There are around 4m homeworkers in the UK, amounting to just over 13 per cent of our current workforce.
In the last decade we’ve seen a 2 per cent growth in homeworking which, although not too dramatic, is substantial when taking into account both the benefits and the burdens it can bring for employers. The New Year encourages many businesses to try a different approach and shake up work patterns – and homeworking could be on the menu.
Pros and cons
Homeworking can reduce overhead costs, increase productivity through cutting out travel time, increase flexibility of office hours (leading to client service being provided over longer working days), and increase staff retention.
On the other hand, homeworking can present challenges. It could deal a blow to office culture and team spirit (as homeworkers may be perceived not to be pulling their weight by office workers), make it hard to establish trust and develop relationships between colleagues and clients, and offer less opportunity for informal learning.
Something that should be foremost in employers’ minds is their responsibility for employees’ health and safety. It is advised that employers carry out risk assessments into homeworking arrangements to identify potential problems and assess the overall degree of risk.
Employers should also assist in checking whether homebound employees must pay business insurance rates. Usually it falls on the employee to do so, but in companies where homeworking is essential to the business model, the employer should take the reins.
Employers should also ensure equipment they supply is suitable and regularly checked – especially in terms of sufficient lighting and a properly configured desk and chair.
Ultimately, however, there is no absolute legal obligation for employers to supply that equipment to homeworkers.
With regard to data protection and confidentiality, employers should include an express confidentiality clause in a homeworker’s contract, making it absolutely clear what information is deemed confidential and how such information should be kept secure.
Getting the policy down on paper and keeping it updated is essential. The policy covers the process for assessing whether a homeworking arrangement will be practical, looking at how homeworkers will be managed, the assessments carried out, and what will be expected from each party.
Day-to-day management of homeworkers will likely be taken up by managers, who might find distance is an obstacle to leading and supervising them. It is vital training is provided for both managers and homeworkers so each can carry out their roles effectively.
At certain points, employees will be required to report to the office, for example for key events like client meetings and appraisals, and this requirement should be expressly included in the contract.
Conversations are key
Employers will need to consider fairly any request for homeworking to avoid potential claims, and would have to show refusing a request is necessary to achieve a legitimate business aim. Employers need to be properly prepared before these difficult conversations, and any disastrous exchange can lead to accusations of unfair treatment and discrimination. To help protect their position, employers should consider suggesting a trial period.
Chris Cook is head of the employment department at law firm SA Law.