Friday 27 March 2020

Being 'at work' is now defined by what you do and not where you do it. The UK Government is requiring businesses to encourage employees to work at home, wherever possible. There are now many more people working remotely.

The option of employees working from home as an alternative to a traditional office-based structure has always been an attractive one. Enformed home working (especially if you are sharing your space with the rest of the family) may not seem so attractive under COVID-19 conditions, however. Employers and employees should be aware of the factors involved.

What is a homeworker?

Home (or remote) working is a type of flexible working (the rights of which are outlined in employee legislation). As an employee, homeworkers need to acquire new skills and develop existing ones.

Where to work

Ideally, create your own workspace in your home. However, if you are sharing with family and pets and some of you are self-isolating, you may have little choice. Avoid setting up on the kitchen table as you will have difficulty separating sufficiently from the family - and you will be constantly distracted!

Try find somewhere quiet. Reasonably priced (and sized) desks and tables can be ordered online and delivered.

Any sustained period of working from home needs to be undertaken with the correct equipment. It is not wise to use a laptop on your lap all day or bent over a coffee table. You may not be able to create the ideal setting to work in, but do still risk assess your working environment. Your employer should do their best to provide you with suitable equipment. 

When to work

Human beings are creatures of habit and so get into a routine. It's ideal to develop a routine that fits in with you and your working environment but you may be governed by your company's structure to the day. Take control and try to start and finish work at set times. Remember to take breaks and prepare for your homeworking day, as if you were actually still going to work, which means keeping the same routine, only without the commute.

We are in a time of crisis and as the world can change radically over 24 hours we may be tempted to be welded firmly to our phones all the waking hours. It is important to have the self-discipline to stop working, no matter how many emails remain outstanding and how many messages we receive.

Homeworking may not offer a natual cut off point, and in these extraordinarily uncertain times we may feel we need to be in emergency mode all the time. It is even more important now to switch off and try to de-stress and unwind. 

Don’t check work emails or social media as you watch TV with the family. Don’t check work emails while you are trying to home school your children. Give your home life undivided attention as well as your work.

Some would say that a seven-hour working day at home is worth ten hours in an office, given the natural distractions of office life. The reality for most home workers is that they often spend up to nine hours working by using up traditional commuting time.

Some jobs are best conducted from home and working in this new way may prove additionally productive. Work that relies on short deadlines, which require intensive bursts of long hours; or global communication, which requires conversations overnight; or shift patterns work well remotely.

It can also give employees the chance to change their working routine to ones which suit them better individually. Many of us work within the 9:00-17:00 structure but actually are much more awake, creative and efficient during the hours of 6:00-12:00 or 18:00-00:00. Working from home may provide the flexibility to get the most out of your working day – or night.

It can be tempting to catch up on television programmes, have a siesta, do the washing or spend the middle of the day with the kids. That may suit you very well, but unfortunately individual employers have their own policies about what is acceptable. They may have to be more flexible at the moment, but there will be expectations.

Depending on the type of work you do, some employers are happy to agree a workload and a deadline, then let you get on with it. Others want regular contact and a weekly report on what time you spent on which tasks and an outline of actions and outcomes. KPIs don’t tend to get forgotten just because employees are scattered to the four winds!

As well as agreeing workload, working hours and desired outcomes with employers, you need to set some rules within the household. Agree your workspace and working hours with the family. If you always have Skype meetings or teleconferences at a regular time, make sure everyone knows that the silence you need is sacrosanct. They may forget, so the sticky notes you brought back from the office will come in handy posted on the bedroom door!

If it helps you to move – and you should be moving every twenty minutes – take out the dog at the same time every day. Remember to walk the dog on your own or with a family member and keep to a two-metre distance from anyone else out doing the same. Or run or walk as your outside exercise once a day. Make sure you use your exercise time and get some sun and fresh air.

Managing the risk

If managed inadequately homeworkers can feel isolated from the rest of the business and detached from a corporate working environment. This can lead to rogue behaviour where employees view themselves as independent from the rest of the business.

Isolation can also have an impact on an employee’s wellbeing and mental health, particularly if living alone with little human interaction. In the absence of a suitable framework and guidance, a homeworker may work beyond sensible hours.

Some may struggle to be as productive as they are in an office. An employee’s home environment may also be difficult to work in. A strong clear working relationship between employee and employer will help implement a homeworking policy and mitigate against risks.

Under UK health and safety legislation, it is an employer’s duty to consider the potential cause of harm to their homeworkers, or other people, as a result of the work being undertaken within the home.

A risk assessment should be completed, as should a workstation assessment, to identify required controls to manage risks.

The organisation should consider producing homeworking guidelines and a checklist to support the process. There is guidance from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) on conducting a risk assessment at hse.gov.uk/risk.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) has guidelines recommending four key factors for managing productive homeworking:

  • Building trust between staff working from home and their manager.
  • Agreeing how work performance will be supervised and measured.
  • Communicating effectively.
  • Training.

ACAS has provided a guide for employers and employees.

Data security is important and not easy to manage in a dispirit workforce. First outline requirements outside the office, disposal of documents, and compliance with data security policies at home. Remember the work disciplines you have around GDPR will still apply as will the Regulations themselves.

Employers can support homeworkers by ensuring sufficient contact with colleagues by scheduling contact and using office buddies to keep up dialogue. Managers should agree how to keep in touch and how frequent, for example, weekly calls or video conferences.

Managers should be trained to recognise trigger signs of the work environment not being right, the employee overworking, or a homeworker becoming withdrawn from the team. During this period of lockdown, it is even more important for employees to be supported at home.

Employers must pay homeworking expenses, including:

  • Equipment, services or supplies required by employees to work from home, for example computers, office furniture, internet access, pens and paper.
  • Additional household expenses, for example gas or electricity charges.

When managed effectively homeworking can be productive and worthwhile option for employees and employers. It requires a framework, policy and guidance to operate, which reduces the risk of ambiguity over roles and responsibilities for both parties. 

Philip Farrar, National Development Director, Risk Management Partners (philip.farrar@rmpartners.co.uk)

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