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Coronavirus - Home-working for the foreseeable future - UK

  • United Kingdom
  • Coronavirus - Return to work
  • Coronavirus - Workforce issues
  • Employment law

19-05-2020

The need to work from home for many employees was sudden and unexpected, reflecting the rapid onset of coronavirus. Employers responded quickly to provide equipment and software and, for many, it has worked well.

However, with the latest government guidance requiring businesses to “make every reasonable effort to enable working from home as a first option” for the foreseeable future, employers should take this opportunity to revisit their home-working arrangements, including in relation to health and safety and security, to take account of the evolving landscape.

To support employers as they conduct a review of home-working, we have compiled a summary checklist and common questions and answers below. For our briefing on reopening workplaces safely and returning to work, please read our alert.

Coronavirus - summary home-working checklist:

If employees are to engage in home-working over a longer time period, employers may consider the following:

  • have home-working policies been updated to reflect current and anticipated arrangements (in consultation with any recognised trade union, if appropriate)?
  • have they been communicated to employees?
  • have relevant health and safety risk assessments around home-working and lone working been revised, involving workers, along with a review of the adequacy of the mitigating measures?
  • have data security and privacy been addressed in training, policies and the provision of IT software / equipment?
  • have arrangements for supporting employees with respect to work related stress, mental health and wellbeing been revisited?
  • have reasonable adjustments been made for disabled employees working at home?
  • what arrangements are in place to inform, and engage with, home-working employees?
  • do managers have the policies and tools in place to help them manage home-workers?
  • do managers and employees know how to report any incidents or concerns they have when working at home?

Question Points to note
What health and safety (H&S) responsibilities do employers have with respect to homeworkers? There has been an increasing focus on, and awareness of, managing H&S risks, in consultation with workers, as workplaces reopen (read our alert). Employers’ H&S responsibilities in relation to their employees are the same whether they are working in an office, on a site or remotely from home. Employers must take reasonably practicable steps to ensure their employees’ H&S. Of course, what is practicable is different depending on whether home-working is a permanent arrangement, or temporary, and where it has arisen from circumstances such as the current virus. Employees also have legal responsibilities: to take reasonable care for their own and others’ H&S and to cooperate with their employer to help them meet their duties.
Do employers have to carry out a risk assessment? Employers have a legal duty to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of workstations to assess the H&S risks, including where the workstation is at home. Employers should review their existing risk assessments (or undertake a risk assessment where one has not been undertaken) to identify the risks to its employees working remotely from home and what mitigating measures it can take. These should be reviewed regularly, or when there is a change in circumstances, and employers should keep up to date with latest guidance from the government and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Employers should also provide employees with information on working safely at home, which might include employees themselves carrying out an assessment of their work environment and equipment using a questionnaire, checklist or conducting an assessment digitally, and escalating any issues to a qualified assessor (see below on risk assessing display screen equipment).
What do employers need to do about employees who use display screen equipment at home? The HSE requires employers to carry out a display screen equipment (DSE) risk assessment for employees who work from home on a long term basis. Given the uncertain nature of how long employees might be working from home and the current difficulties in undertaking home workstation assessments, employers should consider offering employees an online electronic workstation assessment (the HSE has this workstation assessment) and arranging for video/virtual assessments to take place by trained assessors for those identified as higher risk, who had adjustments and specialist equipment at their workstation in the office or where an issue is identified that needs further review. A phased risk based approach might be appropriate where large numbers of employees are involved. Employers should also provide advice on reducing DSE risks (frequent breaks, changing positions, resting eyes etc) and revisit assessments when coronavirus restrictions change.
Do employers need to make reasonable adjustments for homeworking employees who have disabilities? Yes, but the adjustments required may be different. Employers should engage now with all employees who have existing reasonable adjustments in place to identify what if any revised adjustments are required, and work with occupational health providers to determine what can reasonably be implemented.
What home-working guidance exists for employers and employees? Both the HSE and Acas have produced guidance for homeworking and on the specific risks lone workers face. For example, they highlight the need for an employer to assess, with the employee, how home-working arrangements can work best, how display screen equipment should be used safely, and to provide training and support to address potential stress, isolation, any medical conditions and other risks.
How can employers support stress and mental health during home-working? Work-related stress may be a risk for home-workers. Many employers have already stepped up measures to mitigate risk, including: increasing employee engagement opportunities (digital team meetings, 1:1’s, town hall Q&As, virtual coffee breaks etc); signposting 24/7 employee assistance programmes; ensuring that employees understand expectations around working hours (including the importance of taking rest breaks); monitoring workloads; and altering hours of work for employees caring for children.
How should employers protect data privacy and confidentiality where employees are working at home? Where employees have access to personal or confidential data from home, the employer must ensure that they have appropriate equipment, software, IT/DP policies and training and other safeguards in place. The ICO has issued homeworking data security guidance. For example, employees must be informed of the requirement to keep private and confidential data secure at all times (providing the necessary means to store them securely or destroy them confidentially), that they only use authorised equipment/software and how they should report any security incidents.
Should the employer have a home-working policy? Yes. A policy will support safe, fair and consistent home-working arrangements and will typically include: eligibility, conditions and duration/termination, H&S, equipment and expenses, data security and confidentiality etc
Can employees claim reimbursement of expenses incurred as a result of working from home? Yes. Employers will either need to provide employees with equipment, such as mobile phones, computers and other office equipment (including stationary) to enable them to work from home, or, if the employee’s own equipment is used, reimburse associated costs (various tax exemptions and reliefs may apply, subject to HMRC conditions). Employees will need to document expenditure, just like any other expense claims
Will other HR policies need revising? If home-working is expected to continue for months, not just weeks, employers should review their HR policies with a view to adapting them to new working arrangements. For example, Acas has issued guidance on disciplinary and grievance processes where employees are working remotely. Similarly, performance policies, attendance and sickness policies may need revising. Rewards and incentives, such as those based on the workplace (subsidised canteens and travel, etc), may also need adaptation
Will current high levels of home-working be sustained? While home-working is not universally popular (such as where employees are in cramped or shared accommodation with little privacy), it seems likely that some employees may request greater access to home-working in the future. Currently, there is no legal right to work from home although employees have a right to request flexible working, which includes working at home, and employers may refuse on one of the prescribed grounds. Employers should anticipate such requests and determine their policy approach according to business need and fairness. If requests can be accommodated, the decision must be fair, consistent and made without discrimination

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