Whether you are a fan of remote working or not, it is clear that many employees will be working from home for some time to come.
Under the Governments Roadmap for reopening society and businesses, employers are encouraged to retain remote working, where possible. This also aligns with the Return to Work Safely Protocol which emphasises the requirement for social distancing in the workplace and states:
- ‘Office work should continue to be carried out at home, where practicable and non-essential work’
- ‘Employers should enable ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ workers to work from home where possible’.
For a lot of employers this means that a lot of employees will continue to work remotely, and this could continue until at least the end of this year or until a vaccine or treatment is available. As such, remote working may become part of a company’s medium to long term strategy to deal with Covid-19 and will need some planning.
Many larger organisations like Google and Twitter have already announced their intention to adopt remote working and flexible working arrangements on a long-term basis. A recent study by PWC found 60% of Irish employers are now looking for ways to make remote working a permanent option. This shift towards more flexible working arrangements also aligns with the EU Directive on Work Live Balance, which has to be introduced by all member states by 2022.
While there are many advantages to remote working, there are also risks to manage. Many of the risks can be mitigated with effective communication so employees are clear about how the arrangement will work from the outset. The key issues to think about in the context of a general Remote Working Policy include:
- Duties and Responsibilities
- Working time & hours, including breaks and rest periods
- Data Protection and Confidentiality
- Health and Safety risks and considerations
- Practical matters:
- Record keeping for working time and performance management
- Communications between remote workers and the organisation
- Equipment, insurance, expenses
- Absence reporting mechanisms
- Managing HR processes remotely
- Measures in respect to pregnant or disabled employees
The Policy should be supplemented with an individual communication to each employee addressing their specific situation and may include confirmation of any necessary amendment to their Contract of Employment. If this arrangement is for a new employee, then you will need to include a Remote Working clause in the Contract of Employment.
Remote working for “At Risk” or “Vulnerable” Employees is worthy of special note. As mentioned above, under the Governments Roadmap for reopening society and businesses, employers are encouraged to retain remote working, where possible and the Return to Work Safely Protocol says ‘Employers should enable ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ workers to work from home where possible’.
When you are ready to bring employees back to the workplace, you may not be in a position to bring everyone back at the same time. As part of determining who can return to the workplace, the Return to Work Protocol advises employers to consider each employee’s individual risk factors. Prior to returning to the workplace, each employee must complete an Employee Declaration Form. That form asks the employee if they have been advised to isolate or cocoon or if they are at a ‘higher risk’ from Covid-19. If an employee declares they are ‘at risk’ or ‘high risk’, as defined by the HSE, the protocol states that such employees are preferentially supported by maintaining a physical distance of 2 metres in the workplace or they should work from home, if possible. Employers are expected to consider the information provided by employees and to engage in an appropriate way with the employee.
Where an employee has a disability, an Employer may have an obligation to reasonably accommodate that employee by providing appropriate measures to allow the employee to continue in work as long as those measures do not place a disproportionate burden on the employer. Working from home could be viewed as a reasonable measures and should be seriously considered as an alternative where returning to the workplace is just too risky.
Employers will need an objective justification for distinguishing between employees return to the workplace and those who will continue to work from home. This should be documented. When engaging with employees about returning to work, this should be openly discussed prior to making a decision in respect of a return to the workplace or continued remote working. Adhering to the government guidelines is likely to be considered as an objective justification for treating one employee differently than another but the employer needs to be clear on the guidance and implement that guidance in an appropriate manner.
The key message in all this is to engage with employees every step of the way.
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