Although lockdown is easing, guidance advises for people to work from home in order to keep the virus under control. The media is reporting that some employers are deciding to keep staff working from home on a permanent basis.

Homeworking has advantages; it eases the immediate difficulties of making workplaces Covid-secure and, longer term, it can significantly reduce the overheads for a business. Employers bringing staff back to the workplace may wish to take stock of recent homeworking arrangements in preparation for any second spike in coronavirus or a localised lockdown.

Kerry Curd employment law solicitor with WBW Solicitors explains how to get homeworking arrangements in order and looks at particular challenges for managers of remote teams, as well as how to deal with an employee who has had enough of homeworking. Employers ending homeworking arrangements, may face a wave of flexible working requests. Kerry Curd explains why these need to be handled carefully.

You should check the Government website https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus for the latest guidance in conjunction with this article, as the guidelines on the coronavirus (Covid-19) are changing daily, and to speak to an employment law solicitor for specific advice for your business.

Contractual and policy changes

To ensure homeworking arrangements are clear, it is important to formalise these through your policies and employment contracts.

Areas to consider include:

  • Whose IT equipment does the employee use?
  • Will you monitor the employee’s use of IT and if so, are you doing this lawfully?
  • How do you protect confidentiality?
  • Who covers the costs of homeworking?
  • Does the employee’s house insurance allow homeworking?
  • Do you need to be able to require the homeworker to attend other premises from time to time?
  • Do the employee’s working hours comply with the Working Time Regulations if the employee is working flexibly?
  • Do you want to have the flexibility to bring the arrangement to an end in the future?

Challenges of remote management

Employers remain responsible for their employees’ health and safety even though they are working from home. The Health and Safety Executive’s toolbox gives guidance on workplace assessments for homeworkers.

Managers have had to adjust how they manage their teams after the move to homeworking during lockdown. Employers should encourage managers to assess their remote management, share know-how with other managers and help them develop these skills.

Homeworking works better for some employees than others. Junior staff in particular may miss out on informal training and important day-to-day work experience that is difficult to replicate with a remote workforce. Trial periods for homeworking should therefore be considered where possible. Regular, scheduled remote informal training sessions are important to support them. Mentorship can help, as well as encouraging team members to involve junior staff as much as possible.

Other employees may be less productive because they are trying to work and look after children at home as schools are partially closed. Rather than moving straight to formal action against the employee, managers can discuss ways to ease the pressure, such as temporarily reducing or changing their hours or taking parental leave.

Can employers insist on homeworking?

For some employees, such as those living in shared houses or with young children at home, returning to the office could not come soon enough. If the contract does not give you the right to insist on homeworking, you need the employee’s consent. If the employee does not agree, then specific legal advice from an employment law solicitor such as ourselves should be sought on your options as imposing homeworking in such circumstances could amount to a breach of contract and risk other employment tribunal claims.

Too many requests for homeworking

Many employees welcome the flexibility of homeworking and avoiding the daily commute.  Employers trying to bring back some or all of the workforce may receive requests to work from home. Although it was reported that the Government would give employees the legal right to work from home, no plans have materialised yet.

Currently, employees with 26 weeks’ service have the statutory right to request flexible working, but employers can refuse requests on certain business grounds. In responding to these requests, you need to deal with a flexible application in accordance with legal regulations and be alert to discrimination issues. For example, it may be indirectly discriminatory to refuse a request from a woman with childcaring responsibilities. We can advise you on how to prioritise competing requests and deal appropriately with any potential discrimination risks.

For advice on making homeworking work for your business or responding to requests for flexible working, please contact Kerry Curd in the employment law team on 01626 202404 or email kerrycurd@wbw.co.uk.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.