When remote working was initially introduced in response to the pandemic, it was a bit of a free for all. Businesses did, of course, do all they could to ensure essential processes could be completed efficiently and securely from home, but when it came to the set-up of those who were suddenly forced to work remotely, there was a lot of variety.
As remote working gradually becomes the new normal, however, it’s become hugely important for employers to consider their liability in remote working arrangements. The health and safety of employees is one of the many responsibilities of an employer, no matter where the employee chooses to work.
With this in mind, it would be hugely beneficial for all those in a remote working situation to be fully aware of how an employer should expect them to prepare their workstation. Kevin Ashley, Founder and CEO of the Learning Management System, myAko, has provided his considerable insight into the ways in which a home-working setup is expected to be prepared – not only to protect the liability of employers, but also to heighten the focus and productivity of an employee.
An employee’s health, safety and general welfare is entirely within the hands of their employer during working hours. Or, at least to a reasonable extent. As such, it is an employer’s responsibility to conduct risk assessments of all work environments and activities. This extends to remote working situations too. As adults, this may feel wholly unnecessary. We may feel as though we are perfectly capable of being left to our own devices and working efficiently from home. Whilst this is true in almost every case, it is still an employer’s duty to carry out these assessments, as they will have their own liability to consider, as well as their employees’ well-being.
As the current reason for an influx of remote workers is a worldwide pandemic, it would be quite nonsensical for an employer to be expected to visit the homes of all their employees in order to conduct the necessary risk assessments. Under the guidance of an employer, employees should be able to conduct the assessments themselves and report back to the employer. This can be in the form of a questionnaire, for example, which seeks to pinpoint any present risks, whilst also making note of any individual requirements (this extends to employees that suffer with a disability, as well as expectant mothers). Alternatively, an employer could undertake a virtual risk assessment, via Zoom, for example. Obviously, this should not invade the employee’s privacy, but if an employee were to raise a potential risk, it would allow the employer to evaluate whether the risk is acceptable, or whether remedial action needs to be taken. Any remedial action must not only be agreed upon and documented, but also followed up on to ensure completion.
It’s important to remember that anything from a defective and unsafe piece of equipment that has been approved and supplied by the employer, to an employee tripping on a trailing laptop cable and injuring themselves, could result in the employer being held liable. Should any risks be identified, even something as seemingly small as an unsuitable choice of desk chair, it is essential for the employer to open up a dialogue with the respective employee in order to advise ways in which these risks can be mitigated. In any case possible, with equipment such as an appropriate desk chair, it is strongly advisable that an employer allows their employees to take the equipment home with them, during the period they are working remotely.
It’s certainly worth noting that not everyone has a spare room or space available for them to work, comfortably and uninterrupted, through the day. Many employees may have young children, for example. In this case – assuming they are not in a customer facing role – it may be worthwhile for the employer to suggest more flexible working hours; allowing the employee to work when the children are asleep or with their partner. An element of further flexibility is essential when working out of the office. Further to all of the above, it is imperative to ensure that – as an employer – your liability insurance also covers home working.
Equipment and Data Protection
Whilst there is admittedly no legal obligation for any employer to supply the equipment that is necessary for an employee to efficiently work from home, it is certainly conducive to a productive team and steady output for them to do so.
It will be ideal for many employers to ensure their team are all using the company’s computer equipment as this will guarantee a certain level of compatibility between each member of the team. If an employer is unable to provide equipment to this extent, it is advisable to at least make sure all employees are utilising sufficient security measures in order to protect the company’s data. Whilst it isn’t essential that an employee is given the opportunity to take their office computer and accompanying appliances home with them, it is strongly advisable as – aside from the potentially lacking security systems – personal equipment may not necessarily be covered by the individual company’s insurance.
Aside from the physical workstation, it is thoroughly important for an employer to analyse the digital workstation of an employee. That is to say, the system on which they carry out the company’s essential processes. It is ideal for employees to utilise the same systems that they would use when working in the office in order to keep processes running smoothly. When detached from the company’s shared network, or using their own computer equipment, it will become necessary for the employer to provide each individual member of the team with safe and secure access to any systems the company uses as, from a GDPR perspective, all companies have an obligation to protect their client’s data. An IT support team will be well placed to help with this. It will also be the responsibility of the employer to ensure all essential processes and channels of communication remain secure, in order to keep the company’s data safe.
With all of the above in mind, it is, again, strongly advisable that an employee does not use their personal computer equipment to carry out their work processes. Employers, for example, are required to ensure that client and company data is not shared with non-authorised individuals. Shared family computers, in this case, are substantially unsuitable for remote working use.
Communication and Mental Health
Whilst many have taken remote working in their stride, others have found the isolation to be a struggle. It is important for an employer to make sure suitable channels of communication are set up and utilised in order to make the team feel connected at a distance. This will not only result in a much more productive team who are able to easily keep each other informed of important elements of their daily processes, but it will also do a lot to ensure those who struggle most with remote working are able to feel connected to their fellow team members – rather than alone at their solitary workstation.
As many will be expected to work remotely for the long-term, it is imperative for any employer to consider the effects home-working may have on the mental health and general stress levels of their employees. Maintaining an open-minded dialogue on this issue as early as possible, and regularly consulting individual employees, will be necessary in order to make the transition into remote working as comfortable as possible. It is, of course, also important to consider an employee’s physical health. The Health and Safety DSE Regulations apply to any worker that uses display screen equipment each day, for an hour or more at a time, meaning it is essential for regular breaks away from the screen to be built into an employee’s daily schedule. This congenial and communicative approach will do much to maintain both morale in the short-term and performance in the long-term.
Remember, a risk assessment is not a one-off activity. It is an ongoing consideration implemented in order for an employer to not only look after their company’s reputation, but also the welfare and mental state of their team. It should not simply be about an employer’s legal responsibility, but also their ethical responsibility to support their team and provide them with the right tools to do a great job.
Please find some examples of an appropriate risk assessment form here.