WEDNESDAY 9 SEP 2020 11:09 AM


Communicate magazine spoke to James Tamm, director of legal services at Ellis Whittam, a firm supporting agencies and client-side businesses with Employment Law, HR and Health & Safety, about the shift to working from home and what employers need to know.

What are the responsibilities a PR employer has for his/her staff as working from home becomes the new normal?

If you still plan to have staff work from home temporarily until it is safe and practical to return to the workplace, this is unlikely to change an employee’s contractual place of work. However, if you’re considering having some or all of your team work from home on a more permanent basis, you will need to agree with them variation to terms. Changing contractual terms can be tricky if you’re trying to enforce something less favourable, but at Ellis Whittam, we’re currently seeing that most employees aren’t complaining about a shift to more flexible working arrangements. Whilst obtaining agreement should be relatively hassle-free, employers do by law need an employee’s consent and must then issue an amendment to their terms and conditions.

As an employer, you have to remember that your duty of care extends to homeworkers too. You should support all your team to carry out a homeworking risk assessment to identify potential hazards and ensure remote employees have everything they need to work safely and comfortably.

What kind of extra support can be given to employees?

It can be all too easy to assume that everyone will be on board with homeworking, seeing it as a way to save time and money on commuting in, and avoid some of the other stresses associated with office life. But you must remember that some employees, even those who may have appreciated temporary homeworking arrangements, might not relish the idea of this becoming the norm.

The marketing, PR and communications industry is full of young people who might not have a perfectly suitable homeworking space and may also worry about a lack of direction if they’re not in an office. Equally, some employees may have a domestic situation that makes it difficult for them to permanently work from home. Some may live alone and experience feelings of isolation. In these cases, and others, I recommend first properly weighing up whether homeworking will be beneficial, or whether it may destabilise your budding team.

If you take the plunge, ensure your people management processes are fit for purpose. Also look at all the technology that’s available to keep your team supported. Use collaborative working software to simulate office culture, have regular one-to-ones with employees to check in on their workload and mental health, and take the time to find out how your team best absorb and retain information so that you can experiment with different ways of working – Zoom or Teams calls might not suit every learning type. When someone is doing their role remotely, don’t overlook possible frustrations around technology, software and access to information – these can all be another source of stress.

How will health and safety change? Will employers have a legal responsibility to their employees even if they are not in the office?

Health and safety isn’t typically what comes to mind when you think of the most pressing matters in the world of PR! But the fact is, employers can’t afford to ignore it. Your duty is to eliminate and minimise risks to homeworkers as far as is “reasonably practicable”. In other words, unless the time, cost and effort involved in implementing a control far outweighs the risk posed, you would be expected to take said precaution.

Of course, employers aren’t responsible for everything that goes on in someone’s home. You wouldn’t, for example, be expected to record someone tripping over a family pet in their living room as a workplace accident. However, electrocution while using a work laptop would need to be logged. The responsibility is primarily on the employer, but there is also a duty on employees to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by their work, as well as to report all employment-related hazards and cooperate with their employer on health and safety matters. This includes using work equipment correctly.

It’s important to remember that employers must follow longstanding health and safety law, which hasn’t changed with the emergence of COVID-19.

With employers needing to be in constant communication with one another and with their employees, will the role of internal communication expand?

Company culture everywhere is going through a testing time, regardless of industry and organisation size. At Ellis Whittam, we support businesses at both ends of the spectrum – from those currently prospering and growing their workforce, to those facing difficult decisions including redundancies.

Strong internal communication is vital in so many areas, and with dispersed teams, it should be a major component of any employer’s HR practices right now. From a legal perspective, there is good reason for this too. For example, not only is it a legal requirement to consult with employees on health and safety matters but actively involving them will help to instil confidence and protect against employee complaints.

It is important to note than working remotely doesn’t mean you can choose to ignore certain legal duties. For example, in any redundancy exercise, meaningful consultation is key, and employers mustn’t overlook this component just because it’s impractical right now. You may have to get creative – using technology to create as near-normal an experience as possible.