- With the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the number of people working from home.
- In New South Wales, employers are legally obliged to allow employees to work remotely wherever reasonably practicable.
- The following is a brief summary of the main obligations of employers and employees, and some practical suggestions to help both parties discharge those obligations.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the number of people working from home including in the legal profession. Indeed, in New South Wales employers continue to be under a legal obligation to allow their employees to do their job from home wherever reasonably practicable (Public Health Act 2001 (NSW), s 7; Public Health (Covid-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order (No 4) 2020, cl 6).
However, obligations under the Work, Health and Safety Act 2011 (NSW) (‘WHS Act’) do not cease merely because the duties of employment are performed remotely in a space not owned or controlled by the employer. The following is a brief summary of the main obligations of employers and employees, and some practical suggestions to help both parties discharge those obligations.
Employers remain responsible for taking all reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of workers. In the working from home context, this can include:
- consulting with workers generally and at an individual level about whether they can/want to work from home. As the situation continues to evolve, employers will also have to consult about any proposals to phase out or end working from home arrangements. Not everyone will have the same requirements and these will need to be individually accommodated. For example, persons with underlying health conditions may need to delay a return to the central workplace for longer than others.
- checking if the worker has a physically safe space from which to work. A separate study area would be ideal but is not practicable in all households. Employers can require workers to complete a checklist (see, e.g. nsw.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-05/Working-from-home-workplace-pdf) or can arrange a video meeting so that the work space can be visually inspected and room for modifications/improvements identified.
- provision of necessary equipment, e.g. desks, monitors and ergonomic chairs.
- considering the strain that working from home can place on mental health:
– Communicate, communicate, communicate to ensure requirements are clear and to help prevent feelings of isolation and exclusion;
– Remind employees that even though they are working from home, they retain the right to take time off work if unwell and, of course, to utilise annual leave;
– Provide access to Employee Assistance Programs if workers are struggling with mental health aspects of working from home.