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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 31/03/2022

Working from home

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Does your organisation need to return employees to the workplace? Can employees remain working at home? 

If an employee is capable of performing their duties (or reasonable alternative duties) from home, an employer can direct them to work from home due to requirements related to COVID-19. If a casual employee can’t work from home, you may need to consider cancelling their shift (more on casual employees on our page on changing workers' tasks or shifts). 

What are reasonable alternative duties depends on the employee’s role, their capabilities and their seniority (among other factors). You will also need to check for any relevant terms in the employee’s employment contract or enterprise agreement about giving an employee alternative duties. 

As social restrictions change, some governments may encourage those that can work from home to continue working from home. As your organisation plans its return to work, consider which employees are capable of performing their duties, or reasonable alternative duties, from home. 

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: 

  • 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 daily communication with employees and checking in with them regularly 
  • 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. 

SafeWork Australia has published guidance on managing risks associated with working from home, including mental health risks

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 in the current environment. 

Instead, we recommend providing 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). 

If employees need to care for children at home, are you obliged to make reasonable adjustments to their work? 

If employees can still perform their required duties, with their children at home, employers should support the employee and they should continue to receive their normal salary. 

If employees aren’t able to perform their regular duties from home because of child care responsibilities, the employer is not obliged to make any adjustments to their work or hours of work. It’s the employee’s responsibility to put appropriate child care arrangements in place. 

But employers may choose to reach an agreement with the employee to work fewer hours or work their hours at different times of the day or week. However, any agreement will need to be in accordance with the terms of an applicable Modern Award or enterprise agreement. For example, if you allow evening work, you need to make sure this doesn’t result in an underpayment issue (as the employee might be entitled to receive penalty rates for working those hours). A variation to the employment contract may be required to facilitate the change in hours. 

But note - if the employee has to take on unexpected child care responsibilities, for example, their child’s school or child care centre closes with little or no notice, the employee would likely be able to access paid carer’s leave for a short period on the basis that this amounted to an ‘unexpected emergency’. But, where the employee received at least two weeks’ notice of the pending closure, or where the closure is for a lengthy or indefinite period, it will not be, or continue to be, an ‘unexpected emergency’. After this, it would be at the employer’s discretion whether the employee continues to receive paid carer’s leave. 

As childcare facilities and schools re-open, you should review any arrangements that were put in place to support staff’s childcare commitments. If interim arrangements are no longer required or are no longer suitable, they should be revised. 

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. 

It may also be necessary to discuss changing an employee’s hours if they have child-caring obligations during the day which prevent them from working during standard business hours (see above). 

What do you do if employees refuse to return to the workplace? 

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 a part of your work, health and safety duties.

You may also need to manage employees’ reasonable concerns in your plan to return to work. But remember – even as social restrictions change, some governments may encourage workers that can work from home to continue working from home. As your organisation plans its return to work, consider which employees are capable of performing their duties from home. 

Considerations for front line workers  

For organisations that require staff to be physically present (such as essential services with front line workers), organisations need to consider the basis on which its employee refuses to return to work. Where an employee has no reasonable basis to refuse to attend work, 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

View our resources on managing volunteers through COVID-19, including the return to work.

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

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