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working from home

Working from home: Dream or disaster?

1st Oct 2009
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Working from home isn’t for everyone, but there are significant business benefits to be had, revealed Kate Upcraft at a recent seminar.

Around 5 million UK employees currently work remotely and with big firms like BT adopting home working as a way to significantly reduce overheads (the firm has reportedly saved £350 million since adopting its remote working strategy), this number looks set to increase further. As well as cutting down on overheads, the business benefits of remote working include:

  • Increased flexibility
  • Less time lost through transport and weather issues
  • Reduced sickness absence
  • More motivated employees
  • Improved staff retention
  • An enlarged recruitment pool
  • Employers who adopt it are more likely to be seen as en employer of choice
  • Companies that adopt home working typically see a 20% increase in productivity as employees are grateful for the opportunity and work harder.

For employees, it can offer a better work/life balance and, as they are no longer spending money on travelling to work, home workers often find themselves with more cash in their pockets at the end of the month. Home working also carries substantial environmental benefits; experts predict that if levels of home working continue to increase at the current rate, carbon emissions will be reduced by 18%.

Getting the right fit
Despite all the potential benefits, home working isn’t always the right solution. Certain jobs fit well with home working, while others aren’t so conducive to it. For example, if you business relies on a lot of face to face contact with clients, and the home worker lives in a remote place, it might not work.

Some of the key considerations to take into account when assessing home working options include:

  • Personality/working style: Is the staff member in question self disciplined? Do they work well unsupervised? Are they self motivated and organised? Not everyone is equipped to work effectively from home.
  • Family life: Does the employee’s family support them working from home? Do they have a separate space to work from home away from the rest of the family where they can work in peace?
  • Impact on colleagues: How will the management ensure that tasks are equally divided between office based staff and home workers? Who will cover the tasks that can’t be carried out by a home worker?
  • Communication: How will you handle staff meetings and ensure that home workers feel that they are still part of the team?
  • Company culture: In some firms there is a culture of presenteeism. It’s important to be able to show that people can be just as productive by working from home as they can be in the office. Getting a senior member of staff to work from home will help demonstrate this.
  • Pay and benefits: What effect will the home working arrangement have on this? How will expenses and travel costs be accounting for? (Read Rebecca Benneyworth’s summary of the tax implications for more details on this).
  • Policy and contracts: The company will need to reissue an employee’s contract when they start working from home. Therefore, they need to consider if the move will be permanent and address issues such as daily reporting procedures; how sickness is reported and dealt with; hours, breaks and lunch times; annual leave; the employee’s responsibilities regarding company equipment and how it will be maintained, as well as penalties for misuse; home and company insurance coverage; and mortgage lender and council restrictions on working from home.
  • Health and safety: A health and safety assessment needs to be carried out before home working begins. It’s essential that the employer makes a site visit to ensure that the employee has a working environment that is safe and away from distractions. It’s the employer’s responsibility to record what they find and prove that they did everything possible to mitigate risks.

Legal considerations
The right to request flexible working arrangements was first introduced in April 2003 and extended in 2007 and 2009. The legal process for assessing flexible working conditions is as follows:

  • The request for flexible working arrangements must come from the individual in question with a suggestion for how it could work. (The ‘flexible’ element of employment could refer to the number of hours/days worked or the location in which the employee works.)
  • The employer must make a business assessment of the case and hold a meeting within 28 days of receiving the submission. The employee has a right to be accompanied to this meeting by a fellow employee or legal representative.
  • Following this, the employer must write to the employee within 14 days and either accept and offer a start date for the arrangement; confirm an agreed compromise and ask and ask for the employee to respond by a set date; or reject the proposal (supplying a reason for doing so) and offering employees the right of appeal. There is set criteria employers should reject by. (Business Link provides a comprehensive online guide to the legislation in this area).

Having employees working from home presents a number of security risks for the company, but there are steps employers can take to mitigate these risks.

  • Access data via VPN where possible: Allowing home workers to connect directly into the office server is much safer than storing sensitive company data on laptops or other devices that are going to be taken out of the office.
  • Encrypt data on memory sticks: If employees are required to take company data home with them on memory sticks, make sure it’s encrypted so that no one else can access it in the event of the stick being lost or stolen.
  • Invest in monitoring software: Just because employees are working from home, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be keeping an eye on them - invest in software that enables you to monitor them as you would if they were in the office.
  • Update contracts: Put a clause in all home workers’ contracts detailing company policy on confidentiality, security and monitoring. This will help to ensure that they know the drill when it comes to protecting company data etc.
  • Emails: Make home workers aware that all emails remain the employer’s property and can be intercepted.

Working from home can be an extremely positive experience for employees and companies alike, but requires careful advance planning to ensure that productivity remains high and firms are getting an acceptable return on their investment. It is advisable to do a cost/benefit analysis on the IT investment required for home working, as this is usually where the most substantial costs are incurred, but in the long-term it can create valuable savings and improve staff morale if handled correctly.

Kate Upcraft FIPP, is director of ISIS Support Services Ltd.

Gina Dyer reports from Kate Upcraft's seminar on working from home at the Institute of Payroll Professionals Annual Conference.


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