As part of the Prime Minister’s so-called ‘freedom day’ the Work From Home rule will be lifted on 19 July.
Previously the advice had been that everyone who can work from home should do so, however, Mr Johnson has announced that from 19 July employers will, “be able to start planning a safe return to the workplace.”
For some, this will come as a relief that things can return to normal, while for others the thought of donning work clothes and tackling the commute is a daunting prospect.
Whether you are an employer or an employee there will be lots of questions arising about how the transition from ‘Work From Home’ to ‘Back to Work’ can be managed.
- Can employees who have been working from home refuse to return to the workplace?
It depends on their reason. If they simply don’t want to return to the workplace, the answer is no, they cannot refuse. Their ‘place of work’ in their contract of employment has not changed.
If their reason relates to health and safety, that is different. Employers will need to discuss this with the person to determine whether their concerns are genuine and to what extent they apply. For example, continuing to work from home could be a short-term arrangement while an employee with a pre-existing health condition waits for their second vaccination.
There are protections for employees asserting their right not to put their health and safety at risk which begin from the start of employment and don’t require two years’ service.
- Will the clinically extremely vulnerable have to return to workplaces?
Previous advice for millions of clinically extremely vulnerable people to shield has now ended, so these employees should return to work alongside everyone else.
Employers still have responsibilities to keep their workers safe and employees should raise any specific concerns with their employer.
- Does notice of a return to the workplace need to be given?
There is no requirement for employers to give notice but arrangements might need to be made on both sides to ensure a smooth return, which is likely to require some time.
Employers might need to make their workplace suitable for greater distancing, given that Covid isn’t going to go away, and equipment currently being used at home might need to be returned to the office for workstations to be set up again.
Equally, employees might need to make arrangements for children and pets before they can fully return to workplaces.
The key is flexibility on both sides and to take a reasonable approach to the preparations that are required.
- If working from home is more effective for a business, can an employer make it a permanent arrangement?
Yes, this is possible, but it is important to discuss this with your employees and to consider which roles can and can’t be done from home, how to handle concerns about the proposal and to ensure that any decisions about working from home are fair and adhere to the law on discrimination.
- What if an employee doesn’t want to work from home on a permanent basis? Can they refuse?
Working from home on a permanent basis would be a change to an employee’s terms of employment.
Employers can change terms without consultation if there is a relevant clause within the contract and the change is not substantial or to the employee’s detriment.
If this isn’t the case, the change will need to be agreed with each employee via consultation. Employers cannot unilaterally change employment terms.
The last resort however would be to dismiss and re-engage staff on new terms which include working from home.
- What are employers obliged to do to ensure workplaces are Covid-safe?
In England, the current guidance says employers should complete a Covid risk assessment and take steps to keep people safe, such as ensuring social distancing, frequent cleaning, one-way systems and back-to-back or side-to-side working, rather than face-to-face. In some workplaces face covering and regular lateral flow tests are also required.
From 19 July, this guidance will be relaxed, however, it is likely that employers will retain some elements of it to give their employees confidence that their workplace is safe.
- If working from home becomes the norm, do Terms and Conditions need to be changed?
There isn’t a strict need to change Terms and Conditions, but it would be good practice to do so. Whenever something is done regularly or for years, it will (very likely) become an implied term of the persons employment and so the change to the contract would happen by the action of always working from home.
- Should an employer pay towards the extra costs of working from home, such as fuel bills?
There is no legal requirement for employers to pay for equipment or additional bills for working from home. However, most employers do usually provide required equipment, and some offer a contribution towards bills. Employees can claim tax relief on working from home costs too.
- Should employers introduce Homeworking Policies?
It is advisable to have a homeworking policy as this is a simple way of clarifying how working from home will operate in your business, formalising your approach. For example, your policy might set out how home workers will be managed, how to ensure data and information remains secure, protocols in relation to expenses or who will pay for required equipment, and how risk assessments will be carried out. If your workplace has a recognised trade union, the policy will need to be agreed with a trade union representative.
For advice about this or any other employment issue, please don’t hesitate to contact firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01782 205000. Alternatively, employers can check out our Beswicks HR service, which offers access to an employment solicitor whenever you need it for a low monthly fee.