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COVID-19 and homeworking — what are your responsibilities as an employer?

What are some of the legal responsibilities that employers have to consider whilst requesting their employees to work from home temporarily during the…

With the sudden onset of COVID-19, homeworking has become the government’s work method of choice to encourage social distancing and keep the economy moving. Improvements in technology have meant for many, agile working is now a possibility.

Health & Safety

Employers need to be mindful that by reducing the risk of infection to COVID-19, they do not expose their employees to other, preventable risks. As an employer, you have the same health and safety responsibilities for home workers as for any other worker. This is particularly relevant where such arrangements are likely to be ongoing. An assessment of the risks associated with COVID-19 and taking appropriate steps to address those risks is part and parcel of any employer’s primary duties under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (“ensure the HEALTH and safety of its employees and others that might be affected by the undertaking”).

The task may initially seem daunting but it must be carried out. Approach the exercise just like any other risk assessment. If you employ 5 or more employees, you will need to create a written document setting out your assessment of the risks and the steps you are taking to manage those risks. In particular, you will need to consider the risks associated with using computers and work equipment, stress, and lone working. 

The HSE has recently published guidance to employers outlining the considerations every employer should make in respect of employees temporarily working from home:

  • How will you keep in touch with them?
  • What work activity will they be doing?
  • Can it be done safely?
  • Do you need to put control measures in place to protect them?

We recommend you incorporate Government and Regulatory guidance.

Reasonable adjustments

Employers are legally required to make reasonable adjustments for employees who are disabled. This requirement will remain whilst they are temporarily working from home, although what is viewed as ‘reasonable’ will likely have a different context. An employee who has requested access to a sit-stand desk, specialist chair, wrist rest, foot rest, reduced hours or other auxiliary aids in the workplace may now request that the equipment and/or work schedule is maintained whilst at home. This may be a reasonable adjustment.

The Government has announced that it envisages the situation will persist for at least 12 weeks. We don’t know whether it may last much longer. It is important that employers consider their position carefully and remember cost alone should not be viewed as a complete defence to the failure to make a reasonable adjustment. The employer is required to cover the cost of the reasonable adjustment, so if this means the desk and specialist chair etc. are transported to the employees home then the employer will be responsible for the costs incurred.

Employers should also consider that an adjustment that is not considered to be reasonable this week, may be considered as reasonable next week, especially if this gives time for a more settled situation to arise.

Further, a disabled employee who does not need any reasonable adjustments at work may need adjustments to be made in a homeworking environment.

We recommend open and continued dialogue with employees.

Mental wellbeing of employees temporarily working from home

Employees working from home may enjoy the peace and space compared to the hustle and bustle of a busy commute and office working environment. This may be a time to concentrate on a piece of work they have been meaning to do but felt that they couldn’t due to interruptions in the workplace.

Others may struggle with the social distancing that we are expected to quickly adopt.

Employers owe a duty of care to their employees. This includes protecting their mental health as far as possible. It is going to be crucial that employers consider whether there is a need to set up a structure for their employees’ working days whilst working remotely. This will of course depend on the nature of the employee and their role. 

Employers will need to accept that the daily chit chat around the coffee machine will likely be replaced by a face time chat periodically, or a walk around the block at lunchtime to get some fresh air.

Employers should encourage their employees to set boundaries to their workday and take regular exercise. They should consider the risk of being seen to micro-manage, but balance that against the desire to stay in touch and maintain engagement and interaction.

The implementation of an anonymous confidential counselling service will be a good starting point to enable anyone struggling to cope to seek advice and support if they are not wanting to advise their line manager.

Weightmans has issued advice to our own employees seeking to protect their mental wellbeing.

Download our draft home working policy to enable you to consider the challenges of moving your employees to home working temporarily.

Get in touch if we can help you with any issues affecting your workforce and their health and safety.

Dewi Ap-Thomas
DDI: 0151 242 6898

Ben Daniel
DDI: 0113 213 4054

Lili Oliver
DDI: 0207 8221 952

Adele Shortman
Principal Associate
DDI: 0161 214 0596