As lockdown measures are gradually eased, employers will be looking ahead to 21 June – the date on which, all being well, the Government’s advice for people to work from home where possible could potentially be lifted. Here, we take a look at some of the issues employers will need to consider when deciding what they want future working arrangements to look like.
Clearly, approaches will vary from organisation to organisation, as some types of work lend themselves to homeworking fairly easily, while others – including many roles in the manufacturing sector – simply cannot be performed away from the workplace. However, where employers are considering making the temporary home-working arrangements that have applied during the Covid-19 pandemic more permanent, what potential issues do they need to take into account?
What changes might be needed to make home-working arrangements sustainable for the long-term?Home-working arrangements introduced at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic may have been as simple as employees taking home their laptops and plugging them in on whatever surface was available. Such ad hoc set-ups may have worked well enough as a temporary measure, but if home-working is to become more permanent, employers should address the following issues:
Health and safety risk assessments
The obligation for an employer to take all reasonably practicable steps to provide a safe working environment is not removed because an employee works from home. In current circumstances, employees are unlikely to want the employer to conduct an in-person inspection of their home office environment. As a minimum, however, the employer should ensure that the employee completes any relevant workstation risk assessment forms and should take appropriate action to address any risks identified.
Costs and equipment
Employees’ bills (such as electricity, water, broadband, etc.) may increase as a result of their home-working. There is no general legal requirement for an employer to contribute towards these costs, but if you are willing to do so, any agreed employer contribution should be recorded in writing. In certain circumstances, employers may be able to pay employees a tax free allowance to cover some of these increased costs; employers should speak to their tax advisers if this is something they wish to consider.
Thought should also be given to whether further equipment is necessary. For example, employees who have to-date been working at their kitchen table may, if home-working becomes a permanent arrangement, wish to obtain a proper desk and office chair. There is no specific legal obligation on employers to provide the equipment necessary for homeworking, but employers should consider whether they will do so (and there may be an obligation to do so as a reasonable adjustment for disabled employees). If the employer does provide equipment, this should be documented in writing, together with details of the employee’s obligation to look after any equipment provided and return it to the employer in the event that the home-working arrangement is terminated or employment comes to an end.
Data protection and confidentiality
Having large numbers of employees working remotely raises potential data protection issues, particularly around data security. The general requirement under the GDPR to keep personal data secure means (among other things) that employers must take steps to ensure the data is not lost, destroyed or damaged and is available to people only on a need to know basis.
Home-workers may need specific training or instructions on data protection compliance. For example, they might need to be reminded only to use video conferencing platforms that are suitable for business use, or advised not to use a speakerphone or conduct work-related conversations in the presence of smart speakers or home surveillance (e.g. Alexa Echo, Google Home). Employers may need to instruct employees to position screens and papers so they can’t be read by others and to tidy up and lock away papers and devices at the end of the day.
In addition, employers may need to set out specific rules for disposing of personal data and confidential information when they are no longer needed. Will employees be expected to shred hard copy documents at home (and, if so, will the employer provide the shredder)? Or will employees instead have to return such documents to the workplace to be securely disposed of there?
Attendance at the workplace
It is important to consider whether – and, if so, how often – employees will be required to come in to the workplace, e.g. for team meetings or training. Any such requirements should be recorded in writing and employers should be clear about whether home-working employees will have to hot-desk or share a desk when they do attend the workplace.
Employers may also need to review their expenses policies to identify whether they entitle home-workers to claim back their travel expenses of occasional attendance at the workplace.
Performance and development
When people work remotely, it may be more difficult for managers to identify if employees are experiencing difficulties or to accurately evaluate their performance. Employers should consider how they will ensure that performance is properly assessed over time and any issues promptly addressed. Employers may wish to reserve a right to end an employee’s home-working arrangements and require them to return to working at the workplace in the event that performance falls below expectations.
In addition, home-working may pose particular challenges for junior employees and new employees, as ‘learning on the job’ may not be as straightforward when their supervisors are only available on-screen. Employers should be alive to this and make sure to facilitate appropriate contact between junior and senior staff to support employees’ ongoing training and development needs.
Ensuring employee wellbeing
Some homeworkers may find it difficult to maintain appropriate boundaries between their work and their home life and this may increase the risk of stress. In addition, homeworkers may feel isolated as the social aspect of office/workplace life isn’t easily replicated on a remote basis. Managers may also find it more difficult to pick up the signs that an employee is struggling, for example if they are suffering from stress or anxiety. Employers will need to consider what steps they can take to mitigate such risks and ensure that homeworkers feel properly supported.
How can we help?
If you’re looking to make changes to the way your business operates, our HR and employment law team are here to support you to plan and implement a successful change programme – including helping you to introduce homeworking arrangements that support your business requirements, public health concerns and your workforce’s needs. For more information, visit our Flexible and Hybrid Working webpage, download our checklist, call us on 0808 168 5874 or email [email protected].
Our upcoming webinar, GDPR in 2021: key issues for HR, will cover how to handle personal data securely in the context of remote/home-working, alongside the broader GDPR issues relating to COVID such as vaccine and health data as well as an update on the impact of the UK’s exit from the EU on data protection. The webinar will take place on the morning of 19 May 2021. For more information and to book your place, click here.
If you are a Make UK member and you need support in relation to Covid-19, please contact your adviser. If you are not a Make UK member, please call 0808 168 5874 or email us [email protected]. Our experienced Legal, HR and Health & Safety teams are here for you.
The Coronavirus FAQs on our website are also updated regularly and provide detailed guidance on issues relating to Covid-19.