While some employees and organisations will be familiar with working from home, the speed and scale with which offices in particular have dispersed in response to the recent coronavirus-related lockdown will nevertheless be unfamiliar and particularly unsettling. After weeks of social distancing and restrictions on travel, and with continuing uncertainty as to when working life will return to some form of normality, now is a particularly important moment to check employee wellbeing and ensure that adaptations made in the immediate response to coronavirus are sustainable in the short- to mid-term.
Working from home is naturally easier for some employees than for others. In the capital in particular, some colleagues will be working in confined environments, without either a proper workspace or a separate outdoor environment in which to take a break. Quite apart from the inevitable stresses of the pandemic situation, lighting, ventilation, noise and other distractions may all make working from home a strain. Employers have a legal obligation under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure a safe working environment, and that obligation continues whilst employees work at home. However, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 recognises that employers can only do what is ‘reasonably practicable’ and, in part, the obligation is limited to areas ‘under the employer’s control’. Nevertheless, employers should take an active interest in their employees’ working circumstances, as it may be possible to alleviate some of the challenges through sensible purchases of equipment to allow for effective home-working which can be reimbursed to the individual.
Particular thought should be given to the needs of disabled workers who are now operating from home. Many workers are likely to be reticent about raising concerns about their working life and environment given the present context, but even outside these extraordinary circumstances this can be challenging for some disabled persons. Moreover, those reasonable adjustments which have already been implemented in the workplace may not be available at home with such ease.
- As they try to comply with their duties to make such adjustments in these unprecedented circumstances, employers can take comfort that:
the duty is only to make reasonable adjustments, not the most reasonable or those preferred by the worker; and
- the notion of reasonableness is likely to be impacted by the current state of affairs and how long it lasts.
Conversely, however, the onus is not on the disabled worker to suggest reasonable adjustments and, while they should be involved in the process, employers should take a proactive approach to identifying the requirements of their disabled staff, not least because of the importance of many adjustments for productivity.
As more than one humorous BBC News interview has reminded us, partners, children and pets are all potential companions while working from home. However, the challenges of balancing both work and home lives are substantially greater with schools closed and the possibility of two partners or indeed a number of flatmates working from home. Employers are limited in what they can do to help, but it may be helpful to resist temptation to treat the current arrangements as merely relocating the standard working day and instead to harness the available flexibility in terms of hours. Requests for short-term flexible working should be addressed quickly and pragmatically to sustain morale and efficiency; a less understanding approach may risk claims of discrimination, particularly from mothers who continue to bear a disproportionate share of childcare responsibilities. In addition, employers can, at the least, provide sufficient technological support to try and ensure data security in busy environments, particularly when this is closely linked to the confidentiality obligations of many professionals.
Some workers will have the opposite problem, experiencing isolation from colleagues and being without company at home. Whereas some employees will welcome the opportunity for more focussed interactions and perhaps an end to ‘meeting culture’, prosaic daily interactions and small-talk are important to maintaining morale. The burgeoning popularity of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and other videoconferencing applications demonstrate the desire for face-to-face contact and the first few weeks of lockdown have seen some creative social uses such as virtual coffee breaks, happy hours and pub quizzes. The challenge is now to maintain momentum and enthusiasm as the restrictions continue to take their toll. Equally, there is merit in more traditional means of contact, such as line managers scheduling regular calls or sending occasional e-mails which are focused only on employee wellbeing.
Many of the steps which employers can take to support their workforce are very simple and remind us, at this strange and disconcerting time, that, besides detailed legal obligations, one of the most important things we can do is simply to look out for each other.