For many teams (like ours), last week would have been their first week working from home. Following the government’s advice to stay at home and now with the intervention to close all pubs, bars, restaurants and gyms, we understand that this means that many more, if not all, of our clients will be working remotely.
Whichever stage you are at – in the preparation phase and/or currently testing capabilities, or having already enabled homeworking for some or all of your workforce – to assist with your ongoing decision making and reviews, we have put together points to consider.
We appreciate that this poses a challenge for all small businesses. Even as a law firm, with a wealth of information and policies at our fingertips, we still did not have everything in place from an employment law perspective to change our working patterns on demand. We chose to act swiftly and were well placed to continue a remote full service from day one. We did however as a team have to change the type of work and the manner of work we were carrying out and this will again change over time. We currently have online team meetings every morning and afternoon to keep fully briefed of all your client matters, to make sure that all new enquiries are appropriately handled and to be there for each other. We do not foresee any delay to current client timetables and, as always, we are here to help.
We particularly sympathise with those in industries such as hospitality, retail, leisure, sport and tourism where remote working may not be possible. We were very reassured however, as we know you are, by the government’s extraordinary and much needed levels of new financial support on Friday offering a critical safety net for many small businesses. We are working with our clients on the details of these measures to understand how practically we can all benefit from them and keep our businesses going for when we come out on the other side.
Ultimately, we have been left feeling overwhelmingly grateful for our incredible network and in having such entrepreneurial clients – positioning yourselves to overcome difficult circumstances time and time again. As our entrepreneur community knows, there is an inner confidence that comes from knowing you have what it takes to build something from nothing.
So, this is both a thank you message to all of our clients for continuously inspiring us and other small businesses, and hopefully also an informative briefing which will assist you in making essential changes to your business operations and contracts. We remain at your disposal, please contact us and we will guide you through and also help you implement changes.
There are a range of practical issues that employers implementing homeworking arrangements will need to address, including:
• Reviewing standard employment contract clauses and, where possible, tailoring them to encompass homeworking.
• Taking appropriate measures to protect confidential information and personal data.
• Reviewing the health and safety implications of the arrangements, including carrying out a risk assessment.
• Deciding whether any special equipment should be provided.
• Considering whether any special planning or insurance arrangements are required.
• Deciding what arrangements should be made for the management and supervision of certain types of homeworkers.
Contracts of employment
The starting point (as with any employment related issue) is to review the contracts in place. In these circumstances, you should in particular look for clauses covering the following seven points and address the resulting questions.
• Place of work.
The contract should always specify the employee’s normal place of work.
Does this provision afford flexibility to work anywhere other than the specified place? If not, the provision should be amended.
• Role and duties.
The contract should always state the employee’s job title (or a brief description of the role) and duties.
Is the employee able to carry out their duties from home? Does this provision afford flexibility for other duties to be added? Will any newly required duties be consistent with their position? If the role and duties have changed significantly or are likely to, the provision should be amended.
• Remote working.
The contract may include a provision permitting remote working.
If so, in what circumstances is this permitted? Does it specify the employee’s home or other environment? If remote working is not permitted, a clause should be added to permit this in exceptional circumstances or as agreed.
• Hours of work.
The contract should always cover hours of work particularly as no one will be able to oversee whether homeworkers take their breaks.
Does the contract specify whether workers are responsible for regulating their own working time and taking breaks as appropriate?
The contract should specify which expenses an employee can claim.
Does it cover, for example, telephone (communications), heating and light costs?
All employees have an implied duty not to disclose confidential information or use it for any purpose other than the employer’s business. However, this is more difficult to police with homeworking and express clauses should be included.
Is there an express confidentiality clause? Is there a requirement to keep confidential information secure?
The contract should refer to equipment, at least to clarify ownership of any equipment provided by the company, use of equipment and perhaps requiring consent for removal. There may be additional provisions where remote working is envisaged.
Does it cover what equipment is required for homeworking, who will provide and pay for it and who can have access to it?
There is no need to be unduly concerned if the contracts you have in place do not cover all, or even most of the above. You should consider what is covered and what is not. Where terms need to be varied, we can make those changes swiftly and prepare email communications with your team on your behalf so you can consult with them and agree changes with them. For the most part, these changes should cover you for future working arrangements and provide protection and flexibility.
If you send your contracts over to us, as well as any staff handbooks and/or relevant policies, we are happy to review these on your behalf. We have also produced a homeworking policy which is ready to go to our clients. We will send you this policy without charge as soon as you let us know you need it.
If you did not implement GDPR training at the time, you may need to provide employees who are working from home with specific training on both their obligations and yours as an employer in relation to data protection and confidentiality, outlining the procedures which they must follow, and what is, and is not, an authorised use of data.
Now is also the time to carry out a data privacy impact assessment covering the following:
• Who will have access to the employee’s computer and personal data stored on it? Specific security measures should be in place to ensure that other members of the household do not have access to personal data held on the computer. The most practical route is to provide all work equipment where possible and to prohibit access by other members of the household, however, we appreciate that this is not possible for small businesses like ours. The next best measure is to communicate with your employees as to the steps they can take to protect company data.
• Will the employee’s home/study be left unattended for regular periods? If so, is it properly secured?
• Does the remote working system permit the employee to encrypt and/or password-protect information; is sharing of passwords clearly forbidden?
• Are employees instructed to change their passwords at regular intervals?
• Where paper files are kept, are there suitable systems for storage such as secure filing cabinets?
• How is information moved between home and office, both in terms of physical transfer by post or courier and data transfer electronically?
• Are employees given guidance about what data it is appropriate to transfer?
• Are there rules on retention of documents, proper disposal (for example, shredding) of paper-based records and storage and deletion of computerised personal data? Is equipment provided for effective shredding of paper records?
• What measures will need to be taken against accidental loss, destruction or damage?
• Have staff been given training and guidance and are regular reminders sent to staff about their obligations to safeguard personal data?
These are questions to share with your team and maintain an open dialogue.
As you will likely be aware, serious breaches may result in significant fines for businesses. If you are unsure of your responsibilities or concerned about the systems that you currently have in place, we are here to help. The Information Commissioner’s Office has also produced informative online content and set up a helpline for additional help 0303 123 1113.
Health and safety
Employers are responsible for their employees’ welfare, health and safety during the course of their employment. Planning to implement homeworking requires a suitable risk assessment which will inform what measures should be put in place. Practically, you may want to look into online risk assessment possibilities or devise a list of questions to send to your employees.
The following are key issues and how you might address them:
Some homeworkers may have difficulty enforcing boundaries between work and home life, leading to an increased risk of stress. They may become isolated and lack the support networks available when working at business premises. They may have insufficient work to do which leads to anxiety or a lack of motivation. You should be aware of this issue, consider steps to monitor work and stress levels and try to integrate homeworkers into the team where possible. In this unusual time, this is likely to apply to your whole workforce.
Equipment supplied by you as the employer must be suitable for its purpose, maintained in good working order and inspected regularly. You should also ensure that suitable and sufficient lighting is provided at any place where a person uses work equipment. This may involve simple steps to enhance the lighting in the room set aside for business use.
Briefly, an employer is responsible for the electrical equipment it supplies. However the employee’s domestic supply, including electrical sockets, remains their responsibility and they should be reminded of this.
• First aid.
An employer must supply appropriate first aid provisions and supplies to all employees. This includes employees working from home. Most homeworking will be of low risk and should not create any particular problems: a simple first aid kit should suffice. You should assess the nature of the work and identify any areas for concern.
A serious accident or injury at work must be reported to the employer wherever it occurs. You should therefore establish a proper procedure to allow homeworking employees to report accidents.
Most employers will ideally want their remote team to use only the employer’s computer equipment, to ensure compatibility with the office systems and to ensure that proper virus protection and security measures are in place. However, we appreciate that in reality it is not feasible for many small businesses to provide equipment for their entire workforce.
Whilst there is no legal obligation on an employer to provide the equipment necessary for homeworking, employers should look at each individual homeworker, to ensure that they comply with any duties they may have towards that individual. For example, if an employee has a disability, the provision of equipment (or reimbursement of the employee’s equipment expenses) may be required by law as a reasonable adjustment.
Equipment is therefore largely a practical as opposed to a legal issue. You should discuss with employees what computer equipment they have personally available, what virus protection they have, whether they have broadband/high speed internet access, a printer, and a shredder as necessary. Effective lines of communication will be key.
Please make sure that you are in regular contact with your IT service providers to ensure that there are no avoidable interruptions.
If employees use their own equipment, they may seek an agreement that the employer will pay the cost of maintenance, repair and fair wear and tear. In return, employees should undertake to maintain the equipment properly, enter into any appropriate service contracts and replace it when necessary.
It is unlikely that there will be any income tax implications in relation to computer equipment provided for employment purposes, but where this is made available for private or household usage, a charge may apply. You may want to seek guidance from your accountant on this, and whether any relief is available.
In the current situation we face, where the reality of home-working has been somewhat forced upon all of us rapidly, many of you may naturally be struggling to see the positives. There are of course positives including the following:
• Reduced overhead costs.
The need for expensive office space and other office overheads can sometimes be reduced and relocation costs can sometimes be avoided. These new changes should call into question the use and need for traditional office space when remote working is readily capable of being implemented.
• Increased productivity.
Homeworkers are spared travel time and associated stresses; there is some evidence that the time gained leads to an increase in work output.
• Better motivation.
Many team members respond well to homeworking.
• Skills retention.
Workers who might otherwise be lost because of family relocation, new family responsibilities or temporary or permanent disability may stay, with the business if remote working were an option.
• Team flexibility.
Geography and travel time are less of an impediment and teams of workers can be assembled more easily.
• Future proofing.
Organisations geared to homeworking may be better able to withstand external disruptions such as transport problems, adverse weather conditions and even terrorist threats. Indeed, established homeworking can form an important part of disaster management planning.
This is also a great opportunity for business owners and their teams to dedicate time to learning and developing their businesses. The long-term benefits of a highly knowledgeable workforce go without saying. Those who are able to take advantage of this opportunity will reap the both commercial and personal benefits.
In addition to tapping into the numerous Ted Talks you have yet to watch, there are a number of free resources also available right now:
• LinkedIn learning courses available including courses aimed at improving homeworking productivity.
• Winslows Tax Lawyers are providing a complimentary Tax Helpline to answer any tax and restructuring questions you may have. The phone number to call is (0)20 3196 5582.
• Future Learn offers a range of online learning courses, with a wide range of topics and course lengths.
• YouTube’s Creator Academy offers online learning, centring around content creation and optimisation.
• Google’s online learning platform includes a Skills Workshop with several e-learning courses and an Analytics Academy to assist with business growth through intelligent data collection and analysis.
For those with young children like us who are trying to juggle home and parenting:
• Audible have opened up their libraries
• Ted-Ed@Home have launched fee video based lessons on a daily basis
• BBC Bitesize
• Duolingo for languages
• The Khan Academy which is a US based non profit
For those with older children who have exams they are preparing for we wish you the very best that online and remote teaching can offer and much patience.
Team Fortune Law are utilising this opportunity to develop our personal knowledge, so that we can improve our services to you. If there are any particular topics you would like us to focus on in our next set of briefings then please let us know. We are here to build a better business and to help you do the same.
We will be in touch shortly particularly regarding furlough working which is what we are currently getting to grips with, but if you would like to discuss anything in the meantime, you can contact us via 020 3709 9673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.