Businesses and remote workers: what you need to know to build a fair and legal relationship

Since the introduction of the first UK-wide COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, remote working has rapidly become the new normal for many. However, over a year later, certain aspects of life seem to be slowly returning to some form of pre-pandemic normality as the vaccine rollout continues to gather pace. But with light at the end of the tunnel, it’s also clear that remote work may well be here to stay for many businesses and their employees.

With this in mind, do you know what rights your employees are entitled to, or fully understand exactly what support you should be providing in the eyes of the law? From the specialist equipment needed to work remotely to risk assessments and additional training sessions, here are the key rights both employers and employees need to be aware of in order to build a fair and legal working relationship.

Health and safety risk assessments

No matter where work takes place – be that in a shared office, at home or on the road – health and safety risk assessments are a crucial part of the employer/employee relationship, and need to be taken seriously by both parties. While risk assessments in traditional workplaces are common, did you know that if an employee is permanently working from a remote location, employers still have an obligation to carry out a risk assessment on the new work area?

While it’s often assumed that working remotely poses few risks to safety, it might shock you to know that individuals are more likely to have an accident in their own home than anywhere else. For this reason, risk assessments for home workers are essential. They provide employers with the opportunity to not only protect themselves legally, but also, more importantly, safeguard the wellbeing of their remote workers in the same way as they safeguard their regular workplace staff.

Typically, employers should carry out remote work risk assessments in two different areas. Firstly, an assessment of remote workstations, environments and any equipment being used should be undertaken. Then a separate assessment of potential occupational stress and mental health risks associated with remote working. With this in mind, employers should check with their remote employees that they feel that the following basics requirements are being met:

  • Their proposed remote location enables them to work in a safe and secure environment.
  • They have all the necessary equipment to properly and safely carry out their job.
  • Their co-workers and supervisors can be contacted easily, and that they do not feel isolated or left out.
  • They have a suitable workstation, including an appropriate chair and desk, and suitable lighting and electricity capabilities to work productively and safely, without causing personal injury.
  • Their remote workspace is free from hazards such as faulty, worn or old wiring, particularly when it comes to company provided equipment.
  • Their remote workspace is free from clutter and other trip hazards that can cause personal injury.
  • They understand that they have allotted hours and should not be working excessively just because there is no clear start/end time for their working day.
  • They understand that they have the right to the same regular breaks away from their workstation that is permitted in the office.
  • They have fitted smoke, fire and carbon monoxide detectors in their workspace, and that fire evacuation plans have been discussed and understood.

Remember, it is the right of an employee to have their employer carry out risk assessments and to suggest/provide solutions to any problems that are highlighted. However, that being said, there is also a responsibility on individual employees to inform supervisors/HR representatives of any changes which could affect a previously carried out risk assessment, should they occur.

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Health and safety training

Aside from formal remote working risk assessments, relevant health and safety training sessions are also an essential, and legally necessary, aspect of ensuring a strong relationship is built between employers and their remote workers. Just as regular employees should receive frequent health and safety training from their employers, remote workers also have this right. This not only benefits remote employees, who become more capable of protecting themselves against any potential work-related risks, these sessions also ensure that employers are legally protected should an accident or injury occur. Typically completed alongside risk assessments, the purpose of this training should be to achieve the following:

  • To ensure that both the employer and employee understand their responsibilities when it comes to remote working practices.
  • To ensure both parties understand and recognise the potential risks associated with home working and how to prevent them. This includes good display screen equipment (DSE) practice, slips, trips and fall prevention, manual handling training, and fire hazard awareness training.
  • To ensure remote employees know how to correctly report an accident when working away from the office and how to make emergency calls.

It is an employer’s duty to provide this training to any employee who has permanently transitioned into a remote working role, and any such training should be formalised, documented and signed off by both the employee and their employer. Importantly, this ensures a physical record of the training taking place exists. This means there’s a reduced chance of future misunderstandings arising between parties regarding remote work policy.

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Provision of equipment

One grey area when it comes to remote work surrounds equipment. After all, depending on what a business does, differing levels of equipment will be needed in order for employees to simply carry out their roles.

For regular employees who travel to a centralised place of work each day, essential items of equipment such as PCs, printers, desks and chairs, as well as utilities such as electricity, heating and water, are typically provided by employers. So, does this mean employers have to provide all necessary equipment for their remote workers too? Well, to put it bluntly, no – there is no general legal obligation on employers to provide the equipment necessary for home working. However, there are some guidelines that most employers stick to when it comes to providing equipment.

At the start of the UK’s first COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020, the government encouraged employers to provide home workers with suitable IT and other tech equipment to make the transition to mass remote working more manageable. On the whole, this guideline was adhered to and has almost set a new precedent for employers. However, while it has become commonplace for laptops, PCs and monitors to be provided for remote workers since the start of the pandemic, the provision of other items such as specialist office desks and chairs has been less common. Nevertheless, if a remote employee can prove that the lack of a certain item, such as a chair or desk, is impacting their health and safety, or should this be highlighted as part of a risk assessment, employers may be legally obligated to provide, or at least fund the purchase of, any equipment needed to safeguard the wellbeing of their remote workers while they work.

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Inclusion and communication

Although remote working certainly does have its advantages – both for businesses and their employees – there are also disadvantages. The threat of isolation and a lack of communication is an issue that can impact an employee’s ability to successfully carry out their role, in turn potentially affecting a business’ performance.

Remote employees may have to contend with a lack of face-to-face interactions with co-workers and managers leading to feelings of isolation, or they might simply discover that their home workspace is simply not conducive to collaborative work or easy digital communication. Employers may find similar barriers, particularly when it comes to communication with remote workers and the lack of collective efficiencies. For this reason, it is important to remember that remote employees have the right to talk to their employers to raise concerns if they feel they are not able to effectively work from home, and vice versa. Regular catch-up meetings between employees and managers, especially in the early days of a new work from home relationship, is the best approach to deal with any issues.  Hopefully, discussing the issues can mean that solutions can be found, for example through technology or through agreeing regular catch-ups.  It may be appropriate to agree with the employee that they come into the office for some aspects of their role, for example large team meetings or training sessions on the basis that these would be more productive face to face.

Aside from informal checks like regular meetings, employers should also have diversity and inclusion policies in place which extend to remote work. This should ensure all remote workers have effective means of communicating with their company via landline, mobile phone, video call, email and instant messaging , for example, and that these robust lines of communication are regularly tested and maintained. These policies should also cover issues such as employee disability, childcare responsibilities and other individual circumstances that may impact a worker’s ability to perform their job remotely.

Additionally, it’s important to note that employers might have different legal responsibilities if any remote employee has a declared disability. An employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to the working conditions for any disabled employee and therefore, it may be appropriate to provide disabled remote workers with auxiliary aids under the Equality Act 2010 if these are needed to enable them to perform their work.

To find out how our HR & Employment Law experts can help you when it comes to your remote workers, get in touch with the team on 0345 844 1111 or hello@citation.co.uk. And if you’re already a Citation client, remember, we’re available day and night via our advice line.

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