To slow the spread of COVID-19, an increasing number of employers are encouraging their employees to work from home instead of travelling to the office. There are many short and long-term benefits but employers must not forget their legally binding health and safety responsibilities. Jon Herbert reports.
As the Government recommends increased “social distancing”, more and more organisations are considering homeworking as an option for workers. Obviously, this can be done most successfully with desk-based roles and is not an option for more practical jobs. However, the continuing transition of work from the manual to office roles supported by innovations in technology is making remote working more of a viable option for many.
Employers implementing homeworking should make sure they have prepared properly. The current coronavirus crisis is a step-change that could trigger long-term work pattern changes. The good news is that, managed well, these could bring cost, time, efficiency, environmental and convenience benefits to both workers and companies.
Considerations for employers
Having everyone in the office is generally associated with better morale, availability of resources and general work structure, so some thought must be given as to how these issues can be mitigated.
Trust is essential. Employers will face challenges over supervision, reliability, punctuality, quality, output, consistency, plus health and safety.
However, there are also benefits. There will likely be cost savings on overheads and supplies. Employees will save time and money on not commuting, can often cover peak workloads better by being more flexible and even be more productive due to fewer distractions.
So what steps need to be taken to ensure your homeworking initiative is successful?
1. Provide equipment needed for the job
Most people work routinely in the office via a PC or laptop, a telephone and email, often with a messaging or video service such as Skype.
The first step would be to make sure your workers have the basic hardware they need to work from home. Do you need to provide them with laptops, if they don’t already have one, or work phones? Then make sure they have the software they need, and that they can open and use it.
Then there is the question of whether they need access to the internet. Do they have reliable wifi at home? Do they need to be able to access the company network? Depending on the level of work being undertaken at home, any access to a company intranet must be kept to be secure. Many companies use a virtual private network (VPN) that creates encrypted connections between home computers and company IT systems. It can be worth checking in advance if a home broadband provider allows this.
For other types of job, there may be other equipment required, together with any personal protective equipment. You will need to ensure this is regularly maintained. If substances are provided for the employee, these should be assessed and controlled and safe storage arranged.
2. Cover health and safety
Employers have a duty of care for employees even when working from home. Employers are responsible for carrying out a risk assessment to verify whether the proposed home workplace's environment is suitable for the tasks involved. This would include a general health and safety risk assessment (see the Homeworking Viability Checklist) and, depending on the work, a manual handling assessment, workstation equipment assessment or COSHH assessment. Employers should also carry out specific risk assessments for new and expectant mothers and young workers.
Organisations do not need to send somebody to conduct the risk assessment — the homeworker can do so using a suitable checklist.
Employees are also required to tell an employer if any precautions turn out to be inadequate. As the law stands, Health and Safety Executive inspectors have the right to visit homeworkers at home. However, this is very unlikely to happen.
Make sure all employees are properly trained for doing the job from home and for any equipment they will be using.
3. Identify other resources required
What else will your workers need at home? Do you need to provide them with a stock of stationery? If they do piecework, eg sewing, how will you ensure a steady supply of materials? Will the employer contribute to the cost of the employee’s heating, lighting and phone bill? Do they need extra insurance to work from home?
It would be worth circulating contact lists, identifying how IT or equipment problems should be addressed, and making sure everyone knows company policies and procedures.
4. Communicate, communicate, communicate
With your workforce working from home, communication is key.
How will you communicate one-on-one or as a team? Will you schedule regular conference calls? Some technology companies produce software designed to bring together disparate workers. This can be an important part of good crisis management planning.
Zoom is a web-based video conferencing tool for users to meet online with or without video, but with the ability to record sessions and share or annotate on each other's screens. Slack is a whole-company chat room designed to replace email with communications organised by channels for group discussions, plus private messages to share information and files. Cisco Webex is another option.
5. Balance work and home life
One of the most difficult issues to address is how to separate work and domestic responsibilities, especially if, during this COVID-19 crisis, circumstances could mean schools close and both parents are working from home.
It is important to have a defined workspace. Agree the “core” times during which the homeworkers will be available, but acknowledge that there may need to be some adjustment to working patterns so ensure that the employee can react to issues at home yet still put in their contracted hours.
Homeworking does take a degree of self-discipline and self-motivation. In the absence of face-to-face interaction, it also creates issues of remote performance supervision, monitoring and measurement, plus communication, information sharing and data security. All of these need to be thought about in the context of the organisation’s work activities.
Employees working from home need to know what exactly is expected of them and how they are expected to work together with colleagues.
6. Maintain morale
Experiences of switching to a solitary working existence vary. Some thrive; others can feel lonely and isolated.
Managers and employers can minimise these negative feelings through clear expectations and good, regular lines of communication.
Those who miss organised work structures may be more comfortable with advice to dress “for the office” during working hours, eat proper meals at set times and take set breaks throughout the day. Encourage all employees to take some exercise to maintain mental resilience — while keeping a safe social distance from other people.
Homeworking can benefit everyone, albeit after a short adjustment period. But after making coffee, watering the plants and settling down in a comfortable chair, the most important trick of all is often to simply get on with it.
Your Homeworkers topic contains:
in-depth information and advice
a template homeworking policy
DSE workstation checklist
homeworking equipment/electrical checklist
homeworking general checklist
a Line Manager Guide.
The following is available from Acas:
The following is available from Unison:
Last reviewed 17 March 2020