WFH

Working from home: revisiting company policy   

Tuesday 12 May, 2020

PWC US Pulse study (27 April 2020): 49% of all business leaders now want remote working to be an option for roles that allow.  That figure is 55% for the tech sectors leaders and 60% for those in financial services.

Our Plan to rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy: “For the foreseeable future, workers should continue to work from home rather than their normal physical workplace, wherever possible”

Until March 2020, the main onus on a working from home (WfH) policy was that it was requested by employees after 26 weeks with a company.  Since then, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction: many of us are home workers now.  But “now” is operating under Government diktat; what happens as responsibility shifts to businesses under guidance?  What part does WfH play in our future?  (I write this first paper as a workplace consultant and not a lawyer, albeit one who has checked content based on current HR law and practice. And those I have in mind are largely knowledge workers. A second paper will look at good practice for managing remote workers.)

1. First, definition issues on “home working” and “working from home”. 

The distinction is usually drawn between the former - people employed to work at home at all times, as set out in their contract of employment and the latter - those who exercise the option to work flexibly from home on occasion.  The latter employment contracts typically mention an office location but optimally include a “company reserves the right….” clause. If that does not exist, you may need to re-visit employees’ written statement of particulars (typically the contract) to make sure you have the right to make these changes (rather than request them).

2. Pushing against an open door?

When the flexible working changes were introduced in June 2014, WfH was one of the options employees could request.  A TUC study in 2017 reported that, whilst 1.6m people regularly WfH, another 4m would like to do so.  Clearly, it is not possible for many people but the onus fell squarely on the employer to agree or deny the request.  Stories abounded on businesses refusing applications, often – it was suspected – because they feared fall offs in productivity; thorny remote management issues and a raft of demands for home office equipment.

Before lockdown, rumours circulated in the HR world that the Government was considering extending flexible working to any permanent employee from day 1.  Back then, that news was not universally welcomed. Now it is starting to look like desirable policy.  Where employers often resisted, now it looks like a way to deal with physical distancing in the office in the short term as well as a route to reduce property costs and please colleagues in the longer term.

3. What an organisation needs to do

3.1Data

One advantage of the last few weeks is most organisations now know what really happens when people work from home.  Apart from delivering a massive test of our IT capabilities, it has laid a few ghosts about what functions can (and can’t be done from home).  Clearly there are very particular circumstances at play but every organisation should currently be collecting good information from leaders and all colleagues, particularly on what parts of a job can’t be done remotely and - shock / horror – what parts don’t seem to need doing at all.  So stage 1 is: capture that information now (before we all forget the reality).

3.2 Frame the debate with staff

Unlike the previous flexible working changes, the impetus can now lie with employers, so we must set the terms of the discussion.  Demonstrate the necessity of change: tell people what you plan and why.  That may be for “x” percent to WfH “y” days a week / month, on a rolling programme where team leaders set which days are those to come in and to achieve what.  Remind people of the distancing needs in the short term but state that there are benefits to this approach in the long term.  If you already know you will shed property as the opportunity presents itself, you may want to tell people.  They need to know if the policy is likely to be non-reversible for the foreseeable future. 

Framing the debate is important: company benefit and personal benefit do not always align.  But there is an implicit relationship of trust in any contract and it is wise to be open: what follows is a starter pack list of pros and cons of WfH on both sides.  Most of the cons can be mitigated so long as an organisation pre-empts them:

(Perceived) Loss of staff oversight / control

Employer

Employee

Pros

Cons

Pros

Cons

Enabling distancing at work

Better work / life balance

Isolation or disturbance at home (depending on personal circumstances)

 

Property reduction / cost savings

(Perceived) Loss of employee loyalty

Reduction in commuting time and cost

Fear of missing out

Higher retention levels and employee satisfaction

Cost of home working kit / H&S

Better control of time

Greater responsibility for personal H&S

Reduced sickness (in a normal era)

Liability insurance

Choice

Domestic insurance

 

3.3 The home office

Most organisations already have a home working policy (for those permanent home-based people): start with this.  We all want solid answers and any HR professional will tell you that is not always possible before some test cases produce new law.  What we know now is liability always sits with the employer and – even if you plan this as only a temporary “pre-vaccine” phase – liability does not diminish just because it is temporary.  So you need to look at what you are prepared to pay to give your staff a better WfH experience.  At present, there is goodwill around having to perch on a kitchen chair: that will not outlast formal policies after lockdown (nor should it).

  • Typically, the employer is responsible for workers’ home’s health and safety set up being to an adequate standard to suit their needs (note: this may well be individual).  If home visits to check are not feasible, appropriate online DSE workstation assessments must be available and their completion checked.  Bottom line: you must be able to demonstrate you have discharged your duty of care
  • The employee has responsibility too: they must ensure that any area they designate as a work area at home is maintained to company standards; manage any hazards and, if anything changes in their domestic set up (building works; breaking equipment; moving house) they must tell their line manager as soon as practical
  • There are special extra arrangements if company visitors are ever hosted in people’s homes
  • Insurance: your employer’s liability insurance should cover staff working from home (in case they injure themselves).  Equally, staff should check domestic insurance policies: some provide cover for ‘administration’ duties, while others won’t cover any items that are used for ‘business or professional purposes’
  • Additional costs: you need a strong company line on what you will and will not cover in terms of staff claims.  One option is to allow an extension of intranet approved products from your approved suppliers; another is to set minimum standards and a budget and let people choose their own items.  For most organisations and most employees, this covers an adjustable chair; desk and – possibly - a monitor.
  • HMRC sets a rate (currently £26 a month) that can cover costs of any additional domestic expenses (such as electricity, water).  Please be aware there are a multitude of rules related to treatment of expenses incurred by people working at home: the starting pint for most is currently whether – contractually – individuals are required or choose to work in this way.
  • IT issues: claims to install broadband are rarely supported as they are not uniquely for work.  However, upgrades may be a legitimate issue if your people cannot access your secure systems.  A policy for access to IT support staff is also critical, with plans for remote replacement of kit
  • Travel is also one for negotiation:  as travel to work is not claimable, organisations may argue they can offset additional domestic costs against the travel saving.  But this isn’t simple where people have bought season tickets, but now may only be using them 2 or 3 times a week.

This simply scratches the surface of the topics for discussion: the best WfH policies are those built thoroughly in draft by HR, workplace and IT teams before they are negotiated with trade unions and staff.  The mantra should always be: remember the employer always has liability and should act demonstrably reasonably.

3.4 Making it work

Policies on chairs and travel; expenses and insurance are critical but WfH works because people manage the situations well.  Employees still have all the same rights to breaks; days off; the same need for clear communication from their managers and personal development that they had when they worked 5 days a week in the office.  Without embarking on a long section on managing people who WfH, the best recommendation is re-visit your remote or home working policies.  Organisations with teams or contractors geographically spread already have a lot of good practice.  The trick is whether they actually apply it.  Take advice where it is available: a manager running contact centre teams round the world may be much better at the practicalities of remote working than a member of the Board, because they have to manage productivity of people they do not see every day.  Ask them.

Finally, just at the moment, with so much to think about, it is tempting to start from scratch: but most of us will have home or remote working policies and good practice that have been built by HR, Finance & Payroll, IT, L&D and Workplace teams in the recent past.  Because liability and a duty of care will continue to rest with you as employer, start with what you have now, be open and honest with people where answers are being worked through and work with those other provider teams to ready your new WfH plans for issue.  You are going to be glad you did.

May 2020

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