Setting up a homeworking initiative

Homeworking has plenty of attractions for your employees. There is no rush to get dressed, no morning commute, no struggle through the rain to catch an overcrowded train, and no boss staring menacingly at you when you arrive late. Jay Elwes reports on what employers might consider when creating this domestic working bliss

More and more companies are changing the makeup of their workplace. A recent report by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) stated that 9.3 million employees are involved in flexible working arrangements, and that these new arrangements can lead to increased productivity, better relations with staff and decreased absenteeism.

According to the DTI, case studies show that businesses that have introduced flexible working practices in their workplace benefit from increased goodwill and a more flexible attitude on the part of employees. BT reports its homeworkers are 15 to 31% more productive than their site-based counterparts.

The prospect of working from home is so attractive for employees that conmen have even got in on the game. Bogus adverts purporting to offer homework schemes for cash are on the rise. Victims are told to stuff envelopes for mail-outs on the promise of cash. In the end, however, there is no pay check, only a bill for a large registration fee.

Employees are eager to work from home and it can provide benefits to companies. So why aren’t we all doing it already?

“The question is, what are you trying to achieve?” asks Rob Riley, a partner in the employment team at law firm Addleshaw Goddard. “This kind of thing doesn’t work for everyone. The cost saving angle doesn’t always apply.”

Although having a workforce off site can sometimes mean immediate cost savings on the balance sheet, the financial benefits of homeworking schemes can be seen more in the long term.

“Homeworking is more to do with improving lifestyle and accommodating employees. As well as this, some employees are more productive at home,” says Riley.

The idea of ‘accommodating employees’ is especially appropriate when considering employees with young children, who may well be confronted with the choice of working from home or not working at all.

Since April 2003, parents of children under six or disabled children under 18 have had the right to apply to work flexibly, which includes working from home. Employers have a duty to give such requests serious consideration.

Homeworking means the ability to retain staff that other more conventional working models could not. The homeworking scheme can also help a firm to retain staff who are only available to work part-time.

Central to this new relationship between employer and employee is trust. An employer has to have faith that the employee at home is actually carrying out their allocation of work.

Suspicious employers can have problems keeping an eye on their homeworkers. Unless the external employee is using networked computer systems and telephone lines, then the company is not allowed to monitor their communications traffic.

“People on their own computers are off your radar,” says Riley. “Hacking into something private on e-mail – then you’re straying into criminal policy.”

What about health and safety – could a company be liable for an injury sustained by an employee in their own home?

Health and safety requirements mean that an employer must carry out a risk assessment of work carried out in the home. This involves ensuring that work equipment is safe, that heavy loads are handled correctly and that any dangerous materials are properly controlled. Items provided by employers to the homeworker remain the employer’s responsibility

However, Riley believes the risk from claims is limited. “It would be quite a cheeky employee who’d bring an action from an injury sustained at home,” he says. “In the end, it may mean a bit of extra admin, but the benefits far outweigh this.”

Chris Brown, strategy consultant for group HR at high street bank Abbey, writing on the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development website, said factors to consider are:

  • Definitions of a homeworker – to distinguish those who were based at home from those who occasionally used home to work from

  • Criteria about the job and person to make working from home suitable and/or desirable – this covered such areas as the performance history of the individual, the potential working environment it safety and security and confidentiality

  • Discussing arrangements with manager/employee – how managers should approach this to be fair but also sensitive to the lifestyle needs of the employee, and how employees should present a case and deal with an application to work at home being rejected

  • Contractual issues – we developed specific contract terms to cover issues of work location access, security responsibilities of both parties to security and privacy etc

  • Absence reporting procedures

  • Provision of equipment and facilities, IT furniture, and approach to running costs, plus cautions with reference to Inland Revenue, local authority/landlords, mortgage, and Capital Gains Tax

  • Health and safety audits and ongoing reviews of workplace, responsibilities and advice on being safe at home etc

  • Tax and expenses – we had support from the Inland Revenue in defining how tax would be dealt with depending on pattern of working from home office or client etc. It is worth speaking to them and getting dispensation, if possible.

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