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Work health and safety laws

How to protect the health, safety and welfare of your employees and volunteers.

Content last updated 05/10/2022

Working from home

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Your organisation may be back in the workplace, but some employees may remain working at home or your organisation may have adopted a hybrid working structure.

How do you make sure your organisation is meeting its work, health and safety requirements when employees are working from home? 

An employer’s WHS duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers, continues to apply when employees are working from home. 

Minimise health and safety risks while working from home by: 

  • conducting an inspection of the employee’s home office set up to make sure it’s safe
  • giving employees guidelines or a checklist on how to set up a safe home work environment (covering, for example, ergonomic work station set up and location, and using power cords safely) 
  • having regular communication with employees 
  • if applicable, reminding employees they have access to an employee assistance program 
  • suggesting ways for employees to stay connected with their team members and other employees (for example, virtual team morning teas or quick check-ins) 
  • reminding employees how they can access IT support when needed 
  • appointing a contact person in the organisation who employees can talk to about concerns 
  • providing wellbeing tips, to help employees keep their minds and bodies healthy 
  • providing information on how to work effectively and productively from home 

Normally, before an employee begins to work from home, the employer would likely conduct a physical inspection of the home office set up to make sure it’s safe. In the current environment, this may not be possible. So, providing the employee with a checklist and guidelines on how to do this is important, particularly for employees who are not used to working from home. 

Managing mental health issues  

It’s important to support your workers that continue to work or volunteer from home. Addressing mental health issues in a remote working environment is an important part of your WHS duties. Even if a safety inspection is not practicable, you should review your staff’s working from home arrangements regularly. 

If your workers (including volunteers) are working from home, do you need to conduct a safety inspection? 

Ordinarily, it would be ideal to have an appropriate person conduct a risk assessment on-site at the worker’s proposed premises of remote working. However, this can be difficult to arrange. 

As an alternative, you could provide a checklist or questionnaire for your worker to complete themselves. This checklist or questionnaire could address elements such as the placement and height of chairs relative to desks, the angle of monitor screens or laptops, and the surrounding environment generally. 

If a volunteer or employee requests that your organisation conduct a physical inspection of the premises where they propose to work, consider whether this request is practicable for your organisation. When considering the request, make sure that conducting a physical inspection won’t expose another worker to COVID-19 (for example, if the worker conducts an inspection at premises where there is a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19). 

How do you manage performance if you don't think employees are doing adequate work at home? 

Performance management is important even when employees are working from home, and you should follow any performance management policies that are already in place. 

An employee’s performance when working from home can be managed effectively by setting up clear expectations and lines of communication. This may include daily catch-ups with employees to check in to see if they are actually doing work from home and setting clear priorities and timelines to complete work. 

You could also implement a timesheet system – each day employees list the tasks they worked on and how long they spent on each task. However, timesheets may send a message about a lack of trust, so think carefully about using this strategy. If you do start a timesheet system, unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t only apply it to some employees. 

Employers should also be mindful that not all tasks that an employee performed in the office may be easily transferrable to the home. Any modifications to duties should be discussed and clearly communicated – for example: ‘as you can no longer do X, I want you to focus on Y, and here is what that involves’. 

Further, a task that might have taken two hours to complete in the workplace might take four hours at home. This should be taken into account in assessing an employee’s performance. 

It’s also important to make sure that the employee has the necessary tools to perform their work from home, such as IT capabilities.

Can your organisation direct an employee to return to the workplace after they worked remotely during COVID-19? 

Managing your employees’ concerns about returning to work appropriately at the outset is the best way to avoid employees refusing to come into the workplace.  

Reasons why employees may be reluctant to come into work: 

  • concerns about getting to work 
  • concerns about the hygiene and safety of the physical work environment 
  • childcare responsibilities 
  • living with a person who is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19
  • mental health concerns 
  • health advice  

Consulting with your employees about their concerns is part of your work, health and safety duties. You may also need to manage employees’ reasonable concerns in your plan to return to work.

Organisations that require staff to attend the workplace (either full time or under a hybrid arrangement) must consider the basis on which its employee refuses to return to the workplace.

Where an employee has no reasonable basis to refuse to attend the workplace, any absence would need to be by agreement with the employer. For example, the employer may allow the employee to work from home (if this is practicable), use their annual leave, or grant the employee a period of unpaid leave.

If the employee simply refuses to attend work without a reasonable basis, and without the employer’s agreement, the employer may need to advise the employee that a failure to attend work is a breach of their contract of employment, which may lead to disciplinary action, including termination of employment.

More information

For more information about return to work directives and examples of reasonable and unreasonable directives, see the Fair Work Ombudsman’s webpage on directions to return to work and the workplace

The content on this webpage was last updated in October 2022 and is not legal advice. See full disclaimer and copyright notice.

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