Helen Watson, Head of Employment Law at Aaron & Partners Solicitors, explores the issues around working from home during COVID-19 in this human resources focus
The outbreak of COVID-19 affected a sudden, dramatic change in working patterns in the UK. The need to socially distance and minimise contact with people outside of the household saw a sharp increase in the number of people switching to home working. Before 2020, homeworking was relatively uncommon amongst UK workers, with the Office of National Statistics confirming that in 2019 only 5.1% of the number of people in employment worked primarily from home. (1) In contrast, in April 2020, 46.6% of people in employment spent at least some of their working time at home, 86.0% as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (2)
The most recent UK lockdown has seen further workplace closures and a move to full-time homeworking for many. It is possible that more flexible working patterns will remain beyond the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that it will become the norm. Several large employers, including Google and Microsoft, have indicated that their employees will be able to work remotely for at least some of their working time permanently.
The ability to effectively work from home has undoubtedly been aided by the development of new technology. Platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have made virtual meetings easier and enabled teams to stay in regular contact with one another.
Where employees have been asked to work from home, employers should make it clear whether equipment such as laptops will be provided by them. If the employee is expected to use their own personal devices, the employer should consider whether this will present any risk to the business. Employees working from home should be reminded of their obligations and responsibilities in relation to any data protection policies to avoid any potential breach.
Successful homeworking will also depend on a person’s ability to use, as well as access, the technology and systems required for their role. A survey carried out by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Deloitte in May 2020 found that ‘since the start of lockdown, 75% of office workers have used at least two new types of technology for work’. (3) Where training is required, employers should ensure that this is offered to ensure employees can work effectively outside of their usual workplace.
The Association of British Insurers confirmed that home insurance cover will not be affected by working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, where home working transitions into a longer-term arrangement, employees should notify their home insurance provider that they are working from home and confirm that their cover includes business use.
Similarly, employers should check if they have appropriate insurance cover for home workers. Existing Employers’ Liability Insurance policies will need to be reviewed to ensure that they cover home working. Not having appropriate insurance cover in place could leave the employer liable if an employee is injured whilst working at home.
Employers will also need to consider their health and safety responsibilities when employees are working from home. Those responsibilities are the same for home workers as for any other type of employee. Where homeworking is a temporary measure, employers generally do not need to carry out a full risk assessment of their employees’ homes, but they should encourage and enable their workers to consider whether their workstations are appropriate. Employers may also wish to allow their employees to borrow desks, chairs or other items of furniture or equipment to set up a safe working environment at home. Training can also be offered on how to safely set up a desk to avoid injuries to the back and shoulders. Further advice and guidance can be obtained from the Health and Safety Executive website.
Whilst working from home can be beneficial, it can also bring additional stresses and strains. Lone working can present a risk to an individual’s mental wellbeing, and employers should provide appropriate support where needed. Ensure that managers and team leaders can identify signs of stress in their teams and that channels of communication are kept open. Outside agencies such as Mind, also offer practical support for those struggling with mental health difficulties.
Finally, employers should review any existing policies on homeworking to ensure that they are up to date.
After the lockdown
With 61% of desk-based workers indicating that they would prefer to work from home more often after lockdown (4), it appears that homeworking is likely to continue in some capacity for many UK employers. A robust homeworking policy is key to ensure that the relationship runs smoothly and that any requests to work flexibly are given proper consideration. Acas has produced a guide for employers on home working and offers training courses on managing employees remotely, details of which can be found on their website.
Where employers require tailored guidance on how to effectively manage their workforce remotely, specialist legal advice should be sought to avoid any disputes or difficulties in future.