Birketts’ webinar ‘Homeworking: the new normal’

Birketts has held the latest in its highly regarded series of webinars, this time on the topic of home working. Abigail Trencher hosted the session with contributions from Matthew GowenJulie Gowland and Kitty RosserJeanette Wheeler, Head of Employment, joined her colleagues for the Q&A section.

Employment – homeworking: benefits, drawbacks and next steps for employers

Abigail opened the webinar by discussing the effects of COVID-19. She stated: ‘We have seen a galvanised army of homeworkers such like we have never seen before and what we have really seen is home working can work and does work and its likely to be around for a long while… because it is something that employees and employers recognise as having a positive effect on the working environment and the way we work.”

Abigail spoke of the benefits of working from home for employers. With reduced distractions at home and the efficiency of Zoom calls, many workplaces have seen a boost in productivity. Meanwhile employees are saving on lunch and commuting costs; there are even benefits for the environment as a result of reduced road congestion.

She highlighted other employer benefits including recruitment and retention. Employers can now tap in to wider diversity profiles and offer more flexibility to existing staff. Working from home also future proofs businesses by enabling contingency planning – bad weather or transport strikes or even the threat of a terror attack need no longer jeopardise productivity.

However Abigail emphasised that working from home was not without drawbacks. She said that better training will be needed to ensure that managers are able to oversee colleagues working remotely and to effectively manage their performance, with a conscious effort also being required to embed organisational values and facilitate teamwork.

Abigail then urged employers to review their contracts of employment to ensure these contained a clear working from home policy and to examine existing terms relating to hours of work, reporting absences and the right to ask an individual to attend the office for training or appraisals.

Abigail reminded employers that anyone is entitled to ask for home working through a flexible working request and reasons given for declining such requests must be derived from those legally prescribed. She added that employers must be mindful of discriminating against women balancing childcare, the right to reasonable adjustments for disabled colleagues and protecting the pay and benefits of part time workers

Data Protection – security risks and practical steps

Kitty opened the next section of the webinar by summarising the demands of data protection stating: “Every business will have its own slightly different home working arrangements and will have different systems and resources to back that up, but one thing that all of us have in common is that we are all subject to the same data protection laws.”

She explained that risks arise from the ‘CIA’ triad (confidentiality, integrity, availability) including poor housekeeping, data subject rights (and wrongs), underreporting of breaches and a lack of accountability.

Kitty added that working from home can jeopardise good data housekeeping practice, particularly regarding compliance, accuracy and retention. Problems are caused when staff retain hard copy files, use their own devices away from centralised systems or do not keep records up-to-date.

She said that further issues arise when data breaches go unreported, either because employees don’t recognise the severity of a breach or are concerned about losing their jobs.

Kitty added that all organisations must be held accountable for demonstrating how they meet data protection obligations and to taking any necessary steps to update policies.

To combat these risks, Kitty suggested employers familiarise themselves with all resources available, directing attendees to the checklists, virtual tools and templates available on the ICO and National Cybersecurity Centre websites. She added that employers should also not be afraid to utilise the expertise around their organisation.

She recommended that employers use Data Protection Impact Assessments to help identify risks, including the need for increased due diligence when new technology is introduced.

Kitty spoke of the need to update working policies, suggesting that employers make new policies easy for employees to adhere to by creating short form checklists. Employers should also ensure employees know how to report a breach.

Finally Kitty highlighted the importance of IT support, to limit the risks presented by employees finding their own ‘workarounds.’

Health and safety – employer considerations, risk assessments and practical steps

Matthew Gowen and Julie Gowland opened the final section of the webinar, stating that they would provide an overview of the law, the duty of the employer, risk assessments and practical considerations.

Julie made clear that the employer holds the same duty towards non-employees, contractors and public, clients as it does to employees. Employers should schedule regular meetings and remain mindful of any adjustments which may be required to protect employees.

Julie stated that risk assessments are the best way to ensure health and safety measures have been met. She directed attendees to the risk assessment template available on the HSE website and made employers aware of the possibility of undertaking risk assessments remotely.

Matthew Gowen stated: “Essentially, if someone is working at home, the duties that you [the employer] have under the Health and Safety at Work Act … are the same as if we were talking about an office environment. There is nothing different in terms of how the law views your responsibilities towards them.”

Matthew advised that even if employees are using the same equipment as before, a risk assessment of their home work station should still be carried out, with special attention paid to electrical safety. Matthew mentioned that a multitude of online tools exist which will flag issues to employers which can then be referred on to an H&S professional.

He added that simple steps can be taken to reduce risks including regular breaks from the screen, moving around, stretching and avoiding eye fatigue by changing focus and blinking. Matthew also highlighted the risks to mental health presented by the isolation of lone working. He advised that employers should take steps to stay in regular contact through team meetings and should conduct specific risk assessments for new and expectant mothers.

When it comes to COVID-19, employees should be asked to report symptoms and no home visits should take place for anyone suspected of having the virus.

On the whole, working from home is very low risk. Offset this minimal risk by ensuring good communication and carrying out regular risk assessments with employees.

To watch the webinar in full, please visit Birketts’ YouTube page.

If you have queries on any of these topics or would like to know more about the services we offer, please contact our Employment team.

Birketts’ upcoming webinars can be found on our Events pages.

To receive updates for any of Birketts’ other upcoming events, please register your interest.

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