Working from home
Despite a limited easing of the lockdown, Government advice remains that employees should work at home where that is possible. Encouraging employees to continue to work from home not only protects those employees from the risk of infection, it also helps employers provide a safe workplace for those employees who have to come into work by reducing the number of people who will be on site at any one time.
Many employers will be used to dealing with requests from employees to work at home. Generally, the employer is free to refuse such requests if there are genuine business reasons for doing so. In the current crisis, however, the question is whether home working is possible – not whether it is as productive or effective as employees coming in to work. The employer might prefer it if employees came in to work and have good reasons for that view. But if the work can be done at home, then it should be. An employee is obliged to obey reasonable instructions but if most of their work is done in front of a normal computer screen then it is difficult to see how an instruction to come into the office could be a reasonable one.
This works both ways. An employee might prefer to come in to work rather than stay at home. The contract of employment may not have envisaged home-working and will most likely provide for a specific place of work. Given the current situation however – and where the nature of the work allows it – an instruction to work from home is likely to be a reasonable one.
Given the additional workplace precautions that are likely to be needed for the foreseeable future and the limit they will place on the number of people who can be on the employer’s site at the same time, it may be a good idea to regularise home working arrangements that were initially improvised in response to the immediate crisis. As working from home becomes a more long-term prospect employers will need to consider the health and safety implications. Since home working is not usually a high-risk activity the steps taken need not be onerous, but some sort of work-station assessment will be necessary as well as consideration of fire safety. Employers will also want to consider the best way to manage performance and measure productivity as home working becomes a more established feature of the business. This may involve clearly communicating the employer’s expectations around working hours. Home working provides an opportunity for a more flexible approach and this can benefit both sides – especially if the employee has child-care issues. However the employer may want to insist on certain core hours always being worked or specify when the employee must be available to participate in meetings or be contacted by a manager.
Employees working from home are of course undertaking additional expenses as a result. They are using more electricity at home and using their own broadband capacity. There is no specific obligation on the employer to make any contribution towards these additional costs but under the current tax rules a payment of £6 per week can be paid to cover the additional expense of working from home.