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Working from home - Considerations for Legal Firms

The 21st Century...we have the internet, wifi, broadband, mobile phones, and all the ingredients to make working from home easier than it has ever been before.

With office space at a premium, difficulty in attracting people who want to work traditional hours, and legislation for flexible working, more and more legal firms are allowing their personnel to work from home.

There are however, things that firms as employers have to consider when personnel work from home;

• There are different degrees of homeworking or tele-commuting - some people work almost entirely at home while others work from home only occasionally
• As employers, firms have to consider if the job and job holder are suitable for homeworking
• Homeworking or tele-working may be considered as a reasonable adjustment to allow a disabled worker to carry on with their role

Homeworking presents challenges to firms and their employees. From the employer's perspective, this can include managing staff who work on their own and away from the main business headquarters. For employees, it can include overcoming feelings of isolation and managing the boundaries between home and work life.

What is homeworking?

Homeworking, or tele-commuting can cover a variety of arrangements:

• Working entirely at home apart from attending regular or occasional meetings at the office or with clients
• Time split between office and home or with clients - for example, two days
• Working from home occasionally on an ad-hoc basis

Homeworking is a type of flexible working which, depending on the agreement between a firm and its employees, can also be used in conjunction with other arrangements such as flexible hours, working part-time, term-time working or the employer's core hours. For those firms that are Lexcel accredited, they are already required to have a Flexible Working Policy under the latest version, V6.

However, homeworking and other forms of flexible working do not have to be used together. For example, an employer could stipulate that a homeworker works the same working pattern as office-based staff.

Things for firms to consider as employers...

One of the first steps for the firm is considering whether the job is suitable for homeworking or tele-working. Many roles may be, but others may not.

Firms may find that cost saving or a need for a wider geographical spread of staff mean they might consider homeworking. Some other factors to consider include whether the role needs:

• Team working
• Face-to-face supervision - remember Legal Aid Agency requirements
• Equipment & Technology (and will it be cost-effective to install in the home?)
• Equipment which can only be in the firm's office

Homeworking can be seen as an attractive option, but it will not suit everyone. A homeworker needs to be able to cope with working on their own with little supervision. They ideally need to be:

• Able to spend long periods on their own and be confident working without supervision
• Self-disciplined and self-motivated
• Able to separate work from home life

Firms wanting to allow homeworking should have a clear policy on homeworking, and it should cover at least the following topics;

Workload - Reporting and monitoring - arrangements for monitoring, supervision, setting workloads, etc., will need to be agreed with the employee's line manager in line with normal procedures, or one-off home working, the precise project or task must be agreed beforehand.

Equipment - Employees who are required to work from home would normally have all equipment and associated costs covered by the firm, however, where an employee chooses to work from home, and this is agreed by the line manager, they would normally provide their own equipment.

Any equipment provided by the firm for the purposes of working at home will be inspected and maintained by the employer. The member of staff is required to take reasonable care of all equipment, to keep it secure and to use it in accordance with operating instructions, and the IT policy and more importantly the Information Security Policy. They must ensure that any such equipment provided is returned at the end of the arrangement. Equipment must NOT be left unattended in any vehicle at any time.

Insurance Cover - Employees have to be advised that working from home may affect the provisions of any home contents insurance and are advised to inform their insurers prior to commencing working from home. Computer equipment will be insured through the insurance policies. Laptops are insured while in suitable secured premises or on the person. They are not insured when left unattended in vehicles.

Personal Details and Safety - Employees have to be advised not to release their home address and telephone number to non-members of staff. Employees are also strongly advised not to meet volunteers, clients at home. In the event that any employee feels this is essential they must gain prior approval from their line manager.

Confidentiality and Access - This is a tricky requirement in most homes - Equipment and files should only be accessible to the employee and safeguarded from access by other members of the household and visitors. Also practice staff and regulators should have access at a reasonable time to equipment and any paper records kept at an employee's home.

Health and Safety - As an employer, a legal firm has a duty to protect its staff's health and safety at work in accordance with the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the regulations made under it.

Employees are required to comply with the employer's Health and Safety Policy while they are at work and to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and that of any third party with whom they come into contact during the course of their employment.

Sickness Absence - In the event that the member of staff is sick during a period of working at home, the firm's normal sickness reporting rules must be followed.

Travel costs and other expenses - Claims may be made for travel to appointments from and to the ‘normal place of work', i.e. the employee's home. This normally includes travel costs for journeys to the main practice office for occasional meetings, provided the office does not become a ‘permanent work place' as defined by HM Revenue & Customs guidance.

Employees based at home are expected to provide their own furniture, heating, lighting, etc., while the firm will cover the costs of consumables - stationery, etc., - and communication, for example through a dedicated broadband connection.