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Facilities for work 

This is the fifth of our series of articles aimed at facility managers, architects, designers and others responsible for providing buildings, interiors and other facilities for work.

In this article we consider the issues associated with working at home, from the perspective of the responsibilities of the facility manager.

 

 

 

 

The home office

Overview:

Specifying office facilities also now includes facilities for the extensible office - the office extended into the home and other locations.

Many people work occasionally at home. A growing proportion (see chapter 1) either use their home as a base for work or work at home regularly. An important and growing minority work full-time at home.

A "home office" can range from the dining room or kitchen table to a specially designated room, or even special purpose outbuilding. The constraints of home location need to be recognised - rebuild or substantial refitting are unlikely to be options! It is important, however, to see that the home office is set up as a viable and attractive location for work.

Several excellent furniture solutions for home workers available, including fold-away systems that are not intrusive and take up little space when not in use.

Whilst the general approach set out in this article is valid in most countries, specific information legal compliance only applies to the UK market.

Health and safety:

Health and Safety is a priority area to address in relation to staff working from home, and probably represents the likeliest risk in terms of employer liability and employee welfare. Although the UK Health and Safety at Work Act is not specific about domestic premises, the employer has a statutory duty of care for employees' and contractors' health, safety and welfare wherever they are working. It is important to note that the employee also has a duty of care, subject to adequate training and support. The main risks are in the areas of:

  • hazards in the workplace area of the home

  • hazards from equipment provided

  • use of display screen equipment

  • lighting, ventilation and heating

  • workspace and ergonomics

  • risks to third parties visiting the home for work purposes.

The UK Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations require a risk assessment along the following lines:

  • Assess the risks created by working from home, including identifying hazards, and who is at risk (i.e. other members of the household)

  • Inform the person or anyone else affected about these risks

  • Take preventative actions or precautionary measures to address them

  • Repeat the risk assessment at intervals.

In the office environment the designated health and safety manager undertakes risk assessments directly. This approach can be intrusive and impractical at an employee's home and self-assessment is often the best approach, backed up by training, support and provision of equipment such as chairs, desks and lighting.

A holistic approach to health and safety will also take note of the reduced risk home workers experience from traffic accidents and stress-related illnesses.

Working time:

The European Working Time directive also applies to staff working at home and compliance can be treated in a similar way to health and safety. Most organisations will introduce some form of time recording in order to operate a flexible working scheme and this can be used to monitor compliance with the directive.

Moving away from the regulations, there are risks that staff will work excessive hours and fail to take necessary breaks at home, ultimately to the detriment of their health and work quality.

Confidentiality and security:

Taking work away from the office, either physically or electronically, can increase risks that confidential information will be exposed.

Technology solutions - passwords, encryption, biometrics, etc. - are addressed in the next section. However passwords must be kept secure and certain precautions must be taken. Particular issues relate to work in progress being seen by household members and PCs being used for domestic and work applications.

Options can include lockable furniture, e.g. workstations where computers can be locked away.

The key is to understand the risks, address these risks through a combination of technology, procedures and training and monitor compliance. Where, after this, risks still remain too high, home-working should not normally be facilitated.

Insurance:

Equipment, employer's liability and householder insurances are all impacted by working from home. Issues are mainly to do with clarity and informing all relevant parties. For example an employee's household insurer may need to be informed if the home is being used for work.

As with other issues related to home working, the employer's policies, procedures and guidelines should be clear and establish a reasonable balance of responsibility between employer and employee.

There is evidence that some insurance companies look favourably on home working, as higher levels of daytime household occupation reduce the risk of theft.

Dealing with noise and distractions:

Many workers flee to the home to get on with work without the continuous distractions and interruptions of office life.  Home workers, too, report having to cope with a variety of distractions from noisy children and animals to the silent beckoning of the biscuit tin.

To a large extent these are management issues, but there are also important facilities considerations. These are often related to the nature of the work being undertaken. For example, a home-based call centre agent will need a noise and distraction free place to work. Programming work or other work requiring intense concentration, for different reasons, will require an environment without distractions and interruptions.

While quiet is generally important for productivity, there may be a less pressing need for complete absence of distraction for someone who occasionally brings work home, or the largely mobile worker who does a moderate amount of writing up or exchanging emails from a home base.

Local authority issues:

Whilst working occasionally at home is a fact of life, more permanent arrangements may be subject to a number of planning and related issues. Generally speaking, where a business use is clearly ancillary to the main (domestic) use of the house, there should not be a problem. Issues that can trigger difficulties, however, include:

  • Activities that affect the neighbours' "amenity" - such as excessive numbers of visitors, car parking, noisy ventilation units, etc 

  • Erecting outbuildings or extensions for non-domestic use

  • Erecting radio masts or satellite dishes

  • Having non-resident employees working in someone else's home office - e.g. a personal assistant to a home-based manager.

In addition, dedicating part of a house to work could trigger a liability for business rates, although this is very unusual. In some cases local covenants, for example in blocks of flats, may attempt to "ban" working at home. It is not unknown for a council to promote teleworking on the one hand as an economic development instrument, while in its role of providing social housing bans its own tenants from doing so.

In practice there are numerous "grey areas" here. Employers and employees need to take a pragmatic view on the merits of each case whether it is wise to contact the local authority for advice or to let sleeping dogs lie. The key variables to take into account are whether the extent of homeworking activity might possibly constitute a change of use, or whether any building activity would require a planning application.

Once again, the role of the employer is primarily to make staff aware of the issues but not to assume liability.

Tax and financial considerations:

There are quite a few complex issues to do with compensation for working at home and possible tax liabilities.

It is certainly in order to pay allowances to staff for working at home, though these should be modest and cover only additional and verifiable costs incurred such as heating, electricity and telephone costs. Payment of "rent" should normally be avoided as it may make part of the house liable for capital gains tax on disposal. Travel is another area that can cause complications. If an employee is contractually home-based, payment for necessary trips to the office might be treatable as tax-free expenses, though the tax authorities may still challenge this.

Equipment provided exclusively for work should not trigger any tax liabilities. In fact computer equipment provided by an employer for home use by an employee or his/her family is not taxable.

Generally speaking, expenses incurred when working at home are not tax deductible for employees. For a self-employed contractor, however, certain expenses may be allowed. If the introduction of a teleworking scheme also involves a change in status, with employees becoming self-employed contractors this may be a relevant consideration. But increasingly, the Inland Revenue is taking a hard line against such practices.

Legislation and interpretation is changing all the time and professional advice should be taken before embarking on a scheme.

Next article: The mobile office

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