What employers need to know now the staff have all gone home
FOR the foreseeable future, the average commute of office workers in Northern Ireland may be as little as a few feet.
The practical issues of securing laptops, weak wi-fi connections and fixing locks onto box room doors have hopefully been resolved.
But several issues will need to be considered by businesses with regards to these new offices – because, for how long it will be before they can go back to their old offices remains to be seen.
For the employer, a key thing is to review its insurance policies. Does their employers liability insurance cover employees working from home? It will need to, as a number of new risks have arisen. It is possible a whole host of office equipment may have walked out of business premises last week with insufficient time for any kind of audit as to the security measures in their new locations.
For obvious reasons, visiting the home workstation, which would normally be good practice, will not be viable. A sensible step to be taken this week would be to have the employee complete a questionnaire to complete about the working environment. The questionnaire should be designed to identify any possible risks as well as any individual requirements.
While in the short term there will be sympathy to the employer as to the needs of business continuity overriding these initial concerns during the set-up stage, this is possibly a workstation for a number of months to come and should be reviewed with the employee as soon as practicable.
The employer has the same legal duty of care for a homeworker's health, safety and wellbeing as they would for an employee working on company premises.
Guidance should urgently be given in clear language on the employee's obligations in relation to data protection and avoiding cyber security threats.
This should cover email and telephone phishing attacks; being careful with paper files and records; not leaving laptops and other devices on and unattended, or lending them to others; and avoiding 'shadow IT' risks, for example self-procuring software, apps and devices for work without their employers' permission.
Contacts and reporting channels for suspected incidents should be shared. If an employee is using a home computer, they should be extra vigilant for malware, which other users in the household may have unwittingly downloaded.
One further consideration employers should take from a practical side is this is remote working during a global pandemic. School and childcare closures will place enormous strain on employees who are parents. In practical terms we will no doubt see scenarios where working hours are varied to reflect this, but some degree of disruption will be inevitable and the courts will be unsympathetic to employers who are equally so.
Finally, employers should provide a list of emergency contact numbers. It's evident from the last number of weeks that the business continuity plan of most offices entirely depends on the capabilities and resources of their IT support.
It is they who will need to provide workarounds should systems fail and be vigilant for vulnerabilities from phishing incidents. All of which they will be doing entirely remotely.
:: James Morrison (email@example.com) is partner (commercial) at law firm DWF Belfast