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Homeworking - the new 'normal'?

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In ordinary times, the proportion of workers in the UK who work entirely or mainly from home is relatively low. We find ourselves in something of an extraordinary time, when the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the majority of non-key workers temporarily working from home.  This raises all sorts of legal, technical and practical issues.

The ‘new’ workplace

For home working to be successful, the employer must satisfy itself that the worker has a suitable place to work at home, and is able to ensure that domestic and family commitments do not, as far as possible, intrude into working time.

Whilst employers usually steer clear of asking questions about home arrangements, it is reasonable to assume that an employee may not simultaneously work and care for a young child, elderly or disabled relative.  If you don’t know whether your employee has caring commitments, don’t be afraid to ask them.  You just need to make sure that you ask the same questions of both male and female workers to avoid accusations of discrimination. 

Productivity

You may be concerned that employees working from home for the first time will not put in the same effort as when they are in their usual workplace.  You will be reliant to a large degree on trust and may fear that some workers will not pull their weight. 

In fact, many employers find that people working at home increase their productivity – they avoid travel time and associated stress; they feel more relaxed in their home, and they don’t have interruptions from their workmates.

The counter-argument is that employees working at home may not have access to the same level of technology or equipment; they may not have the same operational or secretarial support, and may find themselves having to undertake tasks that they don’t usually have to do.  There may be a genuine unintended downturn in productivity, even when it comes to self-motivated individuals.

Motivation, management and appraisals

You will probably already know which members of your staff are self-motivated, and which are going to see the requirement to work at home as an excuse to slack off. This is where managers keeping in touch with staff should help. 

Of course, different management styles may be required to oversee those working from home temporarily.  Managers simply may not be able to support work or workers to the same degree as they would in the usual workplace.

Appraisals are used to reward performance and motivate workers by identifying training and development needs and setting performance objectives:

  • Formal appraisals usually happen just once or twice a year. Depending on when they usually take place during the calendar year, it may be that the employer and employee can agree to delay formal appraisals until post-Coronavirus normality resumes;
  • Informal appraisals occur on an ongoing basis. They take the form of feedback on work performed, providing guidance and encouragement, reinforcing positive performance, and efforts to eradicate undesirable performance. Just because managers and employees are not in day-to-day contact in the workplace does not mean that informal appraisals cannot or should not take place.

Homeworkers should be appraised like any other workers. Some thought should be given to how the employer can measure the quality and quantity of the homeworking employee’s output. We continue to use timesheets, which makes the process easier, but that sort of arrangement may not be practical.  I would suggest that the manager may need to engage in a little more micro-management than usual: setting regular specific projects or targeted tasks to specified deadlines, building in sufficient opportunity for reviews of work progress, and expectations in performance so that any difficulties that arise can be addressed swiftly.

Maintaining discipline

If it transpires that an employee is not pulling their weight and is taking the opportunity of working from home to avoid undertaking their work responsibilities, there is no reason why formal or informal disciplinary or capability action should not be implemented.  As long as the correct procedures are followed, such action will be justified.  It may be necessary to adopt a slightly different procedure (with the agreement of the employee) e.g. undertaking investigation meetings by video-conference rather than face to face meeting, or even by written representations only if, for example, the employee does not have the technology to undertake video-conferencing.

Health and safety

Of course, the employer remains responsible for an employee's welfare, health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable whilst the employee is undertaking their work from home. Employers must conduct a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of all the work activities carried out by their employees to identify hazards and assess the degree of risk.  The risk assessment must look at possible adverse mental health impact, use of work equipment (including use of electrical equipment), adequacy of lighting, heating, seating, etc. Additionally, employees should be informed that they must report any serious accidents at home whilst undertaking work so that the employer can continue to comply with its RIDDOR reporting obligations.

Keeping in touch

Keeping in touch is really important: we have a team meeting every morning by video-conference. It lifts your spirit to see your workmates, engage in a bit of banter, make sure everyone is well. We can share any difficulties we are having with work or with working arrangements, come up with solutions, just ensure that no-one is struggling – but if they are struggling, then to follow up appropriately.

Data, confidentiality and GDPR

If a homeworker is using computer equipment supplied by the employer and will have access to the internet and/or email facilities, the employer must consider the application of any systems it has in place for policing the use of such computer equipment, and whether that equipment is still insured whilst away from the usual place of business. Confidentiality will remain of utmost importance, and completion of a data privacy impact assessment might be prudent to ensure compliance with GDPR and Data Protection Act 2018 requirements. It is inevitable that computers will be left running whilst employees take a break; papers will be left on the kitchen table overnight (or dining table or wherever the employee is working) – thought must be given to how confidentiality can be maintained.

If home working is simply impractical, and the usual workplace (maybe an office or shop) is closed during the lockdown period, then you might have to consider instead agreeing with the employee that home working will not be possible so that they should be placed temporarily on ‘furlough leave’.

A brave new world?

When the Coronavirus pandemic is all over, we will be able to return to our places of work.  For some, the benefits to both employer and employee will mean that working from home will become the new normal.  In that scenario, we would recommend that a Homeworking Policy be implemented, and employment contracts be varied so that both employer and employee fully understand the ‘dos and don’ts’ of the new arrangement.

Further reading

Although not looking at the specifics of the Coronavirus lockdown, ACAS has produced a very useful guide for employers and employees on homeworking, which covers setting up an employee to work from home and managing homeworkers:

https://archive.acas.org.uk/media/3905/Homeworking---a-guide-for-employers-and-employees/pdf/Homeworking-a-guide-for-employers-and-employees.pdf

For more information on our employment services visit our employment law page.

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