As more employers begin to offer flexible working arrangements to their staff, Clarion’s Victoria Clark looks at what needs to be done to ensure that businesses do not fall foul of the law.
Remote working is increasing in response to the widespread availability of wireless high-speed broadband, computers, laptops and tablets, mobile telephones and, of course, smartphones, which are capable of handling all of these functions in one.
Internet-based log-in systems allowing workers to access business IT systems from any computer or smartphone, along with online data storage cloud systems, have also contributed to the popularity of remote working.
While some employers are concerned that people who work from home do not really achieve much, the evidence suggests that remote working arrangements can achieve financial savings for businesses. These can include overhead costs such as rental fees and utility bills, as well as payroll costs where on-site support services are no longer required. Employees who work remotely tend to have a reduced need to travel – potentially saving them and the business time, expense and even stress. Nor will remote workers be exposed to the general noise and distractions that a busy office environment can bring.
Modern technologies may also help to improve communication and team spirit within a business. This is particularly relevant to larger organisations and field-based roles such as sales or HR, where teams at different ends of the country may otherwise not interact much.
Despite the common assumptions, all of these factors are likely to result in increased productivity and help to create a motivated and engaged set of workers.
Those who might be feeling disengaged or who are looking to move on – perhaps because of family responsibilities, relocation or health issues – are more likely to stay if there are flexible arrangements enabling remote working.
That said, to get the most out of remote workers it is important that employers take some proactive steps at the outset.
First steps to remote working
Employers should first ensure that remote workers have a suitable contract that reflects the practicalities of working remotely and puts protections for the business in place in case there are problems in the future.
The contract should be clear about the worker’s primary place of work, which may well be their home address. It would be prudent to spell out that the worker may have to travel to meetings, appraisals, training sessions and HR meetings.
It is also crucial to make sure that remote workers understand that they have a personal obligation to carry out their duties for a certain number of hours per working day, and that any falsification of working time will be dealt with as a disciplinary matter.
Similarly, remote workers are personally responsible for taking proper rest breaks, given that the employer will be unable to physically monitor and enforce working time on a day-to-day basis.
Issues to consider
On a practical note, employers might want to consider introducing electronic timesheets or something similar to assist with policing the working time of remote workers. It may also be worth making arrangements for spot checking and home visits to avoid manipulation of the system.
Another issue to think carefully about is the property that a worker may be provided with, or required to use, in order to carry out their role remotely. If the business will provide the technology and equipment, who will be responsible for insuring these in case they are damaged, lost or stolen from the worker’s home?
Whatever the decision on the provision and protection of property, it should be clearly documented in the worker’s contract. Detailed arrangements for the maintenance of any business property provided, and the recovery of it after a worker leaves, should also be clearly set out.
Establishing policies and procedures
Perhaps most importantly, robust policies and procedures should be established to ensure that business confidentiality is maintained.
Employers should also give particular consideration to the ways in which sensitive information will be stored by remote workers. A locked filing cabinet for any hard copy documentation is by far the safest option.
It is trickier where the sensitive data is electronic, particularly where a remote worker proposes to use their own device and/or facilities to perform their duties – and even more so where other family members or visitors could have access to them.
To counter this, a thorough IT and communications policy should be put in place to make sure the standards and expectations are clear and, of course, enforced. In such a policy, an employer should ensure that it has an express right to monitor the online, telephone and email activity of its remote workforce, including where workers may use their own equipment.
In conclusion, while there are a number of potential pitfalls for a business, it is clear that remote working can be worthwhile if careful prior planning takes place and protective measures are set.
If in any doubt, employers should take specialist legal advice before rolling out or changing a home working or other flexible working scheme.