Working from home must be handled with caution

Any arrangement should be drawn up with the same attention to risk as a contract of employment, advises Gill Taylor

Gill Taylor
Gill Taylor

We think of home working as a good thing these days. It has many positive aspects: it saves on office costs, staff like it because it saves on commuting time and they get more flexibility, and staff who need to do research can find it beneficial to be away from the hubbub and distractions of the office environment.

Research shows home workers are generally more productive. A survey in 2011 by the Confederation of British Industry found that the percentage of employers offering home working was 59 per cent, up from 13 per cent in 2006.

Overall, employers and HR professionals are well disposed towards home working, but what about the negative side? In February, Yahoo banned its staff from remote working, citing the importance of face-to-face networking and collaboration. This attracted a flurry of commentary about the company flowing against the tide and it being an odd move for a technology-based enterprise. The overall conclusion was that some chief executives and managers are still reluctant to trust their staff when they are out of sight.

But even if we are keen on home working, we need to proceed with caution. Consider this decision by the Information Commissioner: Aberdeen City Council was fined £100,000 in August for failing to take adequate security precautions when it allowed an employee to work from home.

The employee was using her own personal computer and inadvertently uploaded several documents that contained highly confidential social work information to a website that was publicly available. This was a serious breach of the relevant data protection principle of the Data Protection Act.

The Information Commissioner pointed out that the council had a teleworking policy that addressed health and safety but had not considered the risks to information security.

It is a timely reminder that critical aspects of home working can often get overlooked. It has always been important to set up a proper home-working agreement with home workers on a range of issues, including health and safety, insurance, availability and contact arrangements. Technical issues are increasingly important: whose equipment will be used? Who is responsible for ensuring the set-up is secure enough? How should data be transmitted between the home environment and the employer's system?

The Information Commissioner's fine should remind us to audit our strategies on home working as well as the technical detail of the arrangements that we put in place. Strategically, it is a good idea for suitable roles. Practically, any home-working agreement should be drawn up with the same care and attention to risk as a contract of employment, and signed by both parties. Template home-working policies can be found on the internet.

Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant

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