The Covid-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on all our lives. Employers and employees across all sectors found themselves adapting overnight to an entirely new way of working.
With much of the workforce now working remotely, a good step for employers is to look at their remote working policy. They should check it is fit for purpose and communicate with staff to ensure they understand the content.
Given that we are all working apart from each other physically, clear communication is key so employees understand what is expected of them when it comes to working hours and availability.
Flexible patterns of work could be considered where possible as many employees are now balancing their work life with the demands of home-schooling or caring for relatives.
Employers also need to watch out for the health and wellbeing of their employees during these stressful times. If there is an employee assistance programme in place, employees should be reminded to avail of it. If there are online supports that employers can direct their employees to, such as mindfulness courses, then this would be a good step to take.
They should be ready to discuss issues with their employees and identify solutions to problems that arise in this new work landscape.
Employees should be offered encouragement and support as they settle into this new way of working.
The New Normal
It is worth remembering that certain obligations on employers remain unchanged even though the "normal" pattern of work has been interrupted.
Under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, employers are under a general obligation to ensure the safety and welfare of their employees. These obligations apply whether the employee is working in the office or working remotely.
Employers should consult with staff and make sure employees are aware of specific risks of working from home, that their work activity and the workspace are suitable, suitable equipment is provided and they have a point of contact for any assistance they need.
It is also worth remembering that the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 is still applicable when staff are working remotely. Employees are entitled to their usual breaks and rest periods as defined in the Act and cannot work in excess of 48 hours per week, on average. The Act also contains certain record-keeping obligations.
Employers may find it difficult to keep track of hours, breaks and rest periods when their staff are working off-site. However, the obligations remain so consideration should be given to reminding employees that they are to take their breaks, rest and not work excessive hours.
Confidentiality and data protection are key concerns when employees are working remotely. Some may be sharing a workspace or home office with other people.
Employers should inform staff of any policy and measures in place relating to data protection or, if no such policy is in place, consider introducing one. Employers could think about offering online data protection training for staff working from home.
Employers may be concerned about an overly large "bank" of annual leave entitlements building up during this time, particularly as employees may seek to cancel pre-booked annual leave due to their current inability to travel.
Annual leave entitlements are governed by the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997.
An employer can require an employee to take statutory annual leave subject to certain considerations. They must consider the rest and recreation opportunities available to the employee as well as the employee's need to reconcile work and family responsibilities.
If an employer wants to require an employee to take annual leave, the employee or the trade union (if any) must be informed at least one month before the date on which such leave is to commence. This period may be waived if the parties enter into arrangements that are more favourable to the employee about the time of the leave and pay while on leave.
It remains unclear in the present circumstances whether compelled annual leave would comply with the rest and recreation consideration mentioned in the Act. The nature of current restrictions in place to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 might make it difficult for an employee to avail to the fullest of time for rest and recreation. Accordingly, a sensitive approach to this topic is advised.
Back to the Office
This is certainly a good time to think about the long-term direction of a business and, for many sectors, remote working may have the potential to become the new normal.
When restrictions are eventually lifted, the workplace may see an increased demand for flexible remote working policies to be put in place. Whilst employers are under no strict obligation to allow employees to work remotely, they should participate with their employees and facilitate discussions around the possibility of continued remote working.
The way we live our lives and the way we work has changed drastically over the last few weeks. Employers not only have to consider the current challenges the Covid-19 crisis presents, but now also need to consider how they will navigate the future of work.
As restrictions ease and the economy picks up, there will be a gradual return to normality. Preparation and adaptability will be key for dealing with changes as they unfold.
Catherine O'Flynn is the Head of Employment & Benefits at William Fry