Employers need to reappraise their responsibilities around working from home say Toyah Marshall and Charles Spencer of HR and legal expert Ellis Whittam.
Accountancy businesses have taken a pragmatic, short-term approach to office-based employees working from home. However, despite being introduced as a temporary arrangement to endure lockdown, the business mindset regarding home working appears to have shifted.
A quick browse of online job boards reveals a lot about the direction many employers are headed, with a good proportion of accountancy roles now appealing to candidates through headlines like ‘remote working opportunity’, ‘potential for home working’ or simply ‘location: anywhere’.
Clearly, there is an awareness that this kind of flexibility is high on people’s list of priorities when searching for a new position, and with COVID-19 giving some their first taste of home working, this may well become the default in accountancy and wider financial services even after the dust has settled.
However, if this is to become the norm rather than an informal, short-term solution, there are a number of implications for employers concerning their health and safety duty of care and the employment law position.
Here are some practical tips for those who employ or manage people.
1. Don’t assume everyone enjoys home working
Probably most of your employees will be open to working from home on a long-term basis. Others may not share their enthusiasm – especially for a permanent change.
Parents may have found home working a less positive experience due to the distractions created by children in the home. Those who live alone may have found home working equally difficult due to reduced social interactions.
A more permanent move towards home working is likely to also impact more junior employees, who may find the prospect of being given more autonomy particularly daunting.
In these cases, you will need to properly weigh up whether home working will be beneficial, or whether it may result in more disengaged, less productive employees. If you are contemplating a more permanent transition to home working, consider how this might impact different people in different ways and what procedures can be put in place to monitor wellbeing. Some ways to support staff include:
- Providing training for managers on how to identify stress and anxiety, especially as it will be harder to spot when staff are struggling.
- Setting up regular one-to-ones to check in with employees – both in relation to their work and also their mental health – and making sure this becomes habitual even after the ‘novelty’ of home working wears off.
- Using “coffee roulette” to pair up different employees each week for a short chat over whichever video conferencing software you are using – this is a great way for colleagues to support each other and will keep communication strong between different departments.
- Ensuring employees have everything they need to carry out their role remotely, as frustrations around technology, software and access to information can be another source of stress.
2. Review your contracts
If you are planning to have staff work from home on a temporary basis until it is safe and practical to return to the workplace, this is unlikely to change an employee’s contractual place of work. Nonetheless, to avoid ambiguity, it is important to make clear to staff that this is a temporary arrangement, indicate how long you expect it to last, and explain that it can be ended at any time at your discretion. In any such discussions, take care to avoid making permanent ones that you cannot later end.
If you are contemplating making home working a more permanent fixture, you will need to agree with your employees a variation to terms. Given that most employees will view this as a positive change, this should be a relatively painless exercise. However, if staff aren’t so receptive, you will need to have a reasonable basis to change their terms unilaterally. In the current circumstances, employers may have justification to do so based on health and safety reasons or perhaps to avoid redundancies, but you will need to demonstrate that this was necessary.
3. Understand your health and safety duties to homeworkers
While home working might appear relatively low-risk, it’s important to remember that employers still owe homeworkers a duty of care. The core piece of health and safety legislation in the UK, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, also applies to anyone working from home and requires employers to eliminate or reduce risks where possible.
This does not mean that as an employer, you are responsible for everything that goes on in somebody’s home. You would not, for example, be expected to record someone tripping over a family pet in their living room as a workplace accident. However, if they were electrocuted while using a work laptop, this would need to be logged.
Back in March when employers initially reverted to home working, the HSE’s attitude was that this was a short-term arrangement and, as such, temporary provisions should be implemented such as a basic laptop and phone for communication with other employees. Now, as more businesses consider making home working the norm, employers will need to give further thought as to what measures will need to be introduced to mitigate risk.
Home working Risk Assessment
The best way to do this is by conducting a Home working Risk Assessment with individual employees to assess hazards and decide on appropriate controls. Within this, you should consider both physical hazards, such as those associated with work equipment, work station set-up and working alone, and mental health and wellbeing hazards, such as stress, isolation and fatigue.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent survey by the Institute for Employment Studies revealed a significant increase in musculoskeletal complaints amongst homeworkers, with over half reporting new aches and pains.
Your Home working Risk Assessment should therefore include aspects of employees’ workstation set-up when assessing whether they are able to work safely in the home. This is especially important if you are considering having employees work from home long-term.
When deciding on appropriate control measures, keep in mind that employers have a duty to provide employees with suitable work equipment to enable them to complete their job safely.
Editor’s note: insurance is a further area to consider. Many home insurance policies will expect the homeowner to declare they are using the premises for business. Normally clerical use is adequate. While premiums may increase from this disclosure, failure to declare the situation could make cover void.
The Government’s advice is to ‘work from home if you can, go to work if you must’. On this basis, those working within accountancy are likely to return last to the workplace, if indeed they do at all.
However, while you might have the luxury of time on your side compared to other sectors who have had to scramble to reopen safely, it’s important to use this time wisely, as any permanent shift towards home working will not only create logistical challenges but will impact your legal responsibilities, too.
About the authors
Toyah Marshall is Principal Employment Law Adviser and Charles Spencer is principal Health & Safety Consultant at Ellis Whittam.
Ellis Whittam has created a free Back to Business Hub for employers, containing all the guidance, risk assessments and template documents you need to reopen safely, compliantly and with minimal employee issues.
David Nunn is Content Manager at AAT.