What are the legal issues around working from home?
As we continue to follow social distancing guidance, working from home is likely to be a long-term prospect for many. Coodes Solicitors employment specialist Philip Sayers outlines some of the legal issues facing employers.
The Covid-19 crisis forced many people to start homeworking at very short notice, leaving employers with almost no time to plan and prepare. Although some of the lockdown restrictions are now being relaxed, social distancing measures remain in place. It is likely that high numbers of employees, particularly those in office-based roles, will continue to work from home for the foreseeable future.
Many businesses have adapted to remote working very successfully, embracing new technologies and different ways of operating. The pandemic has proved that, for many companies, homeworking is feasible and could even be beneficial.
Some business leaders now believe that remote working will become the new norm. A number of large companies, including Facebook, Twitter and BT, are considering a permanent move towards homeworking. This makes good business sense for many employers. In addition to offering their teams a better work-life balance, it could significantly reduce overheads. Those employers that are preparing to re-open workplaces are likely to be faced with some staff requesting a level of homeworking.
Whether they are planning a permanent shift to homeworking or preparing for additional flexible working requests from their employees, what are the legal considerations for employers?
Preparing for flexible working requests
As restrictions are lifted and more workplaces begin to open, it is likely that some staff will want to continue to work from home, at least some of the time. Others may wish to alter their working patterns. To prepare for such requests, employers should ensure their flexible working policies are up to date and fit for purpose.
Any employee with at least 26-weeks continuous service has the right to request flexible working. The process they have to follow to make a request has been simplified though it still needs to be submitted in writing. Employers, by law, have to consider and respond to a flexible working request. There are certain circumstances in which such a request could be refused, but these are limited to specific albeit wide-ranging business reasons, which Acas outline here.
Many employers agree to a trial period of flexible working to check that the new arrangement works on both sides before approving a more permanent change.
If they approve a flexible working request, employers must ensure they reflect any changes to an employee’s working pattern in the employment contract. They should also ensure their approach to flexible working is accurately reflected in the staff handbook.
Being sensitive to employees’ childcare responsibilities
With schools closed to most pupils during the lockdown, many employees have been balancing working from home with caring for children. As schools return, some employees may want to alter their working patterns to fit better with family life.
Although there is no automatic right to flexible working, employers should be sensitive towards childcare issues and, where possible, accommodate reasonable requests. A failure to permit part time working can potentially give rise to claims for indirect sex discrimination where the reason for the request is due to childcare responsibilities.
Providing a safe workplace in the home
Employers have a legal duty to ensure the health and safety of all employees, including those working from home. The speed at which the lockdown was put in place and the social distancing measures mean that employers were unlikely to have been able to conduct the usual checks on their employees’ homeworking spaces.
However, those employers that are putting in place longer-term home working arrangements should now establish a system for carrying out regular risk assessments to ensure employees can work safely from home. This may mean making adjustments, particularly for employees with a disability.
Employees also have a responsibility for their own health and safety. They should raise any concerns they have about the suitability of their homeworking environment with their employer.
Maintaining good lines of communication
It is vital for employers to maintain regular communication with all their staff and that includes those who work remotely. This is important for managing expectations on both sides and for maintaining reporting lines between managers and their teams. The coronavirus crisis has seen an upsurge in the use of video conferencing platforms for internal communication and many businesses may continue to use these for keeping in touch with employees who work from home.
Complying with GDPR
The speed at which many businesses had to close their doors to employees meant that many have been using their own IT equipment to work from home. Businesses may not have had the time to carry out security checks and ensure the correct systems are in place to protect sensitive data. To avoid cyber attacks and reduce the risk of data breaches, employers should get expert advice to ensure their systems are secure for any employees working remotely.
Paying expenses to employees who work from home
Employers should also address any issues in respect of expenses incurred by employees working from home. Many employers will contribute towards the cost of broadband which is used for business purposes, for example. It is sensible for an employer to have a policy on this, which can be included within a wider working from home policy.