So you’ve been asked to work from home.
Doing so usually requires changing aspects of your relationship with your employer. What it doesn’t change is that your relationship is based on mutual obligations. These remain exactly the same even though you work at home.
Your employer’s duties, under both industrial relations and work health and safety laws, are to ensure you are able to work safely at home, and to cover reasonable expenses. Your obligation is to work if you want to be paid.
A safe workspace
In Australia, an employer has a legal duty of care for the health and safety of workers “so far as is reasonably practicable”. This duty is contained under the uniform work health and safety legislation of states and territories – see, for example, the Queensland legislation.
That duty of care extends to anywhere work is performed. If you are asked to work from home, your employer is responsible to ensure this does not pose a risk to your health and safety.
Some organisations conduct formal inspections of homes before approving working-from-home arrangements. That may not be practical in current circumstances.
The next best option might be a virtual tour using virtual meeting software such as Google hangouts or Zoom. At a minimum, your employer should provide you with a health and safety checklist, specifying considerations such as:
- a safe work space free from trip hazards (such as rugs and cables)
- a broadly safe environment including an exit, smoke alarms and a first aid kit
- appropriate lighting and ventilation
- ergonomic requirements such as a desk large enough for tasks, phone and mouse within reach
- a chair that adjusts to ensure your feet are flat on the floor
- a computer screen positioned for your eyes to meet the top of the screen
Your employer’s primary responsibility under industrial relations law is to pay you for the work you do under applicable awards, enterprise agreements and contracts.
Your employer is also responsible for providing you with the appropriate resources for work to be carried out. These might include a computer with systems to access and protect work files, a headset, a webcam and virtual meeting software.
There is an implied obligation also to reimburse you for expenses incurred while working at home, such as extra electricity or internet access.
This obligation may be spelled out in an enterprise agreement or a working-from-home policy, but not all organisations have codified entitlements. You may need to establish with your employer what costs will be reimbursed, what limits apply, and what approvals are required.
If your employer does not reimburse you for running costs – because the paperwork is arduous and the amount usually small – remember you can also claim work-related expenses, including the cost of a dedicated work area, as tax deductions. Claimable expenses are set out on the Australian Taxation Office’s website.
In allowing you to work from home, your employer is demonstrating a degree of trust that past generations of managers would have found unacceptable. Your obligation is to do the right thing even without direct supervision, observing the same practices as normally expected by your employer.
All your usual employee responsibilities from the workplace continue to apply, such as obeying lawful directions and working to the best of your ability.
Much has been written on how best to work at home. There are some common themes. Get dressed for work, so that you feel “at work” and behave accordingly. Maintain a separate work space, so there is a clear delineation between work and leisure. Ensure you take breaks to maintain your health and well-being.
Another aspect of well-being you will need to pay conscious attention to is minimising the psychological stress of isolation.
Working from home can be isolating in the best of times, and in the current situation this is arguably also an aspect of your employer’s duty of care. But this is something that cannot be easily codified and will require goodwill and negotiation. You and your employer may need to consider new routines for communication to ensure working at home is about physical distancing and social solidarity, not social isolation.