Homeworking is still on the increase – driven by increasing demands for a better work life balance, and many businesses looking to cut real estate costs by reducing the physical footprint of their office. Based on the statistics in a recent employment survey, 44% of UK staff now do some form of flexible working, and many more would like to if / when given the opportunity.

How to manage DSE (computer workstation) risks for home workers

Employers often ask what they should be doing in terms of managing DSE / computer work risks for staff who do work at home. There are different types of homeworking and the appropriate way to manage the risk depends on a number of factors. In this post, we outline the main categories of homeworking that the vast majority of people will fit into, and we recommend the most appropriate course of action in terms of DSE risk management.

The main homeworking categories

Regular partial homeworkers

This is a category in which staff regularly work from home either in agreement informally with their manager, or have it written into their contract of employment. In our view, the considerations for this category should be applied even if someone is just working one day a week at home (although some guidance – e.g. Unison suggest that a regular homeworker is someone who spends at least 50% of their contracted hours working at home). Click here for Unison’s home working guidance document.

For many people, their work situation is that they are not homeworkers in the formal sense of it being written into their contract, but on the basis of, for example, their office offering only a 50% hot desk capacity, creating an arrangement in which homeworking is expected by the employer – in fact it is essential for the smooth running of the office and business.

Legal duties

For regular partial homeworkers, employers have a legal duty to do what is reasonably practicable to ensure risks for that person, while they are working, and from their work, are properly managed.

This means in the first instance going through some form of risk assessment. If the member of staff has already had a full office-based workstation assessment (which they should have done if they are also contracted to work in the office), in our opinion it is not necessary to go into the same level of detail in terms of providing information and carrying out checks. However, there is still a requirement to check a range of factors and to get staff to confirm compliance on a range of issues.

In reality, it is generally not practical for employers to do face-to-face desk assessments at the homes of all staff who are regular partial home workers. Having to do so may put a lot of employers off the idea of contractually allowing more flexible work patterns, which we believe would not be a positive outcome.

What is practicable though?

The more practicable way of going about this is to ask staff to complete a cut-down online or paper self-assessment. This should effectively act as a refresher / reminder to staff about how to set themselves up effectively at home if they haven’t already done so. This should include questions to check that staff are able to comply and are compliant with the guidance instructions they have been given. In our view, it should also require staff to confirm aspects of safety that are often taken for granted in office-based desk assessments, such as safety of access and useage, arrangements in case of a fire, and emergency contact details.

Ad-hoc working at home

This category of homeworking applies to people who choose to work at home occasionally and with no established or identifiable pattern – and with nothing written into the contract acknowledging or formalising this. Examples are working at home if transport is disrupted, or if medical appointments make it more convenient to do so. In this category working at home is purely based on preference and short-term convenience, with no requirements to do so.

Expectations for risk management

For people in this category, we expect that they would have had a formal assessment for their office workstation, so they should have an understanding what to aim for in terms of ergonomic arrangements. We recommend at the very least people who do ad-hoc homeworking should be provided with specific guidance and reminders to help them achieve a good setup at home – this may take the form of a simple checklist with shortened guidance. However, providing this information is effective and working at home over the long-term does not average one day a week or more, we do not see a need for any sort of formal desk / workstation assessment for people who fall into this category.

Homeworker – full-time – has it written into contract

Full-time homeworkers – be that temporary or permanent full-time – should be provided with the same level of DSE assessment and equipment provision as office staff. This could be an online DSE assessment or face-to-face, either way home working should not put staff at a disadvantage in terms of how adequately the risks are managed for them.

Ad-hoc office working – a role reversal

An interesting aspect of full-time homeworking is that they are in fact likely to do ad-hoc working at the office, in a sense reversing the role of someone who does ad hoc working at home. It’s often the case that whilst these homeworkers have a good working arrangement at home, when they visit the office they have to hot desk or use breakout / multipurpose areas. In these situations, we recommend that as far as possible that staff are able to sit at a proper desk with an adjustable office chair, and use an external monitor combined with an external keyboard and mouse. If this is not practical / possible, then it’s important that these staff are given the knowledge and information to take other steps to help manage the risk. For example, taking more frequent rest breaks, avoiding any use of portable computers on their lap, keeping duplicates of kit such as external keyboards and input devices at the office.

Love it or not – it’s here to stay!

Working at home is a bit of a marmite issue for employers and staff. Some employers are still of the view that work is best done in the office. In certain types of role or activity there is no doubt that at the moment this is the case – where face-to-face communication is key, or fast and reliable access to internal network services are essential. However, for many though, the opportunity to work at home can be an enormous benefit in terms of work-life balance and with the elimination of commuting time can actually free up extra working hours that would otherwise be lost.

Pros and cons of working at home – from an ergonomics perspective

Although there might for many people be some ergonomic deficits to working at home – for example not having a height adjustable chair, or as much space to work in, there are also significant ergonomic benefits for many people. For example, being more able to stand and move around when taking a call, being able to use voice dictation software without any risk of distracting colleagues, being able to take more frequent movement/change of posture breaks without concern about appearing to be doing less work.

Also when we consider issues such as stress and cognitive demands, it’s often the case now that due to hot desking environments, if people know that they have work to do that will involve a high level of concentration, they will choose in many cases to do that at home where they are less likely to be disturbed by colleagues directly or indirectly due to noise..

Additional issues for employers

What are employers’ responsibilities with regard to providing equipment for working at home?

For someone who is a full-time homeworker – i.e. contractually stated as working from home, employers should provide the same level of assessment and equipment as they would do at an office.

For a regular partial homeworker – If it is contractually written in that they will work from home employers should provide the same level of assessment and equipment as they would do at an office. If the homeworking is based on an informal agreement with the line manager, and if there is an expectation that they will work from home (e.g. low capacity hot desking at their office) employers should still make available any necessary equipment identified by the assessment which is carried out.

Ad hoc homeworking is to a large extent ‘at your own risk’ – i.e. many employers are likely to consider it impractical to provide any special equipment for ad-hoc homeworkers, so they should ensure as far as possible via instructions and guidance that staff know how to use the equipment they already have in the safest way they can. For this type of home-working as long as suitable instructions and guidance are provided to staff, it is incumbent on them to follow that guidance as far as they can.

The law on flexible working and further guidance

It’s important to remember that employers have a right to say no to homeworking if they feel that it is not reasonably practicable for them to manage the risks that it presents to their staff – this would probably come under the ‘burden of additional costs’ (as well as a range of other factors). But in our view, this is only likely to happen in fairly rare circumstances.

The right to ask for permission to work from home is based on the statutory right to request contract variation – as set out in the Employment Rights Act 2002 and more recently in the Children and Families Act 2014. It is a right held by staff who have worked for 26 or more weeks for their current employer although in cases of injury, disability or pregnancy staff are entitled to ask for flexibility. A formal request for flexible working should contain certain key information, and can only be made once every 12 months.

A useful guide (House of Commons 2017 Briefing paper on Flexible Working) can be downloaded by clicking on the title<<<:

For employers, ACAS offers a useful code of practice on dealing with flexible working requests – <<< click to download.

HSE also provides basic guidance on legal duties: https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg226.pdf

Finally – If you would like support in dealing with any of these issues please get in touch with us and we would be happy to help.