What Are Your Legal Obligations to Employees Working From Home?

As much of Australia continues to work from home amid the ongoing crisis of COVID-19, Sonia Hickey, journalist, provides an overview to the employers’ obligations to employees working from home.


Many Australian businesses find the Workplace Health and Safety legislation complex at the best of times, but what does it say about ensuring the protection of your employees when they work from home?

Thousands of businesses around Australia already have in place flexible working conditions for employees, many of which include ‘working from a home office.’

In fact, in 2016, the Australian Bureau of Statistics put the number at more than 3.5 million – a significant chunk of the workforce.

But for those businesses just embarking on the concept, they try to find innovative solutions to deal with the impact of Coronavirus on the fly, there are numerous questions – how can you make sure that your employees have safe environments?  The right equipment? And whose responsibility is it if something goes wrong?

Telco giant Telstra recently told its office staff to work from home until at least the end of March. And many other companies right across Australia are also considering their options right now. Ultimately, Coronavirus will be a test of whether many businesses have the ability to quickly adapt to a new way of working and maintain productivity.


Employers must ensure worker health and safety, irrespective of location

As a general rule, employers have a duty of care to staff, no matter their location.

While it is more than likely not possible to ensure that a dedicated, knowledgeable OH&S officer from your company can visit all staff in their home offices, you can put a procedure for ‘self-checking’ in place and empower your employees to be responsible for the health and safety of their home working environment.

To do this, it is imperative that you arm employees with information – a checklist and other general resources which will help them to understand what’s required. Encourage employees to conduct their own home office audit and self-check for hazards and to verify the safety of their home environment. Employers can ask for photos of the space, or use other technologies like Facetime and Zoom to set up a meeting time with the purpose of looking around the area to be satisfied that it complies with what the employee needs to do their job effectively, and is deemed safe.

This information needs to be as detailed as possible – include information about what constitutes a proper desk and chair for ergonomic health. Cover all the possible eventualities and be specific, such as ensuring a safe way to evacuate in the event of fire, and ensuring there are no slip hazards, (like electrical cords running across the floor) space requirements, so that the employee can move around effectively and safely without tripping over boxes, furniture or children’s toys. Proper lighting should also be a consideration. And make sure your employee knows to take regular breaks away from the screen. It should mirror what you have in place in the office environment, just on a smaller, individual scale.


Working from home policy

If you don’t already have one, it’s time to implement a ‘working from home’ policy which will outline the requirements and the responsibilities of the employer and the employee.

If all these checks and balances are in place, then your workplace health and safety insurances should cover you if something goes wrong. The onus is on employers to ensure that they have put measures into place to empower at-home employees to set up their environment properly, as well as provided the appropriate information and training to be able to be able to look after themselves at home.


The cost of setting up the home office – who pays?

If employees do not have the right equipment, does your business have the ability to loan them furniture from the office that is not being used in the meantime? On the proviso that it’s returned when working conditions return to ‘normal’?

Here, employers need to get innovative to meet their obligations in ensuring employees have the right tools and equipment to do their job. Is there an option to work with a supplier to offer discounts? Or for the business itself to purchase the equipment and let the employee ‘pay it back’ via salary sacrifice over time?


A secure digital environment

Making sure the digital environment is reliable and secure is also paramount, and this is also an employer responsibility.  Make sure your business has the right systems and software and virus protections, as well as that your employee can connect to a stable internet stream. Employers need to work out what consumables need to be reimbursable – paper use? A proportion of home internet? These need to be negotiated with employees and written into their contracts or kept as an adjunct to their employment agreements.


Update contracts – protect yourself and your employee

Employment contracts too, need to be amended to reflect the new arrangement, ensuring that your employee is aware of their own responsibility and deliverables to the organisation.

At the moment, many businesses are having to create a new model of employees working from home quickly, but it’s a mistake to do so without dotting ‘i’s’ and crossing ‘t’s’ so that arrangements (even if they’re only for the next 6 months) are clear. It’s critical to cover all the finer details, so both the employer and employee understand what’s expected of them, and what their obligations and rights are under the new working conditions.


Mental health and wellbeing

Consider also that while some people thrive in isolation, others don’t. As an employer you need to check in and communicate with your employees regularly to make sure they’re coping. It’s important to provide online capabilities for chatting / messaging other colleagues and teammates and to also schedule regular video meetings and hook ups to be able to collaborate as well as minimise the impact of solitude. Have you considered Friday night virtual Happy Hour? Might be a great informal way to communicate with remote employees and keep them motivated.

And particularly now, people are feeling anxious about Coronavirus, so it’s more important than ever to keep morale high.

The good news for employers in these unprecedented times, is that many jobs can be done from home when the right systems, procedures and policies are in place. In recent years studies have also shown that employees working from home are usually highly productive, less stressed, enjoy more work-life balance and are therefore happier!

Costs for the business can go down too, over time. You might find the arrangement so successful that in 6 months your office team has diminished to the degree that you’re seeking smaller (and less costly) premises.

In the meantime, the key to successfully setting up and managing a remote workforce is setting up the arrangement properly. Of paramount importance is making sure all your legal obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2017 are covered off. It’s also wise to update any insurance policies to reflect workplace changes.


Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of ‘Woman with Words’. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.

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