Covid-19 means that many of us are working from home. And for many self-employed people, this is nothing unusual.
But for many employers and employees, this new norm (especially on this kind of scale) is something we’re still working out how to manage so we can keep our businesses going and protect jobs and workforce productivity as best as possible.
The scramble to ensure kit, online meetings and internet connections, quiet spaces and moments of calm to think straight amid all this upheaval are all in place is not an easy one.
And as all this goes on, while it might not be the biggest immediate pre-occupation compared to cashflow and supplier challenges, employers can’t afford to lose sight of their critical obligations to staff when they’re homeworking.
There are some key factors that need to be managed even in times like these – perhaps especially in them.
So, we roped in one of the best health and safety experts in our community, Lighthouse’s Gwyn Evans, to talk about what sorts of questions we should be asking remote-working employees to ensure we’re keeping them safe.
We interrogated Gwyn about these critical factors that keep our staff safe and our legal obligations met, when people are homeworking and carrying on as best they can. This short blog sets out their, as ever, concise and pragmatic advice to ensure we all do the right thing, right now, by our colleagues and those who are working so hard to keep the lights on even if they’re remote and not beside us every day.
You should have a homeworking policy in place for your employees and other workers.
The policy can cover all employees, officers, consultants, contractors, volunteers, interns, casual and agency workers, or you can choose to limit it to just employees.
Take a look at the Farillio homeworking policy template if you don't already have one.
You can find more advice from Gwyn and his business partner, Chris Hall, on health and safety and managing relationships with your employees on Farillio.
Farillio: Gwyn, thanks very much for giving over the time to more questions from Farillio. Like you, we’re getting lots of questions about homeworking arrangements on our live-chat and through our helpline partners. The truth is that even right now, employers still have a duty of care to employees working remotely from home, don’t they?
Gwyn: Yes, that’s right. Health and safety law hasn’t gone away and employers must still do what’s reasonably practicable to protect employees, even in this Covid-19 period. This means that there’s the same legal duty of care for employee health, safety and wellbeing right now that you’d normally have for an employee in their usual workplace.
Farillio: You said the word ‘reasonable’ just there, Gwyn. What is reasonable right now? What steps should we be taking?
Gywn: Ok. Well, there’s a number of practical steps to take, ranging from checking your insurance cover - your employers’ liability insurance cover may need a quick read to ensure you’re covered for this many people working from home – to getting a clear idea of how each employee is working remotely and whether there are any risks in their setup, including mental health risks. Let’s run through the quick list of top priorities that we have pulled together for Farillio’s community.
Gwyn's list of top priorities for homeworking employees
1. Insurance cover:
Check your insurance cover extends to the health and safety – and any other risks, including cyber-security risks – of employees working from home. Employers liability insurance handles the health and safety risk elements.
If you're a UK employer of one or more employees (other than public organisations), then employers' liability insurance is a legal obligation. Employees can be full time, part time, temporary, casual and even contractors for the purposes of this legislation.
Employees should also be prompted to let their home insurer know that they’re going to be working from home for a period of time during Covid-19.
2. Risk assessments – simple questionnaire
Staff might not be in their usual workplaces, but the same duty to do a workplace safety assessment still applies, even though self-isolation and social distancing mean that home-site visits are out of the question right now.
The sorts of risks that you’re looking to assess include risks associated with using computers and work equipment, stress, lone-working, manual equipment handling, even fire safety.
Gwyn's section below contains a set of reasonable questions and considerations that you and your homeworking employees can assess together.
With video functionality and camera phones, most employees can also provide visual evidence of how they are working, in support of their answers to these questions. Indeed, asking for a photo of the workstation and environment in which the employee is working is a good way to check that the conditions are adequate and means that the assessment can be done pretty fast.
These are factors you need to be checking:
- Adequate space, proper ventilation (air and sufficiently heated), and good lighting (rooms, not cupboards, corridors or sheds)
- Proper seating and desk/table arrangement
- Enough room for work to be carried out, including space for the workstation, other equipment (e.g. printers) and storage of materials
- Clean, tidy, good standards of hygiene and housekeeping, not food lying around
- Safe generally, including proper plug sockets and safe cables, no extension lead overloads, removing any trailing leads (especially any that could be tripped over) not using the floor or high shelves for storage of heavy items
Questions to cover:
Heating, ventilation and lighting
- Is the environment warm enough/cool enough for the time of year?
- Is it sufficiently well-ventilated?
- Is the lighting adequate?
- Can the employee work without glare on their screen/sitting in direct sunlight? (Would a screen fix glare/blinds fix the sunlight?)
Electrics, cabling and fire hazards
- If you provided portable or other equipment to the employee for remote working, was the equipment in good condition and had it been checked/when was it last checked for safety?
- Are there enough sockets and/or is the employee using extension cables – and if so, what’s the setup? Linking extension leads together and/or overloading them can cause a fire hazard.
- Does any extension lead being used have fuse/cut-off protection?
- Are sockets safe and not hanging off the wall or damaged in any way?
- Are cables tidy and not running on top of carpets or otherwise situated where they could trip someone over?
- Does the employee know how to check cables, plugs and the portable device itself for any faults?
- Are there smoke detectors/fire alarms on the premises, and when were they last checked for batteries/working order?
- Is the employee a smoker and do they smoke near the equipment?
- Is the work area clear of materials that could be flammable, e.g. piles of paper?
- What is the employee’s escape plan if there’s a fire?
Storage and other safety factors
- Can the employee work in sufficient space and comfort?
- Is the employee able to work without distraction (including from children, pets, housemates?)
- Can they keep the equipment safe and store it, and any materials on which they’re working, securely?
- Can they otherwise work safely where they're situated?
Pay particular attention to any special requirements that pregnant or disabled members of staff may have. And be open-minded and supportive of those who will be juggling childcare on top of the day job. These employees may well need additional flexibility in the way that they're continuing to work – and you must not discriminate against them.
These are factors you need to be checking:
Adequate equipment to be reasonably capable of performing their duties. In many cases, this means similar furniture and equipment standards to a home workstation as the employee would have in the office/normal place of work.
You’re also responsible for the safety of any equipment you’ve provided to employees. So, may sure they’ve got safe kit. If an employee suffers an injury as a result of the equipment you’ve provided to them, you’ll be liable. The same applies if the employee has left cables or other trip hazards around their homeworking environment and someone else suffers an injury as a result.
Questions to cover:
Devices and workstation set up
- Is their desk/table large enough for them to carry out their duties in comfort? (Does the setup cause them discomfort, aches, pain, tingling, pins and needles in limbs, etc.? It shouldn't. Do these pains etc. stop when they move away from the workstation? If so, there may well be a problem with their setup.)
- Do they have all the devices they need (e.g. keyboard, mouse, document holder, etc.)? (Ensure they’re not overly reliant on mobile/handheld devices for written communications and that if they’re working on documents, they have a tablet, computer or laptop to do so properly.)
- Are any devices kept clean and away from food?
- Can they see their screen clearly – and if not, is it adjustable? Is the screen flickering? (It shouldn't.)
- Do they get tired/sore eyes, headaches, blurred vision, when using their laptop/computer screen?
- Are the employee’s eyes level with the top of the screen? (They should be.)
- Can they tilt their keyboard, and is there somewhere to rest their hands when they’re not typing?
- Is their chair suitable and at the right height? Is it adjustable if not? Can they lean back in comfort?
- Can the employee put both feet flat on the floor comfortably when seated at the workstation? If not, do they need a footrest?
- Do they have enough room to move their legs?
Not everyone will find working remotely easy.
Some may find it harder to manage their time or to separate work from home life.
Some may struggle with the absence of social contact, especially if they’re used to working in highly interactive teams (e.g. sales teams) and/or they’re generally supervised and undergoing training.
Many of those living alone, worried about whether they'll get ill, or who are perhaps already ill with Covid-19, or those in shared accommodation with others who aren't family and who may not share the same approach to (or be able to organise) social distancing, may be experiencing high levels of stress. Isolation and/or stress in these circumstances can be debilitating. Knowing your staff’s personal living arrangements and gauging how they are coping is super important – and it is part of your legal duty.
So, ask staff how they’re feeling, keep in touch and assess as much from what they don’t say, as what they do; keep an eye on how they appear/behave when you’re talking to them. Are they responding regularly to communications, are they getting their work done? All these are indicators of whether someone is coping or struggling, or ill. Lack of response, low performance, behaviour that’s uncharacteristic of them… these may be just as relevant to whether someone’s coping, as what they say when you ask them how they’re doing.
We could be grappling with the homeworking challenges caused by Covid-19 for some months to come. So your duty to keep morale and mindsets healthy is not a tick-box exercise or something you can dismiss.
Questions to cover:
Workload and mental wellbeing
- Is the employee coping with their current workload? Do you, or they, have any concerns about their work-life balance and/or working hours?
- What measures have you, or the employee, put in place to handle communications during remote working or to counteract any feelings of isolation? Do you both feel these measures are working and appropriate?
- Does the employee know what to do/who to contact if they have equipment problems/queries?
- Are they regularly exercising and/or moving away from their work setup?
Keep the assessments under review
It’s important to keep refreshing this assessment during the Covid-19 period. If you can manage to designate one person to prompt everyone to revisit their assessment discussion every few weeks and to meanwhile report any changes or concerns that they experience, that’s a good way to stay on top of the risks in these current, extraordinary circumstances.
3. Confirming arrangements in writing
The Health and Safety Executive suggests that agreeing a ‘lifestyle contract’ with remote workers could be a good idea for some staff.
This sets agreed ‘ground rules’ relating to childcare arrangements, hours of work, access to the equipment/services and use of mobile communications. And then you should ensure you should monitor this during 1-2-1 meetings, regularly reviewing performance against targets, for example, to be clear on whether staff are achieving a sensible work-life balance and are coping.
In a Covid-19 scenario, more paperwork is not a welcome prospect, and it could even be seen as insensitive. So, he says, in these exceptional circumstances, a simple email from a manager that clearly sets out the below will probably suffice:
- what you’ve agreed about how the employee will be working during the Covid-19 period (which could be working different hours, not working a full day or a full week, reducing work targets and/or being flexible about deadlines wherever possible)
- for how long the arrangements will be in place and
- confirming that, after that, normal contract terms will resume, and then
- getting the employee to reply and confirm that they’re happy to agree to it
Remember that pay shouldn't be affected by these arrangements unless the employee has asked to reduce, as opposed to flex, their working hours. If you're reducing hours and therefore pay, it would be sensible to speak to one of our experts– to be sure that you’re putting in place legally robust arrangements that won’t leave you open to the threat of a tribunal action.
4. Keeping up morale and mindset
Finally, here some tips from all of us (and contributed also by many within the Farillio community) for helping keep morale up, staff feeling competent to keep going and to help you spot if someone is ill but hasn’t reported it in:
Keep access to systems, software and equipment open and running. Being able to work remotely and carry on efficiently and without stress and frustration over malfunctioning kit or inoperable arrangements really matters to people’s mindsets and attitudes.
Set up a Slack channel, invite everyone (on your team or in your business) & check in each morning with everyone, asking them just for a simple ‘thumbs up’ emoji to see if they’re up and running and all fine.
Set up a Whatsapp group that’s used for just staying in touch and sharing funny/crazy moments – a bit of laughter and team camaraderie really helps at times like these. Knowing that you’re in it together builds solidarity and helps combat loneliness and fear.
Hold virtual lunches/coffees/round-ups, where you just get together for a chat and a normal catch-up, like you would normally in the office kitchen or around the watercooler. Don’t talk work, talk life.
Set up Monday morning and Friday afternoon team check-ins (some teams may do this daily) for everyone to reflect on the week and update each other.
Use video calls where possible, so that you can see each other and you can see where and how you’re working.
Set up a channel/means by which staff can make suggestions, raise concerns, etc. to a manager/designated person, who can act as ambassador or conduit for everyone… Identifying someone/several people as key contacts who have specific responsibility for routinely contacting team members and acting as their first port of call is a good move. Many employees will be anxious about raising a concern in case it’s seen as an unreasonable complaint and so they may suffer in silence and not tell a manager, when they might be far more vocal with a colleague/designated spokesperson.
Make sure everyone knows how to report in sick and what they’re entitled to. Some staff, especially those who are entitled to statutory sick pay only, may be worried about reporting in sick and may try to keep going, or to obscure the fact that they're not well enough to work so that they can continue to receive their usual wage.
Encourage staff to take breaks, to exercise as best they can, to do things that they enjoy, even to take the opportunity to learn or try something new.
Celebrate achievements and make a thing of it, even if they seem quite minor.
Plan what you’ll do together when this is over – something to look forward to is really important too. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is a strong motivator to help deal with the challenges in the meantime.