Working from home (WFH): What Powers Do HR and Employers Have Really?

This article has been republished with permission from NB Lawyers | Lawyers for Employers. Read the original article here.

COVID-19, lockdown, face masks, illness, border closures and work from home (WFH) and remote working.  These words seem to go hand in hand in our current workplace in Australia.  While many workplaces are starting to look towards getting people back to the office (or already have), there will be some employers and employees who prefer to stay working from home (WFH).

WFH is not a new concept but, has been forced upon many organisations and tested the flexibility of workplaces to accommodate WFH needs and productivity. A number of HR professionals, Managers, Directors and Employers are grappling with a prime issue: What powers do we have with regards to WFH employees?

Answer 1 – Health and Safety responsibilities still lie with the employer

Of concern for many is the issue of responsibility if an employee injures or becomes ill whilst working from home. This has manifested in a number of ways and here is a snapshot of the type of matters which have arisen and been dealt with recently:

  • An employee injured their foot whilst “walking around” their home office,
  • An employee who made a complaint to their employer that they felt more “stressed” working from home because they couldn’t “switch off”,
  • An employee who felt “pressure” whilst working from home from her husband and kids and developed mental health issues such as anxiety,
  • An employee who complained of back problems due to using a chair in their home office (not supplied by the company).

The basic fundamental health and safety obligations will still apply and that is an employer must do what is reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of an employee. There are also obligations on the employee as well to ensure their own health and safety.  Whether the employee is injured at the office or working from home – for health and safety purposes the obligations will still lie with the employer.

There is of course merit to discussions around whether the employee was engaged in work hours or in the conduct of work. There are several cases which point to a distinction.  To mitigate this risk a number of steps can be taken:

  1. Undertake a health and safety assessment, if it is not possible to do one in person, consider a self-assessment audit with undertakings by the employee that they are being honest with their assessment.
  2. Put in place a work from home policy – this should cover a number of issues but at a basic level, reminding them of their health and safety obligations, procedure to request work from home, approval requirements for equipment and company property to be supplied.
  3. Consider providing standard company property if it is an inherent requirement of the position – chairs and computers are a good example and potentially even tables, cameras and basic stationery.
  4. Consider undertaking appropriate WFH training for managers and also for employees - this will ensure expectations and standards are known.

Answer 2 - Can Work From Home arrangements be refused?

Requests to WFH will fall under flexible work arrangements. Flexible work arrangements are underpinned by the National Employment Standards. Although there are some differences between award-free employees and award (and enterprise agreement) covered employees there is a general requirement to discuss any request with the employee regarding the request.

It is important to take into consideration the:

  • Needs of the employee, and the
  • Effect for the employee if arrangements were made.

Reasonable business grounds to refuse.

The key part for employers and HR is the term “reasonable business grounds”. The criteria set focuses on the following key factors:

  • Cost (high cost)
  • The effect on other employees’ arrangements
  • new employees will be required to accommodate the arrangements
  • there would be a significant loss of productivity or/and negative impact on client/customer service

Whatever business grounds are put forward, Employers and HR need to ensure that those arguments would satisfy a Commissioner in the Fair Work Commission. That is to say, whatever you put in writing (and you have 21 days to respond) a Commissioner will look kindly on the arguments put forward.  You will need to consider all of the above to have a chance at a refusal being supported by the Fair Work Commission if it is challenged by an employee (and their representatives).

Answer 3 – Any discipline and Termination of Employment must follow a procedure

If you have not got a proven procedure for dealing with dismissal, now is the time to put one in place and ensure you are getting legal advice (to claim privilege) every step of the way.  Additionally, here are some further considerations to keep in mind:

  1. If an allegation of misconduct has been brought up such as timesheet fraud, misuse of social media, misuse of leave or data theft has occurred, the allegation should be put to the employee preferably through a show cause letter. A show cause letter gives the Employer an opportunity to consider any response by the employee including any mitigating circumstances that should be considered.
  2. Performance management should be managed in the same way even with WFH – this might mean discussions over virtually instead of in-person, but the same premise holds true.
  3. Whatever is in writing and whatever has been said should all be assumed to be exposed and potentially read or considered by a Judge or a Commissioner. Consider: will this be looked upon favourably or not? How will the risk and liability be mitigated?

With the increased likelihood of employees looking to work from home on a more permanent basis, implementing the above strategies may assist your firm in positive workplace culture and contribute to your long-term success.

If you’re interested to find out more, NB Lawyers – Lawyers for Employers offer an obligation free consultation and can undertake a review and health check for your WFH arrangements.

Jonathan Mamaril

Jonathan Mamaril

Jonathan Mamaril is a Director with NB Lawyers, the Lawyers for Employers, a TOP 10 Employment law firm in Brisbane. He leads the Employment Law and Commercial Law teams. Jonathan, as the Lawyer for Employers, has helped navigate his clients through complex Employment, Commercial and Property Law legislation, providing them with practical solutions and workplace policies to avoid headaches in the first place, and mitigate risk and liability to engender growth.

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