Given government guidance that those who can work from home should do so once again, remote working will continue to be the status quo for many, potentially for an extended period. As such, if they have not already done so, businesses should think about this in a more structured and proactive way, e.g. getting in place a Working From Home Policy, ensuring employees’ home set-up is appropriate and safe, finding effective ways to manage staff remotely etc. Some of the key areas to think about are set out below.
Employees should only be encouraged to work from home if they are well enough to do so. Individuals who are ill should:
- report their absence as normal;
- maintain contact with their employer and keep them informed of whether they are able to work;
- self-certify (for up to 7 days) or provide an “isolation note” from NHS 111 Online (if they are unwell for longer than 7 days); and
- be paid sick pay as per their contract of employment.
Government guidance advises that it is up to employers to decide whether to move employees who become sick during furlough onto SSP or whether to keep them on furlough, at their furloughed rate.
Health and safety and data protection
When asking employees to work from home, employers must consider their health and safety obligations to take reasonable steps to provide a safe system and place of work.
Whilst it was initially impractical to conduct assessments of all employees’ home working arrangements, given the emergency move to home-working, this needs proper consideration going forwards. Ideally, proper assessments should be carried out, even if this has to be done remotely or on paper.
Take particular care in relation to disabled employees, who may require more adjustments to ensure they can work safely from home.
You should also give guidance to employees regarding setting up in a suitable place and ensuring suitable security of confidential data and documents etc. There is helpful guidance from the ICO on this.
For most employees, the only equipment needed to work from home will be a phone, computer and similar. Some employees will already have company equipment but others do not.
When the initial government guidance encouraged homeworking, businesses rushed to set employees up at home. Inevitably, there was some “making do” in terms of equipment, as it was not commercially viable or possible for businesses to provide company equipment to all staff, and some staff were required to use their personal phones and computers (with reasonable expenses paid).
Going forwards, businesses should revisit this area, especially where staff will be working from home permanently or much more regularly.
Employers may wish to consider paying for employees’ use of their home services, e.g. the cost of paper, data used (if the employee does not have unlimited Wifi) and additional electricity. The cost of working from home can, however, be balanced against the costs an employee would face if travelling to and from work, including petrol, car parking etc. You may want to raise this if an employee starts seeking substantial or unreasonable costs arising from their home working.
Under HMRC guidance (and subject to the caveat below), employees are entitled to be paid up to £6 a week in respect of additional costs incurred through home working, without being required to provide supporting evidence. If they want to claim in excess of this, they must keep receipts as evidence.
However, employers are not required to make such payments to employees unless there is specific entitlement in the employment contract. Whilst a permanent home-worker’s contract might contain such a provision, many employment contracts will not. If not, it is down to the discretion of the employer as to whether payments are made for additional costs incurred during this home-working period. If an employer decides not to pay the additional costs, an employee can still claim tax relief through the HMRC self-assessment on such costs.
Consider employees’ welfare and mental health, as the ongoing pandemic is causing and/or exacerbating mental health issues due to:
- the grief experienced by employees who lose friends and family;
- the anxiety regarding the health risks, especially for key workers on the front line and those with loved ones in a “vulnerable” group;
- isolation and uncertainty regarding the duration and impact of the pandemic;
- worry about pay and job security;
- increased pressure on working parents and carers due to school closures; and
- increased workload demands on those who are still working due to the absence of colleagues due to sickness, self-isolation, childcare commitments or furlough.
It is, therefore, important to have a clear plan on how to support the mental health of different groups of staff, including employees able to work from home, people working in industries that have effectively closed, key workers who are still going into the workplace and placing themselves at risk and furloughed staff. You should communicate this to staff and ensure that it is easy to locate in one place. Some useful steps might include:
- Ensure managers understand possible mental health issues and bereavement, giving them simple training where possible. Charities such as MIND and Dying Matters have helpful resources. You should also ensure that managers do not send emails to employees over the weekend etc. as that will place further pressure on employees.
- Maintain good, regular communication and contact with remote staff and deal with any concerns they may have.
- Remind staff of the availability of Employee Assistance Programmes and mental health first aiders.
- Ensure that you are looking after and supporting your mental health first aiders, who are likely to be under additional pressure.
- Establish peer support networks, e.g. using Microsoft Teams or Zoom to ensure peers are having regular conversations.
- For those on furlough, ensure they have access to external support and consider offering them alternative activities like volunteering, so they may develop as an individual during this period.
Consider alternative duties
If employees cannot carry out existing duties and/or there is insufficient work that an employee can do from home, consider whether employees could do:
- alternative duties (if their employment contract allows it);
- professional development or training; or
- non-urgent project work or administration.
Please note that if you are seeking to alter the type of work an employee is contractually required to do, you should consult with them to agree the change and then ensure this consent is recorded in writing (e.g. via a signed and dated side letter).
Many employers have concerns about productivity while employees are working from home. Although software to monitor employee performance is available, there are data privacy implications of this. As such, please seek advice before deploying such software.
As an alternative, you may choose to have daily catch-up meetings with employees to monitor their progress.
If employees are on the minimum wage, ensure that you have sufficient oversight of the hours they are working from home and keep records to ensure that you can demonstrate that you have paid minimum wage for those hours.
Finally, if you don’t currently have a Homeworking Policy in place, this would be useful. Please let us know if you would like us to assist with this.
These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice