Having spent the summer urging employers to encourage their employees back into the workplace, Boris Johnson’s government is now recommending that employees work from home, if they can. What impact will the latest U-turn have? Perhaps not as much as employers might initially fear.
All the time, effort and expense recently undertaken by employers poring over government guidance, undergoing risk assessments and making their premises COVID-safe should not have been wasted. At some point the pandemic will ease again and the preparations undertaken recently will have been a helpful dress rehearsal for the resumption of something more closely resembling normal activities.
Workplaces aren’t being ordered to close and employers can still undertake essential functions with the minimal necessary staff in attendance as and when there is a real need for them to be there and as long as the current government requirements continue to be observed. This is still a step forward from the national lockdown.
Many employees have continued to operate as homeworkers either fully or partially as offices have gradually opened up and many employers weren’t planning on a general return to the office until 2021 in any event.
So for now, the focus returns to working from home and employers are reminded of the following key factors:
New employment contracts and policies
New employment contracts and policies should be drafted to include scope for homeworking going forward. In the meantime, and in the absence of such provisions, it would as a general rule be reasonable to imply that employees should work from home where feasible whilst the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact. Flexibility towards working hours is beneficial to both employer and employee even with schools back open.
Health and safety risk assessment
Employers should have a health and safety risk assessment for each employee working from home. This should feature a home workstation assessment (which can be undertaken online) which addresses suitable desk and chair arrangements, screen time and screen height. The employer should consider providing properly adjustable chairs and peripherals such as a mouse, ergonomic keyboard, second screen and/or stands to ensure correct display unit/laptop height as needed.
Employees should be provided with IT equipment to undertake work from home and/or reimbursed for the use of their own resources. That can have tax implications, which are discussed in detail by Keystone tax expert Michael Fluss here.
Employers also need to ensure confidentiality and the security of their data when employees are using this at home and this has been addressed in detail by Keystone data protection expert Jimmy Desai here.
Virtual working environment
Employers should work with employees to foster a virtual working environment which promotes interaction and avoids loneliness and anxiety. A “buddy” system is sensible, not only in case an employee becomes ill so work on a given matter can be redirected quickly but also as part of a range of measures encouraging staff to communicate with colleagues on a day-to-day basis by way of catch-up.