A number of staff whose contractual place of work is in Oxford have been temporarily working overseas during the pandemic because circumstances required them to do so or where they have had informal permission from their department/faculty to do so for other reasons.
As part of the University’s return to on-site working, those staff should now be preparing to return to the UK and be available to work in-person when required to do so.
In-person teaching will recommence in Michaelmas term and there is a clear expectation that all staff who teach will be in Oxford working in their departments and faculties from the start of term. Research which has been limited during the pandemic is also restarting, and research staff are also expected to return to their laboratories and research groups from the start of term.
Other staff will also normally be required for in-person working for all or part of the week as part of local plans for returning to business as usual.
Even if, in exceptional circumstances, a department agrees that an employee can work primarily from home under the New Ways of Working framework, it is not envisaged that employees would normally be permitted to be based overseas unless this was required for the role. This is so that homeworkers are still able to attend Oxford when an in-person presence is required, and in light of the University as an academic community being based in Oxford (as reflected in its governance structures, statutes, regulations, policies and procedures).
There are also significant additional costs and risks for departments associated with overseas working. These range from employment law costs for advice on specific circumstances and territories (these services are provided by external legal firms and the costs are borne by departments), to additional tax and social security costs which would be incurred if overseas working is agreed. Such costs would only be justifiable expenses in exceptional cases. The risks to the University for a long-term or permanent overseas worker are far greater than for a temporary period overseas. (NB a number of countries provided certain tax concessions due to the pandemic, but these have mostly been withdrawn and can no longer be relied upon.)
Staff who are unable to return to Oxford
If staff state that they are prevented by travel restrictions from returning to the UK, departments should attempt to verify this. For example, whilst there may be some restrictions on people flying out of a particular country, there may be exemptions for travel in relation to work or for non-residents returning home. The fact that a staff member would have to quarantine and/or pay for hotel quarantine on a return to the UK would not necessarily make it unreasonable for the department to require a UK return – especially if in-person working is important and/or there were tax/social security risks and/or employment risks for the staff member remaining overseas.
If it is the case that staff are unable to return to the UK (for example, due to personal or family circumstances (such as becoming the primary carer of a dependant who cannot travel to the UK), the department should attempt to assess how long this may continue and, if they have not done so already, seek guidance under the Overseas Working Policy (see also the HR guidance on overseas working). There may be significant tax, social security, immigration or employment law costs or risks with allowing staff to remain working overseas and the department may need to consider ending employment if the employee is not able to return to the UK for the foreseeable future, even if it is not their fault. This option is discussed further below.
If staff are able to continue to work from overseas for an interim period, they should be told to return to the UK as soon as travel becomes possible and this should be confirmed in writing. The department should check in with the employee for regular updates. In some instances, this will mean that staff will need to work from home or a quarantine hotel in the UK on return for a period while they are in self-isolation or quarantine.
Staff who are reluctant to return to Oxford
If the department requires in-person attendance, but the staff member is reluctant, explore the reasons for their reluctance. As part of these discussions departments should remind staff that the normal place of work specified in their contract is the department; and that although they may have been temporarily permitted to work overseas during the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, the working location remains a contractual requirement. Explain why their presence on site is needed to allow them to carry out their role satisfactorily, and – if appropriate – the additional costs and risks associated with long-term overseas working.
If the staff member’s reluctance to return on-site is COVID-19 related
Provide information and reassurance about the steps the department is taking to minimise the risks of on-site working. Departments should follow the HR return to on-site working guidance, and the guidance on on holding conversations with staff who are reluctant to return on site.
If the staff member’s reluctance is because they wish to remain living overseas
The department will need to consider any request for continued working from overseas under the Overseas Working Policy (see also the HR guidance on overseas working). There can be significant costs and risks with continued work overseas, and it would not be envisaged that this would normally be offered unless it was a requirement of the role. The risks to the University for a long-term or permanent overseas worker are far greater than for a temporary period overseas. A number of countries provided certain tax concessions due to the pandemic, these have mostly been withdrawn and can no longer be relied upon.
The New Ways of Working sets out a framework for departments to consider requests to work primarily from home, and it may be that a primarily remote working model can be agreed. However, in all circumstances any request to work from overseas needs to be formally approved through the Overseas Working Policy.
Departments will also need to consider the long-term impact on team working, staff development, leadership (if the role has management responsibilities), fairness to others in the team/department who are required to be on site for some or all of the working week, and the fact that an overseas homeworker could not even attend work on sporadic occasions (as may be expected of a UK based homeworker). Departments should also bear in mind that the University is an academic community that is based in Oxford, hence the contractual place of work, and as reflected in the University’s governance structures, statutes, regulations, policies and procedures.
Where it is decided that the member of staff must return to Oxford, but during informal discussions the member of staff will not confirm that they have booked flights (or other travel method) to return to the UK, the member of staff should be called to a meeting with the head of department (or their nominee) and given the opportunity to comment on the requirement to return. The meeting should be held in accordance with the applicable disciplinary procedure. If, taking these comments into account, the department still considers that return to the UK is required, the member of staff should be given a formal disciplinary warning that, if they do not return to work within a specified period (e.g. 2-4 weeks depending on circumstances), their employment may be terminated. If staff members do not comply with this timeline, a case for dismissal can proceed (which would be considered by a Staff Employment Review Panel under Statute XII for academic and academic-related staff).
Departments should seek advice from their HRBP as early as possible where issues arise but in all cases the relevant HRBP must be consulted before any disciplinary proceedings are initiated.