There are now more than 1.5m home workers in the UK and this number is rapidly growing. The rise of remote working has resulted in many businesses changing beyond recognition. Many are now made up of virtual teams working across different offices in different time zones all around the world. A survey conducted by ‘Up Work’ on hiring managers predicted that 38% of full time permanent staff will work remotely within the next 10 years. There are obvious benefits to employees of home working, such as no commuting and having a better work/life balance. However, home working can also make employees feel isolated and there can be a sense of disconnection from being part of a team. From an employer’s point of view, home working will free up office space but it can be a challenge to ensure they are getting the best out of their employees who will not physically be in an office with them.
While home working is now considered to be an everyday normality it is not a decision that should be taken without first addressing a number of considerations.
We received the following question from a client:-
“I run a medium- sized firm of financial advisers. I am receiving an increasing number of requests from employees to work at home. I am open to the idea in principle, but I am concerned about the practicalities of establishing this arrangement and also would like advice about other issues that I should be aware of in home working situations.”
1. Home working Requests
If an employee makes a request for a home working arrangement it is a request to work flexibly and will be governed by the flexible working legislation. The flexible working legislation does not give employees an automatic right to change their existing work arrangements. Instead, it gives qualifying employees the right to ‘request’ flexible working arrangements. In order to make a statutory request for flexible working, the individual must be an employee with 26 weeks’ continuous employment at the date the request is made. Employees can only make one request in any 12 month period. If the request is rejected and the employee makes an application to the Employment Tribunal, the penalties in respect of claims brought under the flexible working legislation are relatively low. However, employees seeking flexible working can also claim that a rejection of their request could amount to discrimination, where the penalties that the tribunal can award are far greater.
Once a request has been received you should hold a meeting with the employee to discuss the proposed arrangement unless there is no problem with the request. Employers must have a sound business reason for rejecting any request.
If you are unsure as to whether home working is a going to work, one option is to offer a trial period to see how it goes. The offer of a trial period could be helpful in the event of any subsequent discrimination claim.
A disabled employee may also have some protection in relation to a home working request. In particular, the employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments in relation to a disabled person is likely to be relevant.
2. Contracts of Employment
These really should be tailored to a home working situation. So, for example, the contract should specify whether the employee’s principal place of work is their home or the employer’s premises. In addition, you might want to include in the contract days when the home worker must attend the office.
It is also advisable to reserve the right to enter the employee’s home, for example to carry out a risk assessment, to install or maintain equipment or to collect the any property on termination.
You will need to decide if the employee is going to observe regular office hours or whether they can be flexible. In connection with this, you should also bear in mind the Working Time Regulations 1998. As no one will be around to oversee whether home workers are taking breaks, their contracts need to make it clear that home workers are responsible themselves for regulating their own working time and taking breaks, as appropriate.
Care should also be taken to ensure that salary and benefits packages provided to home workers are not less favourable than those provided to comparable employees. Also, home workers should have the same access to benefits and facilities as those working in the office. This includes holidays and sick pay.
This is an area that can cause employers considerable concern as potential data security breaches may be more likely for home workers. While the implied duty of confidentiality applies equally to home workers, it is wise for employers to include an express confidentiality clause in the contract of employment clearly defining what information is confidential and requiring the home worker to keep confidential information secure.
In terms of equipment, you will need to consider what equipment will be required by a home worker, who will provide and pay for it and who could have access to it. If the home worker is using a computer system that has been supplied by you as the employer then consideration should be given as to what systems/policies are in place for policing them. You would also need to be satisfied that the risk of a data security breach is low and would need to carry out a data privacy impact assessment. These are issues that can be dealt with in an IT and telecommunications policy.
5. Health and Safety Issues
An employer is responsible for an employee’s health and safety so far as reasonably practicable. Therefore, employers must conduct a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of all work activities carried out by their employees, including homeworkers, to identify hazards and assess the degree of risks.
The particular health and safety issues that may arise in the context of home working are suitability of equipment, electricity at work, first aid and accidents, all of which are covered by specific health and safety regulations. There could also be planning considerations, normally a home worker won’t require planning permission provided there are no structural alterations to the home. However if there are structural changes or if the house is used for wider business purposes, planning permission may be required. Any equipment provided by you will also need to be covered by your insurance policy if possible. If this is not possible then you may need the employee to take out and to maintain a suitable policy of insurance. It could be agreed that any excess costs incurred in doing this will be reimbursed to the employee.
In deciding whether or not to agree to a request for home working you will need to consider all of the above. You must also be satisfied that the employee has a suitable place to work from at home and that they are able to ensure that their domestic and family commitments are not encroaching into working time. It is therefore important to know what arrangements have been put in place in respect of childcare, if this is relevant.
The personality of the employee should also not be overlooked. Being self-motivated, organised and self-disciplined are all necessary to be a successful home worker.
There is then the question of what happens once you allow one person to work from home. Are you potentially opening the floodgates, will everyone suddenly want to work from home? How do you decide who to allow and who not to allow? One approach could be to give preference to those employees who have a statutory right to be considered, for example, employees with disabilities and those eligible under flexible working legislation. To some extent it can also depend upon the exact circumstances, including the nature of the work and whether home working is essential or simply convenient.
In summary, one really vital element of any home working arrangement is trust. As an employer you will need to be proactive to take steps to ensure sufficient access to training and promotion are continued and managers are in regular communication with the home workers to deal with any issues that may arise. From the outset it is important that expectations are managed on all sides so that a collaborative culture is built up to encourage and support home workers.