Working From Home - The New Reality

In a recent article, Robert Smithson addresses the employers' need to accommodate employees' desires to work from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robert Smithson, whose employment law articles are some of the best and no-nonsense we’ve seen on the subject of COVID-19, provides his perspective on the new reality of working from home, stressing the importance of policies and vigilance on the part of the employer

The original version of this article can be found on Smithson Employment Law Corporation


Like it or not, employees working remotely - from home - is now a “thing”.  The COVID-19 pandemic had many impacts on the business world but perhaps the most enduring will be employees’ desire to work from home and employers’ need to accommodate them.

On that topic, I’ve seen various reports on whether employees working remotely are as productive as those attending at the office every day.  I have little doubt that many day-to-day activities (such as, you know, old-fashioned tasks like speaking to a co-worker) are made substantially more cumbersome by their remote location.  Especially when the dryer cycle has just ended and clothes need to be folded.

Assuming that some or all of your employees are going to be working remotely going forward, there are some things you need to be addressing.

Do You Have A “Working From Home Policy”?

WorkSafeBC advises that employers who have remote employees should have a policy addressing the whole working from home scenario. This is good advice, and I wholeheartedly agree.

But, aside from cautioning your employees about spending working time doing laundry, getting groceries, or walking the dog, what else should the policy address? Here are some good suggestions.

  • Purpose

What is the point of the policy… what is it intended to achieve?

Do you wish to emphasize that working from home is a privilege, not an entitlement?

To what categories of employees does the working from home opportunity apply?

  • Manager’s Prior Approval

Must work-from-home schedules and arrangements be approved (in writing?), by the employee’s immediate supervisor?

Will the approval to work from home be subject to some sort of time limit – such as a year – after which it will be reviewed and assessed?

  • Expectations, Hours, Accountability

Are employees working from home expected to maintain their normal hours of work and job duties, and to complete their assigned duties at the same pace and frequency as if they were working at the office premises?

Are employees who are going to be absent from their home workspace for a portion of the day required to notify, and obtain the permission of, their immediate supervisor?

Are employees working from home allowed to work beyond their regularly scheduled hours, or work hours attracting so-called “overtime pay” without the prior permission of their immediate supervisor?

Are employees required to monitor, record, and report their at-home hours of work to management as usual?

Might employees working from home be required to attend at your office premises, occasionally, for various reasons?

  • Equipment and Information Security

Do you expect employees to ensure the protection of confidential/personal information security at their home workspace?

Do you require your employees to ensure that the equipment they are using for work purposes is only used for that purpose (ie. it’s not also being used to stream Netflix, save recipes, play video games, etc.)?

Do you want to retain the right to periodically request access to your at-home employees’ workspace in order to ensure compliance with your policies and procedures?

  • Revocation and Alteration of Work-From-Home Arrangements

 Do you wish to reserve the right to revoke or alter work-from-home arrangements, at any time, for operational (or other) reasons?

  • Ergonomics

 Do you wish to take an active approach to the ergonomics of at-home workspaces to ensure staff are reducing their risk of injury?

Have You Modified Your Company’s Health and Safety Policy?

Without a doubt – certainly in the view of WorkSafeBC – having a health and safety policy which provides for a work-from-home arrangement is critical. In essence, the policy should impose the obligation on the employees to maintain their home workspace in a safe manner, free from safety hazards. A non-exhaustive list of potentially relevant requirements is as follows.

  • The work-from-home space must be in a secure and generally safe and stable location where the employee can restrict access and be safe from any sort of foreseeable threat of violence.
  • The workspace must be free of environmental hazards such as asbestos, tobacco smoke, and noxious chemicals.
  • The workspace must have appropriate, safe electrical utilities which are appropriate for the equipment being operated.
  • The designated workspace must be free of slip/trip/fall hazards and obstacles such as extension cords, loose carpets and tiles, uneven floors, pets, children, children's and pets’ toys, and any other items or obstructions presenting a health and safety hazard.
  • The workspace must be mould & dust free.
  • There must be adequate lighting.
  • There must be no excessive noise or distractions.
  • There must be an ergonomically-appropriate workspace setup.
  • A basic emergency plan to evacuate the workspace in case of an emergency must be in place.
  • The employee must have access to basic first aid supplies and maintain the ability to contact external emergency services if required.
  • A plan for employees periodically checking in with the employer should be included.
  • A requirement to report any form of injury or accident in the course of the scheduled workday should be included.

Ultimately, though employers will (perhaps justifiably) offload many of these matters onto employees working from home, they are the employer’s responsibility. In the event of any sort of accident or injury, WorkSafeBC will hold the employer responsible for any workplace health and safety shortcomings, so the employer should take an active interest in the setup of a work-from-home space.

It’s a new world out there… requiring more policies and more oversight and more vigilance on the part of employers. For many employers, going back to the good old days may simply not be an option.

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This item is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice. Informed legal advice should always be obtained about your specific circumstances.

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