Work at home image: pexels-vlada-karpovich

Some companies have just got staff back into the office and now they’re heading back home again. What are the employers’ responsibilities?

In the wake of a second wave of Covid-19, on 22 September 2020, the Prime Minister asked for office workers to once again work from home if they were able to. Unlike the lockdown earlier in the year where people were told to stay home unless they were key workers, this latest instruction allows those working in retail, construction and hospitality, for example, to attend their workplace.

It is also only guidance, so while earlier in the year (until 1 June), it was illegal to go into work unless you came under the key worker categories, this time around that is not the case. So what does this mean for employers?

Must my staff work at home?

There are many factors to consider when working from home, not least whether an employee is able to work ‘effectively’. If it is not possible for them to work effectively at home, you would be within your rights to ask them to come into the office, according to global HR lawyer Lewis Silkin.

If your staff do continue to come into the office, you must make sure that all health and safety procedures relating to Covid-19 are strictly adhered to, both to ensure the safety of your staff and to make sure that you are not open to complaints from staff who are required to work there.

Communication is key

For some companies, who furloughed their staff, this may be the first time they have had to organise work-from-home employees. If this is the case, there are a number of factors to consider. In all cases communication between management and staff is key.

You will need to check that staff are confident that they can carry out their work at home, safely and effectively. Allow them to be open about any concerns – for example they may have access to sensitive documents, where will they store them at home? There may be aspects of the job that are impossible or time-consuming to do from home. You need to have these types of conversations with them and about whether they need to come into the office or alter aspects of their role. To decide whether someone can work effectively, you may want to devise and make use of a Homeworking Questionnaire that can then be discussed with the individual.

It is important to be supportive of staff working from home. Not only practically but emotionally too. Ensure that there is an open line of communication for them to talk with managers and other staff. This is especially important for staff who are relatively new to the company or their role, and who still need to check in regularly with managers and senior staff. Make use of video conferencing facilities but remember to check that people know the basics of its use and are comfortable using it. Something as simple as knowing where the camera is so that not only the top of the head is displayed, or what the background looks like.

However, the responsibilities do not all fall to the employer. Employees have to take a reasonable amount of care of their health and safety, and let the company know if there are any issues, and if any initial arrangements need to be reviewed.

What if they want to come into the office?

Because the government guidance is just that, it is assumed that employers and staff will have sensible conversations about who should work from home. That said, if an employee is unable to focus at home, does not have the room to work from home, or is experiencing mental health issues from being at home all day – which mean they will be far more effective in the office – you should have a conversation with them to see how you can help. If it is just that they enjoy the company, or like getting out of the house, they should be working from home.

Homeworking policy

If your staff were furloughed during lockdown, this may all be new to the company and you will need to make sure you have got the basics in place. A homeworking policy is vital so that the company policy is clear to everyone.

  • The right space
    You should check that your staff have an acceptable place to work at home – it may be several months before we all back in our offices and the Prime Minister has certainly intimated that he wants those who can, to work at home over the winter months. Perching on a sofa five days a week with a laptop on their lap is not going to be acceptable. Help them carry out a risk assessment of their working space to make it as safe and as comfortable as possible. They may need advice on ergonomics when it comes to chair and desk, as well as lighting and ventilation. Will the organisation contribute to setting up a workspace? Remember that a DSE assessment is required.
  • The right equipment
    Make sure the relevant systems are in place so that your staff have the correct technology – if not a PC, then a laptop, monitor, keyboard and mouse may be required. What software and licenses are needed? Is all work carried out ‘in the cloud’ or is access to a server required? Most people have access to broadband but discussions about connectivity may be needed, depending on roles.
  • Change to contracts
    Consideration should be given to contractual changes may be necessary for employee’s working from home. Here conversations are vital. The CIPD believe that organisations should consider flexible working requests from Day One. It is expected that there will be an increase in employees exercising their Right to Request Flexible Working. To ensure responses are considered appropriately and are reasonable, it’s a good idea to follow the formal procedure as there may need to be a change to contracts.

What about childcare?

Unlike during lockdown, childcare facilities are open, and families can now have a support bubble to help with childcare where necessary. However, there have already been a number of instances where children have been sent home to self-isolate thanks to virus cases within school or nursery. Children who are unwell may also not be allowed back into an education setting until they have had a negative Covid-19 test.

So what happens when parents have young children isolating at home while they are supposed to be working? Some options available are that they: take annual leave; use unpaid time off for dependants, or use parental leave. However, it is unclear how many times this may happen over the next few months, and families may not  be able to afford to take too  much unpaid leave. Make sure that you can have an open conversation with staff about options, such as flexible working.

Further reading

The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and subsequent containment measures will undoubtedly have a long-lasting impact on the economy, businesses and working lives. Organisations worldwide have had to make rapid changes to how they operate, including how and where jobs are carried out, as well as planning for, or returning staff to work safely. Workers in turn, have had to navigate new ways of working, as well as adapt to changing circumstances in their personal lives.

You may be interested in this research by the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) with useful insights into: jobs and financial security; workload and work-life balance; health, safety and wellbeing, as well as their findings into employer and line managers’ responses to the pandemic.

If you would like to discuss this subject further and find out how we could help you draw up a homeworking policy, please contact Cecily Lalloo at Embrace HR Limited.

T: 01296 761 288 or contact us here.

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Based in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Embrace HR Limited supports business owners who do not have their own HR department or those that do but need help from time to time. We also work across the Home Counties of Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, and also SMEs based in London.