By Gillian MacLellan

When the Government instructed office workers to work from home in March, few employers thought they would still be in this situation seven months later. Although English office-based workers saw a temporary reprieve from this message between August and September, the position did not change in Scotland.

As individuals adjust perspectives to look at life with restrictions over the winter months, employers must look at arrangements for supporting remote workers through a longer-term lens. Health and safety is a critical issue for employers here and a key step is risk assessment. At the start of the pandemic, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) updated its lone worker guidance explaining that employers did not need to do home workstation assessments for those working temporarily at home. A workstation assessment is however required for those who are permanently home-working. Seven months on, can employers still say that the pandemic home-working arrangements are temporary? The HSE guidance still suggests that home-working for Covid-19 is “temporary”, and a full workstation assessment does not appear to be required. That said, given this extended period of temporary home working, the HSE recommend employers have regular discussions with workers to assess whether extra support is needed.

It’s not just the physical arrangements that employers need think about. A study by Nuffield Health in June reported that 80 per cent of British workers feel working from home has negatively impacted their mental health. A key factor appears to be the blurring of the distinction between home and work. The danger is that “working from home” becomes “living in work”. Employers can play a role here by ensuring their workforce understand the importance of switching off and that they are not expected to be online 24/7. It is interesting that several countries are looking to intervene and regulate this area. Ireland carried out a consultation this summer on remote working guidelines in light of Covid-19 which includes the “right to disconnect”. Spain is considering a draft Bill regulating home-working after the pandemic which includes a right to a “digital switch off” in order to avoid using work technology during the employee's resting periods. France introduced a statutory “right to disconnect” in 2017 for employers with more than 50 staff.

Of course mental health challenges for remote workers involve more than the “always on” mentality. Many employees report feeling disconnected and lonely, missing office interactions. Employers need to think what they can do to encourage human interaction. In many organisations, the initial rush of virtual quizzes and pub drinks has dried up, with employees suffering from “zoom call fatigue”. As we go into winter and face many more months of home-working, it’s important employers look at this again to try to find ways to keep employees connected. It’s a hard balance to get right for everyone and tricky to come up with new ideas when there are so many restrictions. Employers should ask their workforce for their suggestions; we are in uncharted territory here and nobody has the monopoly on good ideas. Also, asking employees and acting on their suggestions may well in itself help employees feel engaged and listened to. It may also ensure there is an increased desire on employees’ part for these measures to succeed.

We all keep talking about “the new norm”. It’s a convenient but dangerous shorthand. Employers need to remember the circumstances of those working from home as a result of the pandemic are anything but normal; if sufficient thought is not put in to make remote working “work” over the winter months, employers and employees may pay the price in the longer term.

Gillian MacLellan is a partner at international law firm CMS