Employers directing staff to work from home has proven to be a popular way to manage the risk of work-related Covid-19 transmission, and it is likely that this will continue to be a popular style of working for the foreseeable future. However, it is important that employers remember that their obligations to staff remain the same, even when working remotely.

Definition of “workplace”

“Workplace” is defined broadly under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (Act) to include any place where work is being carried out. It even goes as far to include an aircraft, ship or any waters.

This means that the thousands of workers turning kitchen tables and spare bedrooms into temporary offices are in fact still working in a “workplace”, and employers still owe a duty of care to ensure that their staff are healthy and safe while working.

For employers in industries who cannot easily have staff working from home, other measures may need to be considered, such as splitting the workforce into separate bubbles and separate shifts. This could also require that temporary changes be made to rosters and hours of work.

Eliminate risks to health and safety in the workplace “as far as reasonably practical”

At the core of the Act is the requirement for all parties to eliminate risks to health and safety, as far as is reasonably practicable. Risks that cannot be eliminated must also be reduced.

In light of that, employers should consider certain steps when they have staff working from home, such as asking staff to complete a work station checklist at home. Employers should usually also have a working from home policy in place. A policy should include, for example, that the employee agrees to take regular breaks and to keep work related information and data secure, and that employees will be expected to return to the workplace when required.

Who pays?

While there is no express law on this, employers must ensure that staff have the ability to work from home. That may extend to providing staff with proper equipment and utilities in some circumstances, where reasonable. For example, if an employee already has unlimited internet at their house, asking the employer for a contribution may be unreasonable. However, if an employee is paying extra money for internet purely so they can work from home, then an employer may want to consider making a reasonable contribution.

At the end of the day, it will depend on each employees’ circumstances and the role that they hold. Best practice is that employers and employees work together to find a fair and reasonable middle ground.

Employers have had a couple of years to understand the challenges and obstacles of Covid-19 and to find out what works best for them. However, with the Government’s recent change in approach and its regularly changing guidelines, we understand that it can be difficult for businesses to know what is the right thing to do. Our employment team are here to support employers and employees during this time.

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