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Handling home office risks

13 April 2016

Readers will have seen the widespread publicity given to the Ministry of Justice restructuring. This is one of a number of public sector restructures that are underway.

What is significant about the Justice Ministry's restructure is that collection registry officers will no longer work from the ministry's premises. Instead they will be asked to work from their home.

Those who decline will be considered for redeployment into alternative roles with the ministry or made redundant.

The ministry says employees who choose to work from home will be given secure and tamper proof computers and a dedicated broadband connection, a dedicated phone line and a contribution towards their desk.

The employees will, however, be required to undertake their work in a separate room in their home which can be shut away from the rest of the house. This may present a challenge for workers with smaller abodes.

The ministry's proposed change is novel in that workers will be transferred from corporate offices to their individual homes.

However, this may just be the tip of the iceberg, with other employers, both inside and outside the government, potentially looking at similar arrangements.

In my view, a shift to home offices has benefits for both the employer and employees.

With the advent of new technology employers have increasingly been able to accommodate this.

Working from home clearly appeals to New Zealanders. A recent survey undertaken by HR Services firm Randstad revealed that 70 per cent of New Zealand employees, male and female, want to work remotely.

Interestingly, it also revealed that 55 per cent of those surveyed would also prefer to have a variable work schedule.

On the other side, many employers who offer staff the ability to work from home report significant increases in productivity and staff well-being.

No doubt employers also relish the possible cost savings associated with the employee covering some of the overheads at the very least for their work place, rather than the employer.

Clearly flexible working arrangements are the way of the future. This is reflected in our current legislation which gives all employees the statutory right to request flexible working arrangements.

But what does the new Health and Safety at Work Act, which has only just come into force, have to say about flexible working?

An employer's health and safety obligations under the new legislation apply regardless of where the staff actually perform the work. An employer of staff who work from home will still have an obligation to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure their workers are safe and healthy.

What are reasonably practical steps will vary from case to case but will depend upon a number of factors including the risk of harm, the degree of harm that might result, and what the employer can do to eliminate it. The availabilities of ways to eliminate or minimise the risk and the cost of doing so are also to be borne in mind.

When an employee works from home, the ability of the employer to take steps to ensure a safe place of work will naturally be less.

The employer cannot control a person's home like then can a corporate office. However, where there is an identified risk, and the employer is in a position to mitigate that risk, then it should still act to eliminate the risk.

Employers would also be well advised to provide employees working from home with clear guidance and training on safe work practices.

Many employers will be watching the Ministry of Justice's restructure with a view to following similar paths themselves.

This change will be welcomed by many. However, it is of no use to those who do not have a suitable office or workstation in their homes, and may be denied the opportunity to carry out work that they would like to do.

We live in interesting and rapidly changing times.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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