Working from home - how flexible is your organisation?

Technological advances and an increased focus on work-life balance and flexible working arrangements have resulted in more than half of Australia’s population working from home in some capacity or another.

As the owner of your own business, you may already have employees who work from home or you may be giving some thought to implementing the practice. Either way, it’s important that you are aware of some key considerations — like the benefits and the risks, how to best ensure the physical and emotional health of employees who work from home, knowing in which situations it is appropriate for an employee to work from home, and how your insurance coverage is affected by flexible working arrangements.

If you aren’t quite in the know when it comes to employees who work from home, here’s what you need to know to get yourself in the know.

Why should I consider allowing my employees to work from home?

Firstly, in Australia, there are certain people who have the right to request flexible working arrangements and whose employer may only deny such a request on reasonable business grounds.

Under fair work arrangements, an employee is eligible to request a flexible working arrangement if they have worked for the same employer for 12 months and if they meet any of the following criteria:

  • They are a carer
  • They are 55 or older
  • They have a disability
  • They are a parent or are responsible for the care of a child of a certain age range
  • They are a victim of domestic or family violence, or are caring for a member of their immediate family who is suffering from domestic or family violence.

“But even if your employees don’t meet these legal requirements, making it possible for them to work from home can still be a viable option, one which can reap a whole range of positive outcomes you may not have previously considered.”

While the idea of allowing employees to work unsupervised might seem a little counter-intuitive, there is a bunch of research to suggest that allowing employees to work from home can be beneficial for both the employee and their employer. Stanford University research endorses the idea that employees who are able to work from home are often more productive than they would be in an office environment and that the happiness that is derived from such a flexible situation makes them less likely to quit.

Ultimately, demonstrating that you are receptive to the needs of your employees, facilitating work arrangements that improve work-life balance and the show of faith that you trust your workers to self-manage from home all lead to more satisfied employees. Such satisfaction is what breeds loyalty.

Of course, there are some situations that aren’t conducive to having an employee work from home. But if the idea as a whole was one that didn’t previously appeal to you, it’s clear that there are certainly a lot of things to place in the “benefits” column when evaluating the merits of working-from-home arrangements.

How do I know if it’s a good idea for an employee to work from home?

While we now know that allowing employees to work from home can reap positive rewards, there are some circumstances where it’s simply not ideal. These circumstances can be either specific to the nature of the employee’s work or the actual employee.

When evaluating whether an employee would be a good fit for a working-from-home arrangement, consider the following:

What kind of supervision does the role in question require? Is the role one where a certain degree of monitoring is a factor?

  • Is the cost of setting up a safe work environment in the employee’s home one the business is able to bear?
  • Is teamwork a key facet of the employee’s work? Does their role require them to be quite hands-on with a team and will the other members of the team be able to do their jobs effectively if an employee works from home?
  • Does the employee show strong initiative and have a demonstrated ability to be productive and work autonomously?
  • Is the employee responsible for the supervision or coaching of others?
  • Does the employee’s role involve a significant degree of interaction with customers?
  • How would workflows be affected and managed, and what sorts of communication practices would need to be put in place?
  • Does the employee’s role require the use of equipment that could not reasonably be transported to, or used within, the employee’s home?

Bear in mind that even if some of these circumstances will make it difficult for the employee to work from home on a permanent basis, it may still be possible for the employee to work from home one or more days a week — and, often, such an arrangement will be the ideal the employee is seeking.

What sorts of health concerns should I be taking into account?

Of course, occupational health and safety is paramount and is the most obvious consideration here.

“When it comes to the physical health and safety of employees who work from home, it’s important to note that you, as an employer, bear the same responsibility as you would if the employee were in an office environment.”

Prior to going ahead with a work-from-home arrangement, employers should be sure that the work area at home meets OHS standards, which would involve a safety assessment of the work area prior to the employee working from home. Key things to consider during an assessment include the following:

  • Any manual tasks the employee will have to carry out
  • Tripping or falling hazards and associated musculoskeletal risks
  • Electrical safety
  • The general environment — things like noise, security, fire exit access, first aid, etc.

After doing such an assessment, you should come to an agreement with the employee about any controls and preventative measures that need to be put in place.

While the physical health and safety of an employee working from home is of utmost importance, don’t forget to consider their emotional health and well-being, as well. This is of particular importance if an employee works from home full-time, which would make it difficult for employers to gauge how the worker is feeling in relation to job satisfaction, workloads, potential workplace bullying (over email, phone, etc.) and stress. Furthermore, while working from home has definite benefits, some employees may find it to be quite isolating and limit social interaction, which can take a toll on emotional happiness.

Property and equipment

Presumably, you will have general property insurance as part of your business. If you do, then typical business equipment (think mobiles, laptops, iPads, etc.) should be covered regardless of the location in which they are used. There are, however, some caveats to consider. These include:

  • Monetary limits — usually, if an item is worth more than $2,500, it must be specified on the policy in order for it to be insured.
  • The property of the employee will not usually be covered by your business insurance, and any home and contents insurance the employee has in place will be unlikely to cover your business equipment.
  • If an employee is using their own personal computer and information is lost (for example, because of hacking or a computer virus), such a loss would not typically be covered by your business insurance or their home and contents insurance.
  • If an employee damages their home or property in the course of working from home, your business insurance would likely not be of much help.

Damage, theft or loss of property and equipment is particularly pertinent in relation to tradespeople who work from home, as such equipment is likely to be higher in number and in value. Be certain that the coverage you have in place is the right kind and substantial enough to cover you for any losses that may occur in the course of an employee working from home. Creating an inventory of equipment the employee uses while working at home will be particularly useful.

It seems a lot is actually required of me as an employer when my employees work from home.

Yes, there is a lot for you to consider and there are some important practices for you to put in place, but in general, the considerations and practices aren’t any different for employees who work from home than employees who work at your place of business.

“Make sure you check in often with employees who work from home and make it clear that their physical and emotional health is of importance to you to ensure that it is an arrangement that continues to work effectively for both parties.”

What are the insurance considerations?

When employees work from home, there are three main insurance considerations — injury to an employee, injury to a customer, and safety of property and equipment. Let’s look at each of these individually.

If an employee is injured

While your employee may not be working on your premises, it is still your responsibility to provide a safe work environment. Therefore, if an employee sustains an injury in the course of their work while at home, it is your responsibility to ensure they are covered via your workers compensation insurance. Bear in mind that psychological injury is also claimable under workers compensation.

These considerations only add to the importance of carrying out a safety assessment and continuing to check in with employees about their mental health and satisfaction, as well as ensuring that you have appropriate workers compensation insurance in place. While such insurance is compulsory, you need to be certain you have the right level of cover for your business’s situation.

If a customer is injured

If an employee who works from home also sees customers at home as part of their business activities, then you need to ensure that you have the required level of public liability insurance in place.

While public liability insurance is another compulsory one for businesses, that doesn’t mean that the insurance you have in place will provide coverage for employees who work from home. Policies will vary, so check with your insurer to be certain you are covered for all outcomes related to public liability insurance prior to agreeing to have an employee work from home.

Regardless of where your employees work, you are still responsible for their physical health and safety while at work, as well as their mental wellbeing.

You will also be required to have appropriate insurances in place. So, even if a particular employee isn’t a great fit for a working-from-home arrangement, make sure you are meeting your requirements as an employer — and it doesn’t hurt to exceed them every now and again.

If you are quite keen to offer flexible working arrangements, but you’re still unsure about the requirements such an arrangement will place on you as an employer, make sure you discuss these matters with your insurer, broker and/or business adviser to ensure you’re doing all the right things and are taking all the necessary precautions.

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