Remote Working – how to maintain connections at a distance
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees are now working remotely for the first time to “flatten the curve”. A lot of employers and employees have been faced with a steep learning curve in navigating the employment issues surrounding working from home.
The shock arrival of COVID-19 has meant that effective planning has often been superseded by necessary immediate action. As a result, remote working practices are a “work in progress” for many employers. With this in mind, we set out below some tips for employers to avoid issues while staying apart and when we get together again.
What obligations does an employer have when employees are remotely working?
Employers are required to ensure that where an employee carries out work on behalf of the employer, (including working from home arrangements) the employee’s health, safety and welfare are protected, in accordance with the Health, Safety and Welfare at Work Act 2005 (“2005 Act”) (and regulations and orders made under the 2005 Act).
The Health and Safety Authority (“HSA”) advises that an employer should:
- manage and conduct all work activities to ensure (as far as reasonably practicable) the safety, health and welfare of employees;
- provide safe systems of work that are planned, organised and maintained;
- assess risks and implement appropriate control measures;
- provide safe equipment where necessary;
- provide information, instruction, training and supervision regarding health and safety to employees; and
- have emergency plans in place (or review emergency plans).
However, ensuring the above criteria are met/maintained by an employer during lockdown is often easier said than done.
How can an employer carry out risk assessments during lockdown?
Employers should encourage employees to be pro-active in discharging their duties under the 2005 Act. As an employer, you should liaise with your employees and ask them to self-assess the suitability of their temporary work space.
In order to self-assess, you may consider providing your employees with a “remote working questionnaire”. Some key items to consider include ensuring:
- their work area is bright, well ventilated and hazard free;
- there is suitable furniture which the employee can use and which supports the work which they are undertaking;
- their work area is secure and private to carry out work related calls;
- the employee tests work equipment to confirm it is functional and supported to remotely work;
- the employee confirms they have an up to date list of work-related contact details (emails and mobile numbers) to ensure connectivity for workflow; and
- the employee confirms they have read and understand the company health and safety policy.
Additional information and confirmations may be required depending on the type of work being carried out remotely.
What if employers can only provide company equipment to some, not all, of their employees?
Due to the sudden nature of the lockdown measures, many employers did not or could not supply remote working equipment and materials (laptops, headsets, mobile phones) to their workforce. This is particularly difficult where an employer has work for an employee but does not have equipment available for the employee to work remotely.
As a work around, an employer may ask the employee, on a temporary basis, to utilise their personal equipment and adjust/configure their privacy settings to ensure the employee will be able to securely discharge their duties. You will need to carefully consider the impact this may have on your employment policies, including for example, your IT Security Policy; BYOD Policy; Acceptable Usage Policy.
Alternatively, the employer might consider temporarily changing the employee’s duties or the way in which they usually perform their duties to account for equipment shortage.
Are there additional expenses which may be incurred if an employee must work remotely?
Revenue has confirmed an employer can pay an employee €3.20 per day, where the employee works remotely to cover expenses incurred when discharging their office duties. This payment is to cover outlay such as heating and electricity costs. (PAYE, PRSI or USC is not deducted.)
Where an employer does not intend to cover these expenses (e.g. broadband, mobile phone bills etc), the employee should be put on notice of their responsibility to discharge their own utilities costs.
How can an employer maintain business standards, work productivity and motivate employees while they are remotely working?
Productivity, business standards and motivation are fundamental to the success of any business. Employers must be prudent when assessing how to balance business efficiency with employee relations during these challenging times. Employers should review their current practice and consider how best to:
- maintain regular communication with their team e.g. daily check-in meetings, regular team updates, conference calls;
- continue a similar team management pattern. Consistency in uncertain times can provide reassurance to team members;
- provide regular feedback to all team members on work progress and areas for improvement;
- ensure you know whether an employee is too quiet or too busy (and manage distribution of team work flow accordingly);
- ask your employees for feedback on remote working and check in on whether they require additional supports;
- check in with employees to ensure they understand instructions given to them. Ensure that remote working is not acting as a barrier to effective communication on client matters;
- build in additional time for client responsiveness in light of remote working. It can be logistically more challenging to produce work where employees are not in close proximity to each other;
- be flexible during this remote working period. There may be additional challenges an employee may be faced with (lack of child support, caring for an unwell family member, caring for cocooning family members). Allow employees to restructure their working hours if necessary (such as in circumstances where they have competing family needs due to working from home). Understanding your workforce and the pressures they may be under will go a long way to boosting morale, trust and confidence between the employer and employee;
- Check in on a personal level with an employee to see how they are doing during this time, if applicable remind them of supports such as the Employee Assistance Programme; and
- Account for social interaction – employees may find remote working and isolating a challenging time. Adopt a (or continue with an existing) routine such as virtual coffee team catch ups.
Once lockdown and travel restriction for employees are lifted, will employers be required to allow employees to continue to work remotely?
Once lockdown measures are eased, it envisaged that the measures will be relaxed on a phased basis. This means not all employees may be able to immediately return to work.
Additionally, “high-risk” categories of employees may not be in a position to return to the office for some time. Through effective planning, an employer can ensure those high-risk employees can avail of additional assistance and support (which may include working from home for an extended period of time).
Now is the time for an employer to:
- plan and prepare in advance for the return of the workforce to the office environment;
- communicate with employees in advance of the resumption of normal business practices; and
- encourage employees in high risk categories to self-identify to employers.
Even when a normal work routine recommences employees will be at continued risk of contracting COVID-19 meaning further periods of individual or collective isolation are likely. Therefore, remote working may be the new “norm” for the foreseeable future.
Employers and employees should view this time of remote working as an opportunity to assess in real time the systems which work well, the challenges the employee faces on a daily basis when remote working and the challenges the employer faces with employees remotely working. Each party should provide honest feedback to assist in managing remote working practices.
Employers should consider how any lessons learned can be incorporated into their remote working practices in the longer term.
Employers may also consider other ways to manage a phased return to work (where, for example, continued creche and school closures might impact on child care arrangements) by restructuring an employee’s working hours (by agreement), combining remote working practices with structured types of leave (e.g. parental leave) or a combination thereof.
Employers must also have effective strategies in place to prevent or limit the spread of the infection in the workplace (including, for example, staggered working times; avoiding the sharing of spaces and equipment; suspending non-essential business functions).
Employers should review their employer liability insurance to ensure the policy covers employees working from home. If it does not, this should be immediately addressed.
Employees should be encouraged to notify their home insurer that they are working from home.
When remotely working, maintaining client confidentiality continues to be of fundamental importance. Employers must find a balance in communicating their trust and confidence in employees whilst also reaffirming their duty of confidentiality.
Employees should be reminded of the importance of carefully storing and managing client records (in physical or electronic format) particularly when working from home.
As an employer, you should carefully consider the impact and interaction remote working can have on its employment policies such as your data protection policy, communications policy, etc.
Every employer should be live to the necessity of maintaining high levels of data protection by ensuring:
- all company issued devices have the necessary security and software updates;
- effective multi factor log in controls/ VPNs and encryption to restrict access to the device are securely enabled;
- employees are aware of increased risks on cyber security particularly in respect of platforms such as Zoom, Skype and other cloud-based chat systems and take the necessary precautions when discussing sensitive client information;
- assess whether your employee and customer facing data privacy notices account for COVID-19.
Data Protection Impact Assessment
Employers should conduct a DPIA on remote working and other COVID-19 related business practices where appropriate. DPIA’s ensure that personal data processing risks are identified, considered and minimised as much as possible. DPIAs are important tools for negating risk, and for demonstrating compliance with the GDPR.
While due care has been taken in drafting this briefing, it should not be construed as legal advice. Should you require additional information or assistance on how to manage the coronavirus in your organisation, please contact Judith Curtin or Elaine O’Flynn, or one of team listed below:
|Micheál O’ Mullain