By Francesca Mundy, Lawyer and Senior Legal Editor at Sparqa Legal
The outbreak of a new coronavirus (COVID-19) has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. In the UK, the Government declared a 'moment of national emergency' when it introduced a police-enforced lockdown, requiring people to keep their distance from each other in response to the pandemic.
Among the new measures announced by the Government, numerous non-essential businesses have been forced to close and businesses are now required to ensure that their staff are working from home wherever possible.
Whilst some businesses will be used to managing staff who work from home, for others this will be new territory. Businesses will need to adapt quickly in order to ensure business continuity in such unprecedented times. To help, we've pulled together some key considerations businesses may need to address.
Put in place an official home working policy
Businesses are not legally required to have an official home working policy, however it's best practice to put one in place so that both you and your staff are aware of what is expected of them during this uncertain time. It will also help to ensure that all staff members are treated consistently and that you avoid claims of unfair treatment or discrimination.
For businesses that already have a home working policy, it is important to check that it is fit for purpose considering the current circumstances. If any changes are required, make sure to notify all your staff of the amendments.
Conduct a health & safety risk assessment
As an employer, you still have health and safety responsibilities towards your staff whether they are in the workplace or at home. Whilst home working is likely to be low risk, you still need to carry out a risk assessment on the suitability of your staff member's home working space.
Considering recent Government measures, it will be inappropriate and impractical for you to carry out a risk assessment at your staff member's home, so consider asking them to send a photo of their workstation instead.
Consider offering flexible working
Nurseries, schools and colleges across the country closed on 20th March 2020 until further notice. This means that many of your staff may now be caring for their children whilst working from home.
There are different options open to your staff. Some may choose to use their annual leave to cover childcare, whilst others might be entitled to parental leave or leave to care for their dependants. Employers can also offer affected staff members a flexible working arrangement to help them to manage their responsibilities as a parent and employee. For example, you could allow your staff to spread their workload across more days in the week, or you could agree to reduce or alter their core hours. Given the current uncertainty, it may be appropriate to deal with flexible working requests on an informal and temporary basis.
Bear in mind that, if staff are not able to work because of childcare responsibilities, you may be able to place them on furlough leave and claim a proportion of their wages under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. HMRC's portal is now open for claims, which can be backdated to dates from 1 March 2020 to cover staff who have been on unpaid leave since then.
Check your insurance coverage
Employer's liability insurance should already extend to homeworkers as standard practice, but you will need to check the wording of your policy to confirm this. You will also need to make sure that any business equipment you have provided to your staff is covered by your insurance when it's off your premises. Note that you are not legally obliged to provide any equipment to your staff whilst they are working from home, but if you do, make sure you clarify which items will be provided and on what terms in your home working policy.
It is important to note that your staff members will also need to check that their own insurance policies cover working from home.
Protect your confidential information
The security of confidential information and personal data can be difficult to supervise when your staff are working from home, but your data protection standards must be upheld. Make sure that your data protection policy is up to date and decide whether it is necessary to carry out a Data Protection Impact Assessment before allowing homeworkers to process any personal data.
Staff should also be reminded of their confidentiality and data protection obligations, and, if appropriate, you should consider providing additional training on how to securely store and transmit information.
Communicate effectively with your staff
Whilst your staff members are working from home it is crucial to build a relationship of trust and to establish clear lines of communication as you will not be able to have the same day-to-day visibility over their work. Set guidelines for checking in so staff members know how and when they are expected to be in contact with you.
You should also manage staff performance consistently and in accordance with your usual policies and procedures. If you foresee any departures from this, or if you need to alter how you assess performance, make sure this is communicated clearly to your staff to avoid any confusion.
Ensure employee wellbeing
When staff work from home, it can be difficult to maintain the boundaries between work and home life. You should remind staff that they are not expected to work beyond their contractual hours and to take regular breaks during the day. Not only are they legally entitled to breaks, but they can help provide structure to the day and support their wellbeing.
Make sure you also keep in regular contact with your staff to see how they are coping. This can prevent your staff from feeling disconnected and ease any feelings of isolation whilst they are working from home with fewer daily interactions.