Coronavirus: working from home


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With the majority of the UK workforce who are able to now working from home, employers will be facing considerable challenges, from providing proper IT support to promoting employee wellbeing.  A key issue is connectivity, and keeping in touch with staff on a regular basis is paramount.

There are certain practical measures which employers can put in place to combat these times of uncertainty and address and alleviate the concerns of their employees. 

Acas guidance on working from home because of coronavirus

Acas has published guidance on working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic which stresses that employers and employees should be practical, flexible and sensitive to each other's situation.

Employers are responsible for the health and safety of employees working from home, but the guidance acknowledges that in the current environment it's very unlikely that employers can carry out the usual health and safety risk assessments at an employee's home.  Instead employers should check that employees all feel that they have adequate equipment to help them work safely, that reasonable adjustments are made for disabled employees, and that managers keep in regular contact with employees.

The guidance urges both employers and employees to take good care of their mental health as it's likely that high levels of stress and anxiety are being experienced at the moment.  The guidance stresses the importance of taking regular breaks to avoid sitting at a computer for too long.  It also suggests that outside working hours employees should do other things to stay mentally and physically active, mentioning cooking, exercise, watching TV or other hobbies, and states that it's a good idea for employers to remind staff about this.

The Acas guidance suggests that employers should regularly assess how their systems and temporary arrangements are working and make any necessary improvements.  The level of IT support needed should be kept under review, and if any extra equipment (such as headsets or stationary) is needed it should be posted or arrangements should be made for its collection.

Setting clear expectations is key, and the guidance emphasises the importance of building up a healthy relationship of trust and confidence.  Everyone working from home should know what's expected of them.  Agreements will be needed as to when employees will be available to work, how they will keep in touch, how work-life balance will be managed, and who employees should contact if they have any problems or their circumstances change. Any rules around storing information and data protection will have to be made clear, and details of how performance will be managed and measured during the time people are working from home (taking into account their individual circumstances where necessary) should also be set out.

The Acas guidance points out that it's important to recognise that some employees may find it hard to motivate and organise themselves when working from home, and, if this happens, the manager and employee should talk about practical steps that might help.

What about those juggling work with childcare?

Since schools and nurseries have closed many employees will find themselves in the unenviable position of juggling work commitments with childcare.  The Acas guidance recommends that employees who are looking after children should talk to their employer, and the employer should be sensitive and flexible towards the employee's situation.

These are times which call for compromise, so a more flexible homeworking agreement could be reached for the employee to work different hours, work targets could be reduced and, where possible, deadlines could be flexible.  It may also be possible to agree that the employee may not be able to work a full day or a full week.

Flexibility will also be required if an employee is caring for someone else, for example an older relative or someone who's ill.

The Acas guidance recommends that employers should check the details of their insurance to make sure they're covered for an employee working from home if they're using business equipment.  The employer will also need to cover them against a claim by a third party.  In addition the guidance recommends that employees should check there are no issues with them working from home with either their home insurer, their mortgage provider or their landlord. 

Mind – tips for managers

Mind, the mental health charity, has put together some tips for managers on how they can support their team's wellbeing while working from home.

  • Maintain a positive work/life balance

Make sure that your team is taking proper breaks during the day.  It's easy, while sitting at home, to just carry on working, so Mind suggests setting a cut off point when you finish work for the day.  At least 30 minutes should be taken for lunch, and ideally time should be taken to go for a short walk to get some fresh air.  Managers should also look after their own wellbeing so that they can support their teams.

  • Set up regular check-ins

It's important to set up regular check-ins to combat the isolation that can come from working from home.  Online tools such as Microsoft Teams, or conference calling via Skype or phone are ways that can be used to connect.

  • Encourage Wellness Action Plans

Some of your staff may already have Wellness Action Plans (WAPs) in place and it may be helpful to review these.  The purpose of a WAP is to give individuals ownership of the practical steps needed to help them stay well at work or manage a mental health problem.  It opens up a dialogue between a manager and their team and helps the manager to better understand their needs and experiences and better support their wellbeing.

You may wish to encourage those staff who don't already have a WAP to complete one; as Mind says "you don't need to have a mental health problem in order to feel the benefits".  It's useful for your team to have practical steps in place to ensure that they can be given support if/when they aren't feeling great.

  • Harness technology

Technology can be harnessed so that colleagues can see each other face-to-face.  Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Skype are all tools that can be used so that your staff aren't always just typing at a screen in isolation.

  • Encourage your team to use available support mechanisms

Make sure that your staff are aware of available support mechanisms, such as counselling services, and ask them for their input as to other things that they might find useful.

Trowers' Top tips for working from home

This situation is still a relatively new one and many employers may be tempted to despair, however there are ways of harnessing events to ensure that productivity is maintained while also strengthening the working relationships of your employees.

  • Make sure that you maintain contact with employees, ideally via technology which allows face-to-face interaction.
  • Do everything you can to ensure the wellbeing of your employees and encourage them to approach you with any concerns or anxieties.
  • Be reasonable in your expectations of employees, and be prepared to be flexible if they are experiencing difficulties (for instance managing childcare commitments as well as trying to work).  It might be worth considering allowing employees to adopt a "best efforts" approach to doing the work that they can.
  • Ensure that employees feel supported, and encourage them to develop a good work/life balance.
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