Covid-19: Working from home

Covid-19: Working from home

At the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, all employees who could work from home were required to do so under guidance from the government. Fast forward a few weeks and lockdown measures are now easing and those that are working from home are starting to return to their offices, where social distancing allows. 

Now that lockdown has proved working from home is not only possible but also practical, many individuals and companies may decide to make home working a more permanent arrangement.  

As the Covid-19 crisis continues, employers and employees are getting used to this new way of working and noticing the benefits it brings. Some businesses are reducing overheads by operating out of smaller premises as employees work from home for all or part of their working week. Employees are avoiding time consuming and expensive commutes, saving money on food and having a better work/life balance. As a result, companies such as Amazon, Google and Twitter have already announced that they will be extending or making home working permanent after Covid-19. So what legal considerations do companies considering this cultural shift to home working need to be aware of?

Wherever the employees are working, (workplace or home), employers have a legal responsibility to protect their workers’ health and safety. It is important that employers know that, if homeworking is to be made a more permanent arrangement then there are other considerations that the employer must take into account.

Risk Assessment

Guidance issued by the Health and Safety Executive (‘HSE’) states that there is no specific requirement for employers to carry out an assessment of an employee’s home working station if they are working from home temporarily. However, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, if the employee is working from home on a long-term basis, then an assessment must be carried out. The HSE states that employers with few workers can provide workers with advice on completing their own basic risk assessment which can be used to feedback information to employers, this can be found here. 

Working from home set up

Under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers must provide employees with safe systems of work and working equipment. With working from home moving from temporary to permanent there is a risk that the employee’s home working set up is not suitable for home working in the long term. If an employee is working from home for the foreseeable future, then they are more at risk of serious workplace incidents, for example, occupational strain injuries from a poor quality chair or the wrong height desk. To prevent such incidents, employers should consider whether they need to provide staff with equipment. Employers should also give careful consideration to employees who have disabilities, are pregnant or those who have specific needs. In these situations, equipment may be required as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ under section 20 of the Equality Act 2010, which requires employers to take steps to prevent certain employees from being put at a disadvantage.

In addition, working from home can often feel isolating due to the lack of face-to-face contact, so it will be harder for employers to monitor and ensure the wellbeing of these employees. Therefore, employers should make sure to support and protect the wellbeing of employees who are working from home indefinitely, perhaps through regular weekly check-in with the employee or an open door policy to allow them to discuss their concerns openly. 

Accidents and injuries 

It is hoped that those working from home will be at low risk of accident and injury. However, by undertaking a risk assessment, this will not only ensure that the employer is complying with its legal obligations, but it will also highlight any areas of concern. 

Employers have an obligation to report an incident under The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013. It is recommended that employers adopt and publicise a clear procedure for homeworkers to report accidents when working from home. 

To mitigate the possible risk of an accident, the HSE has advised that homeworkers should have “access to adequate first aid facilities”. The nature and extent of this will depend on the nature of risks identified in the home. 

Tax 

Employees who are working from home for the foreseeable future may need to purchase additional equipment to work from home properly e.g. a desk or chair. In addition, working from home may bring additional household expenses such as gas and electric. Therefore, employers can make tax free payments to employees for certain costs associated with home working in certain circumstances. It is important that employers notify their employees of the possibility of tax implications. 

Under section 316 Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003 some expenses that an employer incurs while providing their employees with supplies and services to work from home are free of income tax. To be free of income tax the supplies or services must have the sole purpose of enabling the employee to perform the duties of their employment. If the supplies and services have a mixed motive and are for private and professional use then they will not be covered under this act. The exemption also includes stationary, internet and mobile phones. 

Practical considerations for employers 

To ensure a smooth transition to long-term home working, employers should consider: 

  • Allowing home workers to take more breaks.
  • Ensuring their insurance extends to cover the equipment of those working from home.
  • Recommending employees check their home insurance policies to ensure it covers them for working from home.
  • Ensuring data protection compliance is extended and reinforced in the home environment.
  • Regularly keep in touch with the employee. 
  • Ensure the employee can undertake home working and it is not against their mortgage/lease provisions. 

As everyone adapts to this new norm, employers will need to take the lead in establishing processes and protocols for their employees to follow. Good channels of communication, and ensuring that those ‘out of sight’ know that they are not ‘out of mind’, will be essential in the success of these new working practices. 

If you would like further information on the obligations of implementing long-term homeworking, please contact Debbie Saddler on 01494 478671 or at djs@blasermills.co.uk .