By Toyah Marshall, principal employment law adviser, and Charles Spencer, principal health & safety consultant at
Despite previous negative perceptions, the ability to work remotely has proven to be a blessing for many employers who would otherwise have had to put operations on pause during the current pandemic.Although initially borne out of necessity, happier employees, more efficient ways of working and reduced overheads are just some of the reasons why once sceptical employers are now embracing homeworking as a workable solution. In fact, even as more businesses are unleashed from lockdown, many, including the Home Office, have decided to make homeworking a more long-term arrangement, particularly as bringing back entire teams under social distancing measures would be not only impractical but, in many cases, unnecessary.However, employers who are planning to make homeworking a more formal arrangement after the dust settles must be mindful of their responsibilities. Here are some things to consider before making the leap.It’s not for everyoneWhilst many of your employees will be overjoyed at the prospect of working from home on a long-term basis, there will be some who are not as keen, especially those who have spent most of lockdown alone and may value the interaction that work life brings, or parents who have found it difficult to work with children around. Similarly, while micromanagement has largely negative connotations, some will also appreciate a more hands-on steer from management and may have noticed that they lose motivation when left to their own devices. This, of course, is not good for either party.Homeworking is also likely to impact more junior employees whose experience and ability mean they benefit from being in an office environment with colleagues where they can be properly supported. Employers planning to continue with homeworking will therefore need to be mindful that some employees may begin to struggle and consider what procedures can be put in place to monitor this.Working from home doesn’t always mean less stressWorking from home is often seen as the ultimate solution to a less stressed workforce and better work-life balance. However, there can be hidden stressors, including reduced social isolation, blurred home/work boundaries and a lack of routine.Managers have an important role to play in ensuring homeworking is a positive experience and should be given training on how to identify stress and anxiety, particularly as remote working will make it harder to recognise when staff are struggling. Communication will be more important than ever, and managers should set up and stick to regular one-to-one meetings to check in with employees and monitor their mental health. Make sure employees are aware of any employee assistance programmes in place for them to access support and consider establishing a “buddy” system to encourage supportive relationships between colleagues and help new employees find their feet and integrate into the team.Additionally, make sure employees have everything they need to carry out their role just as effectively as if they were in the office. This means checking that they are comfortable, able to use any remote working technology, and properly set up to work remotely, as these frustrations can be another source of stress.A change in arrangements may have legal implicationsTemporary homeworking arrangements in response to Covid19, even if they are long-term, are unlikely to change an employee’s contractual place of work. However, employers should make staff aware that this is only a temporary arrangement, how long it is anticipated to last, and that it can be reviewed or ended at any time at the employer’s discretion. Importantly, while discussing and agreeing with temporary arrangements with employees, take care to avoid making permanent ones that you cannot later end.If you are looking to make a more permanent shift towards homeworking, you will need to agree variations to terms. As most staff will be receptive to such changes, this shouldn’t be difficult to achieve. However, if the employee does resist, you will need to have a reasonable basis to change their terms unilaterally. In the current circumstances, employers may have justification to do so based on health and safety reasons or perhaps to avoid redundancies, but you will need to demonstrate that this was necessary.Conversely, you may be in a position where you are looking to bring people back into the workplace and the employee wishes to remain working from home. It’s likely that organisations will experience an influx of flexible working requests in the coming weeks and months, and if current arrangements have proven successful, employers may struggle to reject them on the basis that homeworking isn’t practicable. With this in mind, you may wish to keep a record of the issues that have arisen during the temporary homeworking period so that you are able to justify rejecting such requests down the line.You still have a duty of careFrom a health and safety perspective, although home-based, employees are still working and therefore the employer still owes an employee a duty of care. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 extends to anyone working remotely and an employer must eliminate and minimise risks to homeworkers as far as is “reasonably practicable”.That’s not to say that you are responsible for everything that goes on in an employee’s home. Just last week, a client queried whether it was necessary to record someone falling over their dog in the living room as a workplace accident; the simple answer is no. Of course, if someone has been electrocuted using a work laptop, this would need to be recorded.In most cases, homeworking will be a temporary measure and it was the attitude of the HSE that this was a brief arrangement. The regulator described this work situation as a temporary arrangement on their website and, with that, said temporary provisions should be implemented such as a basic laptop and phone for communicating with other employees.However, we have now reached a point whereby some businesses are considering making homeworking the default – in some cases doing away with the office altogether. As such, hazards – particularly longer-term hazards you may not have considered – will now need further thought. This might include:· Ergonomic hazards, such as workstation set-up· Mental health and wellbeing hazards· Lone working without supervisionA homeworking risk assessment should be completed with individual employees to properly assess these hazards and ensure appropriate control measures are implemented.Employees must be given suitable and appropriate work equipment to complete their job safely. As an employer, you have a duty to provide this. This may include providing additional equipment, such as a chair and desk.