Extended flexible working rights, technology and social change make working from home an increasingly cost-effective and attractive option both for businesses and the individuals who work for them.
As a manager, you need to make sure that you have the right systems in place to properly support employees who work from home.
1. Does working from home suit your business?
Some jobs are better suited to working from home than others
The key question is to what extent the employee needs to attend the office. Jobs which particularly suit full-time or part-time working from home include:
- sales, marketing and customer service;
- support and maintenance;
- computer programming;
- consultancy and professional services;
- training and education;
- writing, editing, research and translation;
- some administrative and secretarial work;
- jobs where home acts as a base for mobile workers such as sales representatives.
Individuals need the right skills and personality traits to be effective homeworkers
Training can help employees develop suitable skills. Typically, good homeworkers are strong on:
- time management and self-discipline;
- motivation, self-sufficiency, initiative and the ability to work alone;
- communication - for example, they have a good telephone manner and the ability to get on with new people;
- lifestyle management - they have the ability to manage the split between home life and work life;
- technology - they have the ability to manage IT and telecommunications equipment.
Flexible working options
Flexible working is a catch-all phrase that covers any working pattern other than the normal one.
Employees may work in different locations
- At home - employees without suitable home premises may use a local business centre.
- Commuting - sales, support staff and employees with long journeys may be able to work while travelling.
- At customers' premises - employees working at a customer's premises need to be managed in the same way as any other worker.
Employees may work on a different basis
- This may involve changes to the hours and times worked, eg flexitime, compressed hours, annual hours or staggered hours.
- Employees might have a job-sharing arrangement.
- Shift work, part-time work and term-time work also count as flexible work.
Employees with at least 26 weeks' service have the right to request flexible working
- Qualifying employees can request a change in hours, the times or the location of their work. Each employee can only make one request, in writing, in each 12-month period.
- Employers are required to consider requests in a reasonable manner and within a reasonable time (three months unless an extension is agreed). Employers can only refuse requests where there is a good business reason.
2. The home office
A good home office should meet minimum requirements
- A work space and reasonable working environment. Homeworkers may need to gain the co-operation of others who live in the same place.
- Secure premises and a lockable cupboard or desk. Homeworkers should avoid leaving valuable equipment or sensitive information where there is a risk of theft or confidentiality breaches.
- Compliance with health and safety regulations, including suitable furniture.
- A business telephone line and broadband access.
- A computer with internet and email access, office software and access to a printer (see Using technology for homeworkers). Access to a secure virtual private network (VPN) can allow your staff to connect to your company network from home.
- Adequate insurance. Home contents insurance normally excludes business equipment but most employers' insurance policies cover any place of business. Additional insurance may be required if homeworkers have visitors or business meetings at home.
Normal office health and safety requirements apply equally to employees who work from home
An initial risk assessment must be carried out, although this can be done by the employee. Employers need to give homeworkers simple, specific health and safety advice and record what has been done.
Areas to consider are:
- The seating and layout of the employee's computer workstation.
- Electrical equipment. Has it been tested and certified?
- Extension leads and cables for telephones, computers and printers. There should be no trailing leads.
- Adequate lighting levels, ventilation and room temperature.
Planning permission is not normally required
Permission is unlikely to be required if all the following are true:
- only one room is used for homeworking;
- only those who live in the house work there;
- the work does not lead to a substantial volume of visitors, nuisance to neighbours or extra car parking.
Tax and business rates are not usually a problem
Homeworkers can ensure the room used has a secondary purpose (eg as a guest bedroom) to avoid paying:
- business rates;
- capital gains tax on the sale of the property.
3. Benefits and risks of working from home
The main benefit of working from home is increased productivity
- More efficient use of time. Employees who work from home often face fewer interruptions and spend less time commuting.
- Improved employee retention. Homeworking often suits parents who need to fit in with school-age children.
- Reduced levels of sick leave and stress.
- A better chance of recruiting the most able candidates. Potential recruits may prefer the option of full-time, part-time, casual homeworking, or flexitime.
- Control over the office environment, eg noise, heat, ventilation and lighting.
The main problems are similar to those of running a decentralised business
Particular risks and problems can include:
- losing touch with employees and difficulty in arranging ad-hoc meetings;
- increased initial training requirements and expenditure on setting up home offices;
- reduced loyalty due to increased isolation;
- deterioration in employees' skills and work quality;
- difficulty in controlling the security of information;
- confused goals, standards, expectations and systems.
Effective management of employees who work from home can overcome most problems
- In many businesses, informal homeworking goes on anyway, whether or not there is an official policy of allowing it. It therefore makes sense to tackle the issues and make the most of the opportunities.
4. Introducing working from home
Put the groundwork in place before starting to implement working from home
- Prepare a homeworking contract.
- Introduce a training plan.
- Prepare written procedures for the tasks involved. Attempting to change working procedures at the same time as introducing homeworking can lead to problems.
Start with a small pilot scheme
- Limit the size of the pilot to a manageable number of people.
- Give employees the option of participating. Many employers find that employees approach them with homeworking and flexible working requests.
- Begin with part-time or casual homeworking.
- Keep costs down. The only significant cost should be for training and home-office equipment.
- If the pilot is successful, you can then roll the scheme out to other employees.
The introduction of working from home needs to be planned and managed like any project
- It requires formal review, evaluation and measurement.
- The key to success is to manage flexible workers in terms of their output rather than their attendance. Attempting to maintain the same direct control over individual activities is usually doomed to failure.
5. Contracts for employees who work from home
Not every situation demands a new contract. As long as output is quantifiable, an employer can usually offer a standard contract. Employers may, however, need to renegotiate if conditions change.
It is easier to negotiate if terms and conditions are not changed adversely
Employers should agree a letter of modification to the standard employment contract and ask employees to sign to indicate acceptance. A simple letter might state:
- Where the employee will be based.
- That both employer and employee have the right to terminate the homeworking arrangement at any time.
- That the company will supply and insure the necessary equipment. The equipment remains the company's property and is not to be used for private purposes.
- That the company will supply and pay for a telephone and internet connection for business use.
- That the employee must comply with relevant health and safety and security guidelines. The company will pay any costs involved.
- That there is no change to other employment terms and conditions such as pay, hours of work, holiday entitlement and pension contributions.
You should avoid forcing employees to accept unreasonable changes
- An employee who feels unduly pressured into accepting a new arrangement and quits may have a case for constructive dismissal.
Homeworking is not self-employment
- HM Revenue & Customs is unlikely to accept that an individual with only one customer (the employer's company) is self-employed. This is especially unlikely if the individual was previously employed by the same company.
- Introducing self-employment for whole departments which move to homeworking can cause legal problems. This is a complex area that involves the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations or TUPE.
6. Staying in touch with employees who work from home
Telephone and email are the best ways to maintain contact
- Regular telephone calls can replace most face-to-face meetings.
- Frequent short calls can be as effective as long conversations.
- Email does not interrupt work as much as the telephone. Homeworkers can choose when to read messages and when to respond to them.
- A face-to-face meeting is still best if there is bad news or complicated information to impart.
Various telecoms options provide efficient ways of contacting employees who work from home
- Email is essential.
- Voicemail and instant messaging enables employees to receive and send messages.
- A unified messaging system can automatically route calls to the employee and displays data from your customer relationship management system. Individuals can purchase a personalised number to achieve the same effect.
- Mobile phones are now a business essential allowing employees to make and send calls, emails and text messages.
- Intranets and video-conferencing offer additional means of keeping in touch.
Employees may need access to company data and documents
- It is easy to share data and files with homeworkers using technology. File-sharing works best if everybody uses the same version of the software.
- Employers should consider customer relationship management software if they have a mobile sales team or need to update customer data regularly.
7. Using technology for employees who work from home
It is safer for employees who work from home to save their work directly onto the employer's system, rather than their own equipment. This reduces the risk of a data security breach and limits the employer's exposure to the provisions of the General Data Protection Regulations.
You can create a secure virtual private network (VPN)
- This enables employees who work from home to connect to your existing computer network online, from any computer with internet access.
- It gives them access to relevant files and systems on the company network, and to resources on the company intranet.
- A fast broadband connection makes it easy to exchange information
- The major cost, for an existing network, is the connection fee.
Understand the pitfalls
- There is a danger of people gaining unauthorised access to your systems. Your computers should be protected with passwords, firewalls and anti-virus software. All data and files should be saved to your intranet where it can be backed up and protected.
- Faster technology costs more money.
- Homeworkers may need training.
- Employees may not use the technology productively.
- Employees may fail to back-up information stored on home PCs and laptops.
"Making use of all the available technology is all very well, but don't let yourself forget what an employee looks like. Maintaining the relationship will always be an essential factor." - Nigel McCartney, Design Communications