Dentons is the latest legal firm to close some of its UK offices to cater for full-time remote working. Legal firms are finally waking up to the fact that lawyers can work just as effectively at home as they can in expensive offices.
That doesn't mean you can just instruct staff to work from home with immediate effect, though. In my last article I emphasised the importance of consulting with lawyers and support staff about changes to their place of work. In this article I am looking at the practicalities: the Health and Safety aspects and the need for a homeworking policy.
When the lockdown hit us, many lawyers were told to work from home with very little notice. There was no time to follow the usual procedures and health and safety checks. Now that lawyers are embracing the WFH culture and looking to make it a more permanent thing, firms need to carry out a risk assessment of all the work activities carried out by their homeworkers so they can identify any hazards and assess the degree of risk. This will include consideration of the following:
- Equipment supplied by the employer must be suitable for its purpose, maintained in good working order and inspected regularly. Suitable and sufficient lighting must also be provided in any place where a person uses work equipment.
- Employees should be guided to carry out a full workstation assessment and advice should be given about the risks of using display screen equipment and how to control these: avoiding awkward postures for instance and taking regular breaks from the screen. Reasonable adjustments will have to be made for any employees with disabilities
- First aid. An employer must supply appropriate first aid provisions to all employees, including homeworkers. The risks to lawyers are relatively low so a simple first aid kit should suffice.
- It can be difficult to enforce boundaries between work and home life when your office is a mere 10 step commute away. This, together with the lack of support networks available to those who work in the office, can lead to an increased risk of stress. Employers should be aware of this issue and consider steps to monitor work and stress levels. You could encourage your staff to have regular start and finish times and hold a quick ‘closing down’ meeting at the end of the day when everyone logs off. (You may have to make exceptions for those in the commercial team working on one of those inevitable late-night deals!).
- Isolation is a major cause of depression and partners should maintain regular contact with homeworkers and try to integrate them into the team where possible. It’s important to keep them updated about any changes to the business and involve them in social events, seminars etc. Encourage employees to speak to their supervising partner or HR if they ever feel isolated, left out, or lacking guidance or support.
There can be some confusion about the practicalities of working at home, which is why all firms should have a clear policy. Here are a few points you will want to include:
- Security, confidentiality and data protection – The SRA will come down hard on breaches of client confidentiality so strict controls are required for homeworkers. They should have adequate facilities to ensure they can follow the same rules for storing and transmitting information at home as they would in the office. Make it clear in your policy that homeworkers must keep information and data secure and comply with data protection requirements.
- Property and equipment - Who will provide this and can it be used by other members of the household? Can lawyers use their own laptops? These questions can be answered in the policy and guidance can be given about the support available for the inevitable IT problems.
- Bills and expenses –the policy should make clear who is responsible for what. Will the employee have to purchase stationary or will you supply it? Can they recover the costs of travelling to the office for a conference with counsel? Will you contribute towards household bills?
- Childcare - a lot of us have had to juggle work and childcare over the last few months, but this can’t be part of a permanent WFH arrangement. You need to make it clear that homeworking is not a substitute for suitable care arrangements and dependents need to be looked after by someone other than the employee when they are working.
- Accessing the employee’s home – the policy will need to set out arrangements for access as this will be required for carrying out risk assessments and checking and repairing equipment.
- Management - Firms should set out how employees who work from home will be managed consistently with office staff and given the same opportunities for training, development and promotion. There may be some flexibility around working hours but partners should ensure that employees are clear about the core hours when they should be at work.
Do contact me at Rachel.firstname.lastname@example.org if you need a homeworking policy or require assistance with the health and safety issues.
'The success of remote working during lockdown has made us really stop and think about how we can learn from this new way of working to accelerate the physical and behavioural changes that form part of our strategy to build the law firm of the future.