Will home-working work for you?

Figures from the ONS show the number of home-workers who spend at least half of their work time using their home has risen to 4.2 million.

Figures just out from the Office for National Statistics show the number of home-workers who spend at least half of their work time using their home has risen to 4.2million, constituting just under 14% of the national workforce. Many of these home-workers are self employed, but 1.4 million are employees. Factors behind this increase include: technology making it easier to work away from an office based environment; employers looking to reduce overheads by reducing office space; and employers reporting on the success of home-working.

With the right to request flexible working now extended from 30 June 2014 to all employees with 26 weeks continuous employment, requests for home-working are predicted to increase even further, particular for historically office-based work. This trend will present challenges to employers, but may also offer benefits. So what do you need to think about before offering home-working or responding to an employee request?

Potential benefits for employers

Potential benefits for you as the employer include:

  • Reduced overheads. Home-working, whether for the majority or some of the employee’s working time, can still result in a decreased requirement for office space leading to lower rent, business rates and utility bills. Similarly, where a business is doing well but is running short of office space, it may suit the employer for some staff to from home. 
  • Increased productivity. There is evidence that home-workers put in longer hours when they are working at home.  There are a number of reasons for this including home-workers having extra time available to them by eliminating commuting time and being keen to show the arrangement is working. However, this may not always be the case. For example in November 2013, eight months after banning its staff from working at home, internet service provider Yahoo! stated that employee engagement and product launches were on the increase. They felt that productivity rose when employees were ‘present’.
  • Wider choice when recruiting. Home-working allows for recruitment from a larger pool of talent as the employee’s home location is less of a factor.
  • Attracting a more diverse work force. Home-working may, for example, be attractive to staff with certain disabilities or caring responsibilities.
  • Reputation. Being known as a flexible employer can attract and keep talented staff and can be a positive when tendering for certain work.
  • Business continuity. Home-workers are less likely to be affected by bad weather or travel disruption.

Key considerations

  • Is the role suitable for home-working? Key is whether the role can be performed just as well away from the office by someone working on their own. Ask yourself whether any specialised equipment would make it difficult or costly for the employee to work from home? Is it a role where the employee can work autonomously or does it require a degree of team work? If the roles within the team depend on that team being in the same place at the same time, home-working is unlikely to be effective.
  • Management and supervision of home-workers can be more difficult than overseeing staff in the office. A lack of trust has been found to be a barrier to achieving successful home-working. Management and employees are likely to have to work harder to build trust within a home-working situation. Communication can also sometimes be a barrier with managers and colleagues having to make more effort to communicate with home-workers.   
  • As an employer you have a duty of care to all employees and have an overall responsibility for assessing health and safety in the part of the home where the employee will work. Some form of risk assessment of the employee’s home will therefore be required. 
  • Where the employee is also a carer it needs to be made clear that home-working is not a substitute for suitable care arrangements and, from the outset, you as the employer should stipulate that dependants need to be looked after by someone other than the employee when they are working.
  • Is the particular employee suited to home-working? Staff working from home need to be able to cope with working on their own for long periods and, probably, with less supervision. Home-workers will ideally be self disciplined, self motivated, and be able to separate work from home life. This can raise a difficulty for you as the employer. Inconsistencies regarding how any requests for flexible working are dealt with could lead to claims of discrimination.  If you have reasonable doubts that genuinely impact on the suitability of the individual to work from home, these may well be sufficient to address any claim for discrimination, but you should note these reasons carefully so you can justify your decision later.

Home-working policy

If you plan to roll-out home-working or are receiving multiple requests, a comprehensive policy covering key points will set some parameters and help manage expectations. It will also ensure consistency, which is all important in relation to potential claims for discrimination. 

Changes to contract of employment

If you decide to permit home-working, you also need to consider changes to contracts. Some provisions of the employment contract should be tailored to fit the specific needs of home-working. The following are examples of existing contract clauses which may need amending:

  • Place of work: consider where the principle place of work will be? Is it now the employee’s home or your premises? You will also normally want the home-worker to attend the office at specific times, for example for team meetings, training, client meetings, appraisals and disciplinary or grievance meetings.
  • Working hours: the contract should make it clear the employee is responsible for regulating their own working time and taking breaks as appropriate when working from home. You also need to consider the need to observe strict office hours or will there be a core time when the employee must be available? Will the employee be required to work outside these hours? 
  • Benefits: to avoid a potential discrimination claim, you should ensure home-workers have access to the same benefits and facilities as comparable employees whether or not there is a likelihood of the home worker actually taking advantage of them. 
  • Confidentiality: it would be best practice to include an express confidentiality clause in a home-worker’s contract clearly setting out what information is confidential. In addition, there can be data protection issues and sometimes home-workers will need to keep confidential information secure at their home. Therefore you may want to consider adding certain stipulations such as encryption and passwords, a secure filing cabinet and facilities for confidential disposal. 
  • Right to enter: you could reserve a right to enter the employee’s home under certain circumstances including installing, maintaining and servicing any of your equipment, and to carry out risk assessments for health and safety purposes. 
  • Trial period: if you have any concerns as to how a home-working arrangement will work it is best practice to have an initial trial period and a right to require the employee to revert back to previous working arrangements if it is clearly not working. For clarity and consistency it is important to identify what factors and measures will be used to identify success or failure and set these out in the contract.  
  • Reporting and appraisals: some thought should be given as to how you will measure the quality and quantity of the home-workers output. You may wish to detail arrangements for review of work progress and performance within the employee’s contract.

Finding the right balance

Home-working is an arrangement based on finding the right balance as it is rare that staff will be located solely at home. More usually employees will intersperse home-working time with ‘face to face’ office time. Findings from a recent study by ACAS show that staff who work from home on a ‘moderate’ basis show the highest levels of well being. Those employees also report high levels of job satisfaction and engagement. Levels of ‘burn out’ and a stress are low, largely owing to the greater autonomy these employees perceive themselves to have.

If home-working is desirable and practical for your organisation we would advise a robust home-working policy and certain changes to the employment contract to ensure that responsibilities and expectations are clear from the outset.

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