Employment laws from the Board Room to the Spare Room

15 May 2020

Earlier this week Twitter announced that it would allow some employees to work from home permanently, with their Head of Human Resources acknowledging that the company’s way of work would “probably never be the same again”.

Whilst not all employers will be ready and able to embrace such an approach, the reality is that whether we like it or not, working from home is going to be encouraged in the foreseeable future and is set to become one of the most fundamental and lasting legacies of Covid 19.

In this article, we explore some of the perks, pitfalls and legal considerations for the weeks, months and maybe even years ahead.

The Perks

In the current pandemic, working from home may be a lifeline for employers and employees alike and frankly it has been the only way for some employers to continue to run their businesses.

The perks of home working are traditionally considered to be a greater work life balance with employees spending more time at home with families, less commuting, a more flexible schedule and tailor made environment with employees able to work in a way that best suits them. Such autonomy can often lead to improved morale and productivity and can result in obvious cost savings for employers. 

The Pitfalls

It must be recognised that working from home is not for everyone at the best of times, with some being more equipped and better suited to it than others. For example, it has been suggested that junior employees who may be less likely to have spare rooms and office space at home may find it more difficult than senior employees who are more likely to have more space. There are obvious socio-economic factors at play and it has been suggested that lockdown has had a disproportionate impact on women and people with disabilities. There are significant challenges for those with caring responsibilities and young children at this time with schools, child care facilities and access to support set to remain unavailable in the foreseeable future. Employees can become isolated, distracted and stressed and in the current pandemic this is heightened, particularly for those who have experienced an abrupt change in their life style and amidst the global economic turmoil that we are facing.

For employers, this way of working has also posed considerable challenges. Many employers have found it difficult, and feel that it has been almost impossible to manage and support staff who are working from home in light of everyone’s different home circumstances and may also be concerned about how to support furloughed staff who are nervous about returning to work.  They have been worried about complying with their legal obligations at this time. Some have been worried about data protection and confidentiality and that their policies and procedures may not be up to date or appropriate for home working. All of this has the potential to cause anxiety to employers in what is already an uncertain time.

Legal Considerations  

It is important to remember that life at the moment is far from normal and duties of employers and rights of employees must be considered through the lens of the current health emergency. What is considered “reasonable” in normal times may not necessarily be reasonable at the present time. It is difficult to predict with certainty how particular issues may be viewed by a Tribunal and the law in this area is therefore likely to evolve at a fast pace. That being said, employment laws are still applicable and advice should be sought from an experienced practitioner should any concern arise, either by an employee who is concerned their rights are being infringed or an employer who is anxious to ensure they are complying with their legal obligations.

Employers may still be responsible for their employee’s health and safety while employees work from home and this can include both their mental and physical health. Employers must still consider any requests for reasonable adjustments for disabled employees. They should still look out for any bullying, harassment or discrimination and address it immediately. They should remain alert to risks such as occupational stress and occupational injuries and take reasonable steps to avoid any such issue arising.

Communication is Key

Employers should check on their employee's health and wellbeing, support them if they need to work more flexibly and keep in regular contact with them. Many employers have conducted regular meetings on Zoom and Skype and this has been an invaluable opportunity for both sides to communicate on issues or concerns. Whatsapp groups have also been set up to allow staff to keep in contact socially. These measures are important and would be relevant factors for a Tribunal to consider should any dispute arise.

We know that the implications of Covid 19 will be felt long after lockdown is lifted. No one wants an employment dispute to add to their worries, which may be costly and stressful for both employees and employers alike should it end up at a Court or Tribunal.

If you have a query in relation to this article or any employment law matter, contact Laura Banks on 028 9024 3901 or via email on lbanks@fhanna.co.uk for a free and confidential discussion.