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Homeworking: what should employers be doing as it becomes longer term?

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In March 2020, working from home became much more prevalent very suddenly. As time goes on, it appears it could be the ‘new normal’ for many for a while yet and remains the default position where possible.

Given this position may continue for some time, this week we’re looking at some employment issues which are thrown up by homeworking. In many cases, given how suddenly homeworking came about, there may not have been time to implement certain measures which might otherwise have been put in place for homeworking. As the situation becomes more long term, further consideration may have to be given to these, such as health and safety and the ongoing management of employees, which we look at in this blog.

Health and Safety

Employers have a general duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of employees under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, including a duty to carry out a risk assessment of the workplace. Where someone is working from home, the health and safety duties continue to apply, including risk assessment of the home workstation.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) indicate that a full workstation assessment does not need to be done for someone working at home temporarily, but suggests employees should conduct their own basic assessment of their home workstations. This would tend to suggest a temporary basis would be a short period of home working such as a day here and there, or a short period of a week or so for particular work or personal reasons. The position we find ourselves in now, having lasted for six months, is likely to be considered longer-term. Given the restrictions in place, it is still advisable to provide employees with a checklist or risk assessment form to complete with an assessment of their own homeworking arrangements, and then discuss how to address any risks or issues identified.

Risk assessments should consider the following:

  • The suitability of the desk and chair, to ensure the employee can sit in a comfortable position;
  • The suitability of any computer or other equipment they are using;
  • Whether there is sufficient lighting;
  • Temperature – can the work area be maintained at comfortable temperature;
  • Ventilation
  • Space – does the employee have sufficient space to work effectively, to be able to move around and change position, to have all the relevant equipment to hand without overcrowding etc;
  • Floor – is the floor surface suitable, are there are trip hazards and so on.

If the employer supplies any equipment, it has responsibility for addressing any risks identified with it. Some issues may be more in the control of the employee in their own home (such as temperature and ventilation) and they should be encouraged to address any issues if they can. However, given the employer’s general duties in relation to health and safety, generally, homeworking should not be permitted if the employee’s home environment is not suitable. This may involve working with them to find solutions, such as arranging for their office chair to be delivered to their home, or for different computer equipment to be provided. If an employer does provide equipment, it must be in good working order and inspected regularly, and the employer is also responsible for the safety of any electrical equipment provided.

Overall, the prevalence of issues is likely to be relatively low given a homeworker has much more control over their workplace environment at home and will likely have selected a place to work which is comfortable. However, there is a risk of personal injury claims if an employee starts to suffer injury as a result of, for example, not having a suitable chair, so it is advisable to ensure that there is a risk assessment in place and any identified risks have been considered and mitigated where possible.

Another important issue to be aware of is that the duty to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities still applies in relation to homeworking. If such an employee has adjustments in place in the workplace, these may need to be transferred to their home and there may be additional adjustments needed.  The duty arises where an employee is put at a substantial disadvantage by either a provision, criteria or practice of the employer, a physical feature of the premises or lack of an auxiliary aid. This may require provision of equipment to address any disadvantage suffered. The Access to Work scheme can potentially support employees with disabilities with the cost of adjustments required to work at home.

Management and Employee Wellbeing

H&S duties also extend to stress, so this is something to consider in any risk assessment also. While overall homeworking has been a positive experience for many and improved work life balance, it does also have challenges. A recent CIPD survey found 61% of respondents considered working from home to provide a better work life balance, with saving time and costs commuting also cited, as positives, as well as greater collaboration and greater ability to focus without distractions. However, it also found key challenges were reduced mental wellbeing and challenges with line management and performance monitoring.

These issues may require some adaptation and changes to ways of working to replace the often more informal management of the office with a more structured approach where employees are working remotely. Going forward, when homeworking is not enforced and is part of a more flexible working pattern which also involves face to face contact and time in the office, it is likely that the effect of some of these challenges might be reduced.

In the meantime, it may be more difficult to monitor performance day to day when someone is not physically present. It is generally recommended to agree with the employee how performance will be managed remotely, whether this is by setting targets or having regular calls to discuss progress. Employees should be encouraged to raise any issues they are having, whether this is to do with their personal circumstances, their workload being too high or feeling like they don’t have enough support. A particular challenge the longer homeworking goes on will be the onboarding of new employees and integrating them into the workplace. This may involve a more structured approach than might previously have been the case, as well as consideration of social aspects such as introducing them to colleagues in their team.

Another point to consider is how to maintain an awareness of employee wellbeing and who might be experiencing issues. It can be easier to get a sense of when someone might be feeling down or struggling with their workload when in their presence in the office, and such issues might go unnoticed working from home. Additional issues which can arise with homeworking include employees having difficulty switching off and their work encroaching into their personal life, or employees feeling isolated, particularly if they live alone.

Taking steps like having team conference or video calls and ensuring managers are contacting employees regularly to check in on progress will likely be of benefit. Reminding employees to ensure they are taking regular breaks and taking steps to maintain social support, or highlighting any counselling services which are available can also be simple steps to take, and is in line with the H&S obligations in terms of dealing with stress.

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