Working from Home and Coronavirus: a Guide for Employees and Employers, Updated 7th April 2020 – The Coronavirus outbreak has led to a significant number of companies moving to a working from home business model.
In this article, I have tried to put together a comprehensive guide for both employees and employers with all the most relevant questions and FAQs about working from home and Coronavirus.
The audience I have in mind for the article is employees and employers living in the UK, Ireland and US but most of the principles of this post can be applied globally.
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Being the outbreak a recent event (I couldn’t find any recent data for the UK), there isn’t a significant amount of numbers or statistics about it.
Last time UK and Irish people were advised to work from home was back in February 2018. The reason was the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ storm.
How Many People Are Working from Home during COVID-19?
In Ireland it seems that more than 100,000 employees had to switch to working from home as a precaution against the spreading of COVID-19 (source: joe.ie).
This in addition to the 218,000 people already working from home before of the Coronavirus outbreak (source: irishtimes.com).
A ballpark figure would then suggest that more than 318,000 Irish people are currently working from home.
The total workforce in Ireland is estimated at 2.28 millions (source: irishtimes.com) with the following categories temporarily not working:
- Hospitality, estimated at 177,000 (source: irishtimes.com).
- Restaurants and cafes, estimated at 72,000 (source: rai.ie).
- Primary and secondary school teachers, estimated at 97,000 (source: education.ie).
- Academic and non-, estimated at 23,000 (source: hea.ie).
At the time of writing, the current industries are considering the pausing of operations:
- Retail, estimated at 280,000 (source: retailireland.ie).
- Banks, estimated at 25,000 (source: wikipedia.org).
In the worst case scenario where all the above industries shut down, this will leave us with a ballpark figure of 1,600,000 representing the total number of people currently working in Ireland.
This means that nearly 20% of the currently-working population is working from home.
How Common is Working from Home?
Working from home is not very common. In the UK, there were 1.3 million people working from home as of 2019.
An additional 300,000 people work in the same grounds or building as their homes, while 2.7 million people work in different places but use home as their base (source: telegraph.co.uk).
The total workforce in the UK is estimated at 56.5 million employees (source: wikipedia.org).
In the US, out of a total of 160 million employees, only 8 million people or 5% of the total workforce worked from home as of 2017 (source: qz.com).
Will Working from Home Become the Norm?
Although working from home is not as common as it might seem, the unprecedented circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak could change this scenario.
In the words of Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress and Tumblr owner Automattic (source: theguardian.com):
Millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick… This might be a chance for a great reset in terms of how we work.
A selection of the most relevant questions and FAQs about working from home and Coronavirus.
The questions focus on the profile and perspective of an average employee in the UK, Ireland and US.
Should I work from Home during COVID-19?
Working from home reduces the number of interactions with other people, for example work colleagues or simple passengers on public transport.
By reducing the number of interactions, you will reduce the risk of both catching or spreading the Coronavirus.
If your job allows the flexibility of working from home, this could be an ideal moment to avail of the benefits.
In the words of Harvard epidemiologist William Hanage:
Everyone who can work from home should work from home.
The UK government has also advised (as of 16 March) that wherever possible people should work at home.
Will Working from Home Prevent Me from Catching or Spreading COVID-19?
Yes, for the reasons mentioned above working from home will limit the number of interactions. This means fewer opportunities for the virus to spread or for you to catch it.
Who Is at High-Risk of Catching COVID-19?
From the HSE website:
There are some groups of people who may be more at risk of serious illness if they catch coronavirus […].
You are more at risk of serious illness if you catch coronavirus and you:
- are 60 years of age and over – people over 75 are particularly vulnerable
- have a long-term medical condition – for example, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, cancer or high blood pressure
- have a weak immune system (immunosuppressed)
I am in the High-Risk Group: Should I Work from Home?
If you fall in one of the categories mentioned above or you have a pre-existing medical condition such as respiratory problems, asthma, immunocompromised system or heart problems, you are ‘more vulnerable to serious complications of the virus (source: cipd.co.uk)’.
As such, you might want to avoid ‘contact with people who might have the coronavirus at work or on public transport’.
If that’s the case, you are likely to get the support from your employer when asking to work from home.
I Live with an Elderly: Should I Work from Home?
If you are living with a family member who is in the high-risk group, like an elderly, you should consider working from home. This will prevent you from catching the Coronavirus and passing it on to your family members.
When Must Employees Self-Isolate or Work from Home?
The HSE advice to stop spreading the Coronavirus is about restricted movements and self-isolation:
Restricted movements means avoiding contact with other people and social situations as much as possible. It is sometimes referred to as self-quarantine.
You do this to stop other people from getting coronavirus.
You need to restrict your movements if you do not have symptoms of coronavirus but you are:
- a close contact of a confirmed case of coronavirus
- returning to Ireland from another country
Self-isolation means staying indoors and completely avoiding contact with other people. You need to do this if you have symptoms of coronavirus. This is to stop other people from getting it.
You will need to self-isolate:
- if you have symptoms of coronavirus
- before you get tested for coronavirus
- while you wait for test results
- if you have had a positive test result for coronavirus
In both cases, the general advice is the same: don’t go to work. If you don’t have any symptoms, stay in and work from home. If you have developed symptoms, you ‘should be on sick leave, and therefore not working’ (source: pinsentmasons.com).
How Do I Tell My Boss I Want to Work from Home?
If your request to work from home is backed up by health and safety reasons, and your work can be carried out remotely without any major disruption, your employers should have no problem with your request.
Most governments, including UK, Ireland and US, advice employers on being flexible with employees about working from home.
In the US it’s recommended that you ‘work or engage in schooling from home whenever possible’.
How Does My Boss Know I am Actually Working?
Unless some form of time-tracking is in place, your employer cannot check in or track everyone’s work remotely.
This is especially true if you work for a corporation or large enterprise.
If you work for an SME, your performance might still be quite evident despite the fact of working from home.
Can My Boss Refuse to Let Me Work from Home?
In the words of Mini Setty, partner in Employment Law at Langleys Solicitors in York (source: yorkpress.co.uk):
If an individual needs to self-isolate on the advice of NHS 111 [or HSE] or a doctor, then their employer has an obligation to enable this. Whether it is treated as sick leave or the individual is required to work from home will depend on whether the self-isolation is precautionary or because of symptoms of infection.
If it’s a case of voluntary self-isolation, here’s Mini Setty again:
“If self-isolation is an individual choice rather than a policy mandated by the NHS or the employer, then employer and employee should have a discussion about the best way forward.
I Live with an Elderly: What Are My Work from Home Rights?
If you can carry out all or most of your work from home, then generally this should be considered enough by your employer for letting you work from home.
If you are unable to complete your tasks from home, then you will need to have an open discussion with your employers.
Taking this time from home as a holiday or unpaid leave might be an option.
A selection of the most relevant questions and FAQs about working from home and Coronavirus.
The questions focus on the profile and perspective of an average employers in the UK, Ireland and US.
Can I Ask an Employee to Work from Home?
If there is no clause in the contract between the employer and employee, asking an employee to work from home might be considered a breach of the agreement.
However, if the motivation for the request is to protect the health and safety of the workforce or to follow the advice from the government, this generally prevails.
It is the case when the ‘mass movement of people is prohibited/ not recommended’ following advice from the government (source: yorkpress.co.uk).
Can an Employee Refuse to Work from Home?
If the request to work from home is to protect the health and safety of the workforce or to follow the advice from the government, then the employee refusing to comply could face disciplinary action.
Can I Enforce Workplace Working during the COVID-19 Outbreak?
If going into work represents a generally recognised risk for the employees’ health, then employers should show flexibility.
In the words of Robin B. Jeffcott, European Vice Chair for Reed Smith’s Litigation Department, and Alison Heaton:
Where individuals are not unwell but are genuinely concerned about attending work, or travelling for work, due to potential risks to their health, they should be shown sympathy.
If it’s the case of a ‘negligible risk’:
Individuals who unreasonably refuse to attend work, for example, where there is negligible risk, could face action under disciplinary and/or absence policies.
Can I Refuse Access to Work to an Employee Because of COVID-19?
If you have legitimate reasons to believe that the health and safety of your staff is at risk, you can suspend an employee fro the workplace, ‘although the decision to suspend employees should not be discriminatory’ (source: reedsmith.com).
Can I Ask Employees or Visitors about Their Recent Travel History?
Based on the guidance by the The Data Protection Commission (DPC) and considering the current, unprecedented circumstances, an employer can ask employees and visitors questions about their recent travel whereabouts.
Can I Ask an Employee to Undergo a Medical Examination?
If there is a clause in the contract regulating this eventuality, ‘the employee cannot reasonably refuse to be medically examined’ (source: pinsentmasons.com).
If no such clause is present in the agreement, then the employer should seek a reasonable agreement with the employee.
How Can I Protect Employees from COVID-19?
The best way to go would be to lay out a plan concerning all the steps that you are going to take to prevent an outbreak.
Jason McMenamin at Pinsent Masons recommends:
- carrying out a risk assessment, ensuring good hygiene practices in the workplace and training employees on recognising coronavirus symptoms and the steps they should take if they suspect they may have come into contract with someone who is infected;
- providing alcohol-based hand sanitiser and tissues in the office;
- keeping up to date with local government advice as well as World Health Organisation (WHO) updates and communicating these to employees;
- updating any policies and procedures which may be affected by an outbreak of coronavirus, including sickness, absence and agile working policies;
- reducing non-essential business travel or conducting meetings via video link; and
- asking employees to report to HR if they have been to a high-risk destination or if they have been in contact with someone who has been to a high-risk destination regardless of whether they are exhibiting symptoms.
According to COVID-19: guidance for employers and businesses – Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Public Health England, an employee with symptoms similar to the COVID-19 one ‘should be moved to an area at least two metres away from other people’ and you should call NHS (UK), HSE (Ireland) or CDC (US).
The recent advice from the UK government is confusing. On the page where they recommend (source: gov.co.uk)…
those who develop ‘continuous cough or a high temperature in the business or workplace they should be sent home and advised to follow the stay at home guidance’.
…they also say:
It is not necessary to close the business or workplace or send any staff home, unless government policy changes.
The HSE website for Ireland only states ‘If you are well, but you have been in close contact with a case of coronavirus you will need to restrict your movements’, which means ‘Do not go to school, college or work’ (source: hse.ie).
In the US, the CDC recommends that ’employees who have symptoms (i.e., fever, cough, or shortness of breath) should notify their supervisor and stay home’.
Those employees who show symptoms ‘upon arrival at work or who become sick during the day should immediately be separated from other employees, customers, and visitors and sent home’ (source:cdc.gov).
At the time of writing none of the sources from this research, including HSE, NHS, CDC or other legal experts, clarifies when and in what circumstances is advisable to close the workplace.
If there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the workplace, the advice is to inform the rest of the workforce without revealing the employee’s name.
Mini Setty from Langleys Solicitors recommends:
If a business does have a confirmed case of coronavirus, it should inform the rest of the workforce, however it must withhold the employees’ identity under UK data protection law.
Naturally, hiding the identity of the sick employee can be quite difficult, especially in an small business.
If you don’t have a working from home policy in place, now it’s an appropriate time to create one.
If you already have a policy concerning remote working, you might want to review and upgrade it accordingly.
Fisher Phillips recommend some practical steps to prepare for a working from home scenario (source: fisherphillips.com):
- Take an inventory of the types of equipment your workers would need to get their job done and ensure they have access to them. This could include laptops, desktop computers, monitors, phones, printers, chargers, office supplies, and similar materials.
- Encourage your employees to prepare for the possibility of an immediate instruction to work at home. They may want to develop a “ready bag” that they take home with them at the end of each day that would allow them to begin working remotely at a moment’s notice. This would obviously include laptops, smartphones, and other related technology, but could also include physical items (such as binders, documents, materials).
- Make sure you consider and clearly communicate with your workers about which physical items are acceptable to be taken from the workplace and which need to stay in your location at all times.
- You might want to take the time now to digitise any relevant physical materials to make remote working easier.
- You will also want to communicate with your workforce about whether they can or should take digital photos of physical calendars, whiteboards, Kanban boards with stickie notes, or similar items, or whether they are prohibited from doing so.
Is the Employer Liable for Employees’ Health and Safety at Home?
Employers are responsible for employees’ health and safety when they are working from both home or office.
‘This means that employers should usually conduct risk assessments of all the work activities carried out by employees, including those working from home’ (source: cipd.co.uk).
A list of all the sources used for the research and writing of the article ‘Working from Home and Coronavirus: a Guide for Employees and Employers’.
Sources include links to webpages and photos.
Illustrations and graphics for ‘Working from Home and Coronavirus: a Guide for Employees and Employers’ by Ranielle Montanini.