Whether it’s checking emails on a smartphone, logging in remotely from a home PC or working from a laptop on the train, it is becoming increasingly common that employees spend part (or indeed, all) of their working time out of the office.
In fact, figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 4.2 million people spent at least half their working time at home in 2014, up from 1.3 million in 1998, writes Rachel Farr, senior professional support lawyer in the Employment, Pensions & Mobility team at Taylor Wessing.
Some businesses maintain that they thrive having all of their employees under one roof. On the other hand, others point to reduced costs, reduced office space, increased productivity that comes with a happier workforce, and ability to adapt to what could otherwise be disruptive factors.
In the words of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, “it is about finding a balance between what is good for the company and what is good for the employees”.
How, then, should an employer assess this balance? What measures should be in place before homeworking is agreed?
Is the job suitable?
Can the role be performed just as well away from the office by someone working on their own? Homeworking should benefit both employer and employee. Is the employee happy to spend long periods of time alone, and self-disciplined enough not to watch Homes Under the Hammer instead?
Management of employees
What level of contact is expected between manager, team and employee? Discussions may be required about working time, and whether the employer will expect the employee in the office on certain days, or for team meetings, and whether office time will vary according to needs of the business. There must be trust between home worker and manager if the arrangements are to work.
Who will pay for the equipment to be used by the homeworker? Can he or she use it for other purposes? Can other members of their household? There is no income tax charge for an employee who is provided with computer equipment for business use and any private use is non-significant.
There is no legal obligation on an employer to provide equipment for an employee to work from home but employers should consider this on a case by case basis (for example, disabled employees may need special equipment which their employer is required to provide by way of reasonable adjustment for their condition). Any equipment will need to be covered by insurance. When the inevitable IT problems arise, does the employee know who to call?
Health and safety
All employers are responsible for their employees’ welfare, health and safety “so far as is reasonably practicable” under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, and must carry out risk assessments. This includes homeworkers. Employers should arrange regular risk assessments which may include stress, equipment, first aid and accidents.
Employees who work from home need to understand the procedures they must follow and what is, and what is not, an authorised use of data. For example, employers should consider:
- who has access to the computer or device, and to personal data stored on it?
- is the employee’s home regularly left empty? Is it properly secured?
- Does software use password-protect and encryption processes?
- Will paperwork and other documents be stored securely?
- How is work transported from home to office and vice versa – post/courier/with the employee/electronically?
- How will confidential waste be destroyed?
A request to work from home may form part of a flexible working request. Since 2014, any employee with at least 26 weeks service may request flexible working. Employers must consider requests in a “reasonable manner” and an ACAS Code of Practice on the extended right to request flexible working provides guidance for employers and employees.
On the other hand, homeworking is not a substitute for suitable care arrangements. Whilst working flexibly can make it easier to work around drop off and pick up times, employers should make it clear what is expected of an employee during working time.
Opening the floodgates?
Employers may worry that they have set a precedent for other employees once one request has been agreed. What if everyone wants to work from home? As long as it does not impact the business – why not? In most cases, some employees need to be in the office and where there are competing request there is no clear legal priority, but it makes sense for employers to accept employees’ requests where there is a statutory right behind the request: for example, disability (homeworking may be a reasonable adjustment the employer is required to make), or those entitled to request flexible working and otherwise to deal with requests in order of receipt.
Where an employer is unsure if homeworking will work, it may be sensible to have a trial period of an agreed length, followed by a review to see if the arrangement is working.
Want to know more?
Acas have produced a useful guide for employers and employees.