The Government’s recommendation that employers in the UK allow employees to homework (where possible) came as no big surprise to many employers who had already decided to try to keep ahead of the virus and to limit its spread in the workplace by activating certain pre-existing contingency plans such as homeworking. The second phase for UK employers to consider is how they prepare for the impact of school/nursery closures on their homeworking employees.

The Government imposed school closures from this Friday will have a profound, albeit hopefully short-term, effect, on workforces throughout the UK. Experience from our European counterparts where school closures have been enforced already shows the challenges that home-schooling may bring. While schools will put online portals up and the children complete lots of daily tasks, trying to get children of different ages and abilities to work effectively is a considerable challenge. While it may help to alleviate boredom caused by social distancing, helping and spending time explaining and encouraging children then to undertake the assigned tasks may be near impossible, particularly where employees are juggling this added pressure with their daily working commitments.

Pre-COVID-19 it would have been wholly appropriate, and usual, for employers to refuse homeworking requests on the basis that adequate childcare provisions were not in place; it would never be appropriate for employees to have screaming children interrupting what was then “business as usual”. But as the COVID-19 outbreak escalates, employers must rethink this and take a realistic, pragmatic approach to what lies ahead. When schools and nurseries close, the majority of parents in the workplace will face this issue and putting a blanket ban on working from home while also looking after children simply will not work. Employers must be prepared to take a more relaxed approach to homeworking and allow employees to work around their childcare responsibilities. The alternative is to encourage staff to use statutory rights to time off to care for dependents, annual leave or parental leave.

What can employers do to prepare?

  • It’s important to consider the effect that school and nursery closures will have on the business and employees. At this stage, employers should look to identify business-critical roles and how they can be maintained.
  • An assessment of employees with parental responsibilities can be carried out and while employers must take care to avoid any discriminatory acts in consequence of such an assessment, employers should look to ascertain the number of employees within the business who will have childcare responsibilities if there are school/nursery closures. This, tied in with careful COVID-19 communication, could be a useful planning tool. For example, employees could be asked to complete a questionnaire confirming:
    • the number of dependent children within their household;
    • whether the employee would be the primary carer in the event of school closures;
    • whether it would be possible to share the caring responsibilities with a partner; and
    • whether the employee anticipates that effective homeworking can be facilitated following a school closure;
      • if so, would they suggest any adjustments to their current working arrangements?
      • if not, would they be seeking to take a period of parental leave?
  • With social distancing generally, employers and employees need to make a concerted effort to stay in touch with colleagues. Employees should be encouraged to speak to at least a number of their colleagues every day without fail. Of those colleagues, employers may want to ensure that an employee has a “buddy” for every matter they are working on, sharing key dates, critical work/business with them. This may help to alleviate the state of anxiousness that some employees are feeling as well as reassure them that if for any reason they cannot deal with a matter, then they have another employee to call on.
  • Employers may also want to consider implementing agile working allowing for contact with colleagues and clients at flexible times and outside the “usual” hours of work – perhaps picking up the slack once the children have gone to sleep or are otherwise occupied.
  • Employees need to be able to carry out their work as productively as possible and to facilitate this they should be encouraged to:
    • plan their work so that they know what critical tasks need to be done and by when;
    • ensure that any meetings can be held remotely via skype, video or voice conference calls and that the facilities at home are reliable; and
    • ideally, employees should have access to secure internet/high-speed broadband.

Employers will have some difficult policy decisions to make. Will it be a case of operating with a skeleton workforce or embracing the benefits of acting flexibly to allow as many employees as possible to continue working by allowing work to fit around childcare. This will, of course, depend on the nature of the business and any business imperatives.

If you require further information about anything covered in this article, please contact Asha Kumar or Angharad Harris using the contact details below.

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This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.