What should your employer pay for if you are working from home? Your internet? An ergonomic chair? Heating and electricity? At one government agency where two-thirds of the staff work from home, an angry dispute has erupted after it withdrew free broadband.
The Care Quality Commission employs just over 3,000 staff, inspecting care homes, GP services and hospitals across the UK. Because of its wide geographic spread, the majority of staff work from home, and until August last year the CQC installed a separate broadband line into its employees’ homes and paid the monthly bills.
But in what one worker at the CQC calls an “arbitrary decision” that “went down like a lead balloon”, the organisation told staff that the company-paid broadband would be withdrawn from the end of March 2020. In its place, the agency offered a one-off “goodwill payment” of £230.
The CQC says the reality is that most households now install their own broadband anyway, so paying for it was no longer necessary.
“This was something we introduced back when a separate line was needed and when broadband was not common in the majority of households. For the vast majority of our colleagues (92% in 2018 said they already had a personal/domestic broadband line) this is now a duplication. We know that for the vast majority of people who already have unlimited broadband provided to their home, there will be no extra cost to them.”
Unions see it differently. A Unison spokesperson, speaking on behalf of five unions, says: “Plans by the CQC to stop providing broadband for home workers contractually entitled to it have caused understandable concern among staff. The unions have made their dissatisfaction clear to managers.”
Remarkably, there are very few rules about what organisations should provide and pay for when their employees work from home.
There are about 1.7 million employees working from home, according to research by the TUC, up 27% over the past decade, with a further 4 million who say they would work from home if their employer gave them the chance.
Phil Flaxton, of Work Wise UK, a not-for-profit which aims to promote smarter working practices, says there are no hard and fast rules over who should pay for what. “It comes down to the individual organisation and the nature of working from home. There will be people contracted to work from home all the time, people who work one day a week at home, people who take the odd day every month and so on. A lot of it will come down to the size of the organisation: if you employ five people rather than 500, the dynamics are very different.”
Flaxton cites BT as a big employer that is keen on home working, with about a tenth of its workforce working remotely. Many receive an allowance to kit their home out with an ergonomic chair, desk and laptop – and, unsurprisingly, it supplies BT broadband.
Vodafone also encourages remote working, and employees approved for flexible working are given a mobile device, laptop and accessories, plus a £250 one-off payment “to help them set up their home office”.
Recruitment site Glassdoor has listed Skyscanner, the flight booking service, as the top employer for flexible working.
But not all employers, even some that have in the past championed “telecommuting,” are keen on staff working from home. In 2009, computer giant IBM boasted that 40% of its 386,000 employees in 173 countries were working remotely, shaving $2bn off the cost of providing its own offices.
But in March 2017, IBM reportedly told thousands of its workers in the US that they would have to return to the workplace or lose their job. Despite previously selling the “anytime, anywhere workforce” concept to other employers, it said the move to bring employees back into the office would improve collaboration and accelerate the pace of work.
One area where there are rules is the duty of employers to protect the health, safety and welfare of home workers who are employees. The Health and Safety Executive says: “If you employ home workers you should carry out a risk assessment of the work activities and take appropriate measures to reduce any associated risks.”
But this requirement is open to interpretation. Some big companies insist on sending out an assessor to examine working conditions if their staff are working full-time at home. In one case, a Swiss multinational paid for an external fire escape to be fitted to a home because its staff member was working in an attic room turned into a home office.
But most companies offer little more than the bare minimum, such as a questionnaire in which employees confirm that the companies are meeting basic requirements for seating and desk space.
One grey area is employees who work from home perhaps one day a week or a fortnight. A facilities manager for an international firm in London, who wished to remain anonymous, says: “A lot of companies are keen to say they offer flexible working arrangements. But many will just be giving the person a laptop, without making any further assessments. You still have a duty to look after every employee irrespective of where they are located. My expectation is that you will soon see a court case from an employee who worked partly from home and developed RSI or back issues. If the court finds in their favour, then they’ll be a lot of change.”
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