The legalities of working away from the workplace

Government guidance means many employees are being asked to work from home. Kate Redshaw explains what businesses need to consider

While most employees are happy to do their bit for the greater good, businesses should remember that, even in these difficult times, they continue to owe legal obligations to their staff. Out of sight should not mean out of mind. 

In the current circumstances, asking an employee who can work from home to do so will generally be regarded as a lawful instruction on the part of the employer and should not give rise to any problems, even if there is no specific provision in an employee’s contract of employment to allow for this.

However, if an employee does raise concerns about working from home, then you will need to listen to what they say and address their concerns. If these are justified, then consider what alternative arrangements might be feasible. 

In a bid to de-risk the situation where staff cannot work from home, businesses are splitting teams so they work at different locations. If you require employees to work from an alternative site, you will need to consider the personal impact this might have, particularly if your contracts of employment are silent on this. 

If the change in location is likely to be for a fairly limited period – some teams are doing ‘a week on/a week off’ from their usual place of work – then this will make a request that an employee works elsewhere more reasonable. However, if the new location means the employee is having to travel a significant distance or if they will struggle to manage childcare because of the new work location, again you will need to listen to their concerns and may need to be flexible with start and end times, for example. 

Where staff are working from home or from a different location, you are still responsible for their health and safety and so, if any employee uses specific equipment – for example, a particular office chair or an adapted keyboard – you may need to arrange for the equipment to be transported to their home/new location if the absence from work is likely to be for any length of time.

Also consider:

  • If you have a home working policy, recirculate this. While many employers offer home working, not all employees will habitually work this way and so a refresher of the policy will be useful. Also consider ‘stress testing’ your IT systems to make sure they can withstand the increased levels of use.
  • As an employer you will still be under health and safety obligations towards your employee.
  • GDPR obligations do not disappear because of Covid-19. Consider what steps or restrictions need to be put in place to protect personal data that is being taken offsite.
  • If you require employees to use their own devices, such as PCs and tablets, how does this affect confidentiality requirements?
  • Does your insurance cover home working?
  • How will you supervise work?
  • How will you stay in touch with employees?
  • Do you need to provide employees with stationery, paper and printer ink, for example? How will you reimburse people for expenses; for example, telephone bills, postage, etc?

These are challenging times and businesses are having to make difficult choices. However, by avoiding the temptation to cut corners now, you should reduce the risk of issues arising later down the line.  

Kate Redshaw is a senior associate in the employment law team at Burges Salmon