Working from home and COVID-19 – what employers need to know

Current government advice suggests that employees should work from home wherever possible during the COVID-19 epidemic. This may be a necessary step to slow the spread of the virus, but it presents a number of practical questions for employers, particularly those who haven't previously had large numbers of employees working from home at once. In this article I'll try to address some common questions and issues around working from home.

If your question isn't covered here, why not sign up to our COVID-19 employment webinar on Tuesday and submit it in advance for Karen Bates and I to answer?

Do your employees have the right equipment to work from home?

It is likely most businesses who are considering whether their employees should work from home during this time will have already provided employees with laptops, mobiles and the required accessories. If not, businesses will need to decide whether they can ask employees to use their own equipment, or whether providing employees with equipment is a viable option.

How can you support and supervise employees working remotely?

Supervising homeworking can be more difficult than overseeing staff in the office, but managers and homeworkers will need to take more effort to communicate with each other during this period. Managers should check in with employees to ensure they do not feel isolated or cut-off as it is likely some employees will be spending prolonged periods of time alone. The employee will also require easy access to their manager in case of emergency.

It may also be that employees are not able to do all of their tasks without the office facilities. It is worth reiterating that the current circumstances are unprecedented and whilst employers expect employees to work from home there are some tasks that will have to wait or change. Managers should be mindful that some employees may have wellbeing concerns and caring responsibilities (especially if nurseries and schools shut) during the COVID-19 period which may have an impact on their productivity and mental health. 

Are you providing the right IT support to home-workers?

Employees will also need to consider whether broadband speeds are suitable at their home and employers will need to provide remote technology assistance such as an IT Service Desk.

Homeworkers should be warned against the use of unauthorised software. Employers should provide guidance on antivirus and software updates in order to protect the information on the computer from accidental loss, damage, destruction or unlawful processing.

What are your Health & Safety responsibilities to homeworking staff?

As mentioned above, an employer owes a duty of care to their employees and the requirements of health and safety legislation apply to all homeworkers. Under normal circumstances, an employer is responsible for carrying out a risk assessment under regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. This risk assessment is to check whether the employee's workstation's ventilation, temperature, lighting, space, chair, desk and computer are suitable for the tasks the employee will carry out.

However, in the current emergency circumstances, running a full risk assessment would be impractical for most and an employer can justify working from home as reasonably protecting an employee's welfare, health and safety under section 2(1) of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974. If an employee was to continue working from home following the COVID-19 pandemic, a full risk assessment will be required.

Do you need a temporary Homeworking Policy?

If an employer does not already have a Homeworking Policy, it may be sensible to introduce one (perhaps even just on a temporary basis to cover the period at hand) if they are going to ask employees to work from home.   The policy should include how homeworkers will be managed and implications arising from taxation to security of the organisation's information.

How can you maintain confidentiality while employees are at home?

All employees have an implied duty not to disclose confidential information or to use it for any purpose other than for their employer's business. Many employment contracts will also have an express confidentiality clause. It is worth reminding employees of these duties and to confirm what information is required to be kept confidential.  Employers should implement/review their IT and Telecommunications Policy and should check whether there are appropriate measures to protect the confidentiality of electronic information and what is considered to be inappropriate use.

How should you approach data protection if your staff are logging on from home?

There are significant data implications arising from employees working from home, and an employer will need to take appropriate technical and organisational measures against unlawful or unauthorised processing/loss of data that identifies individuals (Article 5(1)(f) GDPR).  Employers should already have a Data Protection Policy and employees should be reminded of their obligations, the procedures they must follow and guidance on what is, and is not, an authorised use of data. If an employer does not have a Data Policy they should implement one as a matter of priority.

Specifically, employees should be reminded to:

  • forbid access to their work computer or systems (if using home computer) by any other member of the household.
  • when reasonably practicable, keep equipment and documents in a secured space such as a filing cabinet or study.
  • regularly update computer passwords
  • shred or burn documents no longer required.

If you need a supportive hand with any of these issues, our Employment Team is here to help you.