When Telstra manager Dale Hargreaves slipped down the stairs in her socks while working from home, she set off shock waves around the country.
The telco was found to be liable for her injuries – just as if she had caught her toe in the office lift.
Telstra was ordered to pay compensation for medical expenses and lost income in a judgment that was reported to have had the potential to have cost millions if Hargreaves had been never able to work again.
Employers who had regarded working from home as a “grace and favour” gesture to staff who wanted to avoid the commute or rebalance their family lives suddenly realised there was more to it than they thought.
Even though it is seven years since Hargreaves injured her shoulder, many employers have not heeded the lesson and are still relying on an ad hoc approach to remote working, a partner at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, Kate Jenkins, says.
To assess and mitigate risks, companies need to have policies and procedures to formalise the arrangements, just as they do at headquarters. But Jenkins says there is rarely any more danger of injury at home than there is in a workplace, or on the journey to and from work.
Scaremongering about occupational work and safety risks ignores the fact that people are working remote from the office every day when they take their iPads to a cafe or visit a client’s workplace, she says.
“There is an increasing number of people working from home but everyone is working from everywhere,” she says.
If you are considering allowing people to work remotely, there are a few things you need to do first.
1. Yes or No: Jenkins says an employer’s first decision is whether to agree to a request to work remotely.
Under the Fair Work Act, employers must consider a request to work flexibly and respond within 21 days. They can refuse if they have reasonable business grounds.
So, a travel agency with three staff – two of whom work part time – may refuse remote work for the third on the basis that someone needs to be there to provide continuity and customer service all week.
Jenkins says a common misunderstanding is that the decision must be “fair” and that people should have equal access to workplace flexibility. But this is not actually the case under the act.
In fact, an employer refusing a request may strengthen its case by showing it has been a reasonable employer by accommodating other people’s requests.
A partner in Deloitte Australia’s human capital division, Juliet Bourke, says employers should also ensure that the employee has the right kind of personality to be able to do their best work remotely.
2. Children: If someone wants to work from home for family reasons, employers should satisfy themselves that the employee has childcare arrangements that allow them to be free for work, Jenkins says.
3. Safety: An employer is liable to make sure its people are working in a safe environment, wherever they are.
Jenkins advises checking that home offices have the right kinds of chairs, desks and equipment and that the working area is clearly defined.
“There can be an initial inspection of the home and then ongoing monitoring to check it,” she says.
Relying of a photo of the area, taken by an employee, may not be enough.
4. Technology: Some employers provide computers and mobile phones.
Employers are grappling with the issue of how to police the use of technology they don’t own. They are limited in what they can do about the use of a device, outside of work hours, that has been paid for by the employee.
Company policies should address appropriate use of social media (not posting defamatory things about colleagues), privacy (not taking or posting photos of colleagues), security (avoiding sending confidential information home through personal email addresses) and keeping mobile devices secure so they cannot be easily stolen or improperly accessed.
“Most of my clients use standalone personal devices policies,” Jenkins says.
5. Support: Bourke says people working from home need technological support, which may include crowdsourcing answers to problems, as well as a call centre support desk. They need connectivity through 4G and access to teleconferencing, as well as reimbursements for use of home equipment such as a landline.
6. Return to base: Bourke says there should be an agreement about when the employee must be back on the premises for team meetings, training or feedback with managers.
Social events should be staggered throughout the week to allow everybody the chance to take part at some stage, no matter which days they are in the office, she says.
7. Contact:Some people like to work set hours, while others will dip in and out during the day and night. It should be clear when they can be contacted and when they should be left alone.