Many organisations, including charities, were catapulted into home-based working arrangements as a result of the recent Covid-19 lockdown. Although initially stressful and reactive, numerous organisations have generally settled well into this alternative form of working and have discovered a number of associated benefits. For instance, improved productivity through staff not having long daily commutes and the normal office environment distractions (though conversely some less conducive home environments have reduced productivity).
As a consequence, many organisations are currently reviewing their normal modes of working with a view to retaining at least some of unexpected benefits of home-based working, perhaps moving to a hybrid model of part office-based and part home-based working. You may be such an organisation. If you are, then there are a number of important arrangements which you should ensure that you have in place to manage the specific risks associated with home-based working and to meet all of your legal obligations in respect of your team (whether employees, self-employed contractors or volunteers). Some of the most important considerations required to maintain resilience within your organisation are considered briefly here.
The first issue is to ensure that any contracts you have in place permit home-based working. For instance, are your employment contracts flexibly worded as to where the contracted work should take place? If not, do they include a variation clause to permit contractual amendments, such as the work location, to be changed? If you are unable to answer either of these questions in the affirmative and/or if you are unsure how to go about a contractual variation, then it would be advisable to seek specialist employment law advice at the earliest opportunity to ensure that you are not in breach of contract as an employer. A further contractual consideration is to ensure that all of your obligations are met. For instance, if the contract states that you will undertake an annual risk assessment of an employee’s home-based working arrangements then you should ensure that you have a diarised system in place to meet these obligations. Often such legal details can be missed, especially by smaller charities which do not have dedicated human resources personnel and are focused primarily on maintaining core charitable business, especially during these most challenging times. Yet such matters could be problematic later and lead to possible legal disputes and litigation with its associated time and resource drain on the organisation.
If you do not have one already, then it is advisable for you to have a flexible working policy in place. Not only is it a statutory right for employees to be able to request flexible working, but the nature of part or full-time home-based working may require some adjustments to standard charitable business working practices in order to derive maximum benefit from them.
Health and Safety
There are some other important legal requirements which need to be considered too, especially under health and safety law. One area which it is important for you to address is lone working. This applies to different types of working arrangements ranging from working alone in a building, driving as part of charitable business, to home-based working. It is important to ensure that you include lone working within your existing charitable policies, whether as a standalone policy or embedded within other policies such as on health and safety matters and home-based working. Notably, your duty of care responsibilities as an organisation to provide a safe system of working apply not only to employees but to your full team including self-employed contractors and volunteers.
Furthermore, you should ensure that you undertake risk assessments on lone working (including home-based working) arrangements to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of your staff. The latter is an especially hot topic at present in the current pandemic context during which many people have struggled with loneliness and mental health issues, especially during the intensive lockdown period. Other factors to consider for each individual include their medical suitability to work alone/from home; whether the home-based environment is likely to present increased or alternative risks to them; any additional training requirements; their experience and seniority; supervision arrangements; a system for keeping in regular touch; and a mechanism for reporting and responding to any incidents. It is important to ensure that such risk assessments are not one-off, rather that they are conducted on a periodic basis (at least annually) for as long as the lone-working arrangements continue. Technically speaking, they should also be conducted before rather than after lone-working arrangements are implemented. The reality of the speed with which the Covid-19 lockdown occurred is that many organisations did not have the time or capacity to do so. If your charity is one of them, then you should ensure that such steps are prioritised to address an important area of risk and legal compliance vulnerability within your organisation.
You are required also to ensure that other health and safety obligations are met, such as the routine electrical safety testing of any equipment (laptops, printers, phones, etc) that your organisation provides your staff with for the purposes of charitable business.
The dramatic increase in home-based working attributable to Covid-19 has been accompanied by a sizeable increase in cyber related crime. It is essential therefore, as part of your organisational risk management and resilience, to ensure that you have clear and robust arrangements in place to protect your equipment as well as data, intellectual property, products and services in an increasingly virtual world.
In particular, you should consider what policies/protocols you may need to have in place to cover the specific context of home-based working. For example, what equipment and software your team use. The most desirable and secure option will be an organisation issued, standalone device such as a desktop or laptop using your licensed and installed software. In reality, however, this will not be financially possible for many charities, often necessitating a hybrid option – for instance, the use of personal devices, but using online software and applications.
There are likely to be other risks to mitigate too, such as those associated with cloud-based computing. Robust back-up arrangements and contingency/IT business continuity plans should be put in place in the event of a cyber incident - such as a hack or malware affecting your team and/or the third-party cloud provider, or unavailable internet connection - which impact upon your ability to carry out normal business operations.
Another important but commonly overlooked area relates to ensuring that both you and your team have adequate insurance cover in place. For instance, your employees should advise their home insurance providers that the premises are being used for business as well as domestic purposes. Though this is their responsibility to do, it is advisable for you as the employer to inform them about this since it can be easily overlooked.
As the charity you should check that you have the correct insurance arrangements in place too. For instance, that any public liability, employer’s liability, professional indemnity, personal accident and data/cyber breach insurance cover extends to home-based working as well. Never assume that it does, rather check with your insurer exactly what is and is not covered so that any potentially significant gaps may be identified and quickly closed.
Katja Samuel is the founder and CEO of GSDM(R4C), with broad ranging resilience experience and expertise.