying it is an effective accommodation for an employee with a disability who requests it. See: Work at Home/Telework as a Reasonable Accommodation.

✓ Set reasonable timelines for returning to work.

Employees who have been teleworking for years have likely made adjustments in their personal lives that they will need to change in order to return to the office. Returning to the office may go more smoothly if employees have time to make these adjustments. 

For some employees, including those who have developed a disability that makes commuting to the office challenging, their return to the office may need to be reconsidered. An employee with a disability who requests to continue teleworking as an accommodation should not be required to return to the office while exploring accommodations and going through the request process. In some cases, the employee’s disability may prevent them from coming into the workplace and telework may be the only effective accommodation.

✓ Notify employees about how to request accommodations and explain the process.

If employees know in advance that they will be required to go through the accommodation process to request a modification to the telework policy, this may limit the number of accommodation requests by deterring employees who don't need an accommodation from requesting them. For employees who need telework as an accommodation, however, a clear understanding of the process will help them expedite their request.

✓ Remember ADA rules regarding medical documentation.

Check existing telework accommodation paperwork. If an employee previously documented a permanent disability and limitations, do not ask for that information again. The focus should be on whether effective reasonable accommodations can be provided to enable the employee to return to the office. For example, if an employee previously documented that they have multiple sclerosis and extreme fatigue and that eliminating the commute to work helps address the fatigue, there is no reason to ask for that information again. Any new requests for documentation should focus on whether the employer can provide alternative accommodations to address the fatigue, such as a schedule modification, rest breaks, or even partial telework. See: Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the ADA (questions 6 and 8).

✓ Do not assume medical documentation is inauthentic.

Some healthcare providers may be unwilling to complete an employer-created form but may write a note for an employee instead. Employers who question this type of documentation should work with the employee to authenticate it. For example, if the healthcare provider’s note is not on letterhead or signed, the employer may ask the employee to sign a release so the employer can contact the healthcare provider directly to verify that they provided the information. See: A Flexible Approach to ADA Medical Documentation.

✓ Do not rely on pre-pandemic circumstances when making accommodation decisions.

Employers may be tempted to deny telework as an accommodation because an employee was able to come into the workplace before the pandemic. Rather, employers should focus only on the current situation, as circumstances may have evolved over the last several years. For example, an employee's anxiety may have worsened during the pandemic or working from home may have helped alleviate symptoms effectively, which enabled the employee to be more productive. See: What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws (question D.16.).

If you have questions or would like to discuss a specific accommodation situation, please contact JAN.

Related Resources

Accessible Virtual Meeting Platforms
Adopting an Integrated Telework Policy for Employees With and Without Disabilities
Supporting Employees with Mental Health and Cognitive Conditions While Teleworking
Teleconference Accessibility and Hearing—Keeping Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Employees in the Loop 
Telework Accommodation Request Flowchart
Workplace Flexibility