Thursday, 08 July 2021
Many businesses plan to allow their staff to work remotely more often even after coronavirus restrictions are lifted. We look at employers’ legal obligations when it comes to hybrid working.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the development of flexible working patterns in the UK, with employers of all sizes indicating they will continue to allow staff to work from home – at least some of the time – for the foreseeable future.
While a mix of remote and office-based working can have major benefits for businesses and staff, it is vital to ensure that the right legal frameworks and protections are in place, allowing employers to maintain the well-being of employees and meet any additional obligations towards them. Lily Asumadu, Employment Law and HR Consultant at NatWest Mentor, talks through the legal considerations of hybrid working practices.
If a business introduces a formal hybrid working policy, employees’ contracts will need to be brought up to date to reflect changes in the place of work. “For any fundamental change such as this, there needs to be an agreement between both parties,” says Asumadu. “The employer needs to communicate with the employee and a provide a revised contract to confirm the changes.”
Employers that are vague about which days they expect employees to be in the office and which they should be working from home could face a greater potential risk of litigation. “A laissez-faire approach could have legal implications,” says Asumadu. “If an employee has concerns and becomes unhappy with what the employer is asking them to do, this could lead to grievances and potential litigation cases.
“Although some hybrid working requests may be informal and therefore not result in changes to the terms and conditions of employment, it is recommended that the employer sets this out clearly from the onset – where such arrangements exist – and managers should be made aware of the difference between what may be classed as formal and informal.”
As part of their hybrid working policy, businesses need to establish what IT equipment they will provide their staff with to facilitate remote working. Asumadu says employers can also offer workers a tax-free payment of up to £6 a week to cover additional utilities costs, without the need for supporting documentation such as receipts or bills. The GOV.UK website has more guidance on this.
Employers have a duty of care towards their workers, whether they are required to carry out their duties from the office or from home, adds Asumadu. “Employers have a legal obligation to conduct a DSE (Display Screen Equipment) assessment, and it is recommended that they do this this regularly. Completion of a DSE assessment is to ensure that any staff homeworking set-up is safe and secure and adequately supports their well-being.
“A laissez-faire approach could have legal implications. If an employee has concerns and becomes unhappy with what the employer is asking them to do, this could lead to grievances and potential litigation cases”Lily Asumadu, Employment Law and HR Consultant, Mentor
“Any claim arising from damage to an employee’s well-being or health could have a huge liability on the employer – so it is vital their employees are comfortable and working safely in their new environment.”
“One challenge associated with increased working from home is where employees feel disengaged as a result of new working practices,” Asumadu says. “While working from home can come with a lot of benefits, the lack of contact with colleagues can have a negative impact on employees’ mental well-being in some cases.”
To reduce the risks here, businesses should train managers in how to communicate effectively with remote workers and be alert to any mental or physical health problems.
Employers should also be on the lookout for signs that employees are working excessively long hours as a result of the ‘always on’ nature of remote working. Some businesses use sophisticated software to check employees’ progress and performance; with such an approach, says Asumadu, employers and employees should be reminded of their GDPR obligations.
As part of the change in work location, some employees may end up taking on an extra burden. “Employers should review the job descriptions of employees to see if their responsibilities are being enhanced as a result of remote working,” Asumadu says.
“For example, if you employ an administrator, in the past they wouldn’t have been able to work in the office after it’s closed for the day. But now, as they work from home, they could be responsible for responding to client emails or other requests outside normal working hours.”
If the new arrangements do increase responsibilities, Asumadu adds, this needs to be communicated. The updated employment contract would need to be very clear about the new scope of responsibilities for that employee, as well as any corresponding increase in pay.