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Australia: Preparing for the return to work and the "next normal"

07 April 2021

Our employment experts in Australia answer key questions in relation to working from home and the future world of work.

In response to the pandemic, restrictions have been implemented internationally, often including the requirement to work from home where possible. As the vaccination programme is underway and restrictions are cautiously reviewed, we consider what the future world of work may look like and whether home working is here to stay.  
Do employees have a right to continue working from home after the lockdown restrictions have lifted?
Depending on national laws and regulations, certain employees will have a legal right to request a flexible working arrangement. Whether most employees will have a right to continue working from home will depend on a number of factors, including the individual contractual circumstances of the worker, whether the employee is covered by an Award or enterprise agreement, the responsibilities of the role they undertake, the practicality of working from home and public health requirements. With the easing of restrictions and a preferable employee consensus for flexible working arrangements, it is encouraged that employers and employees coordinate to find workable solutions that are suitable and beneficial to both the individuals and the workplace. 
Should employers have a policy dealing with home working and what are the key points?

A working from home policy is an effective contingency to maintain best practice, clear guidelines, business continuity, and employee retention. The policy should be drafted based on a consideration of existing legal regulations and obligations, business requirements and in consultation with the views of employees. From a broad perspective, key points of a working from home policy include:


  • Explanations relating to requests, types of arrangements available, the documentation of arrangements, and how arrangements will be monitored and reviewed; 
  • Reinforcing expectations of compliance with standards of performance, company policies and occupational health and safety;
  • The company's position with regards to providing equipment, tools and supplies to perform duties from home; 
  • Workers compensation and liability; 
  • Continuity of compensation and work hours – noting no change to an employees hours, compensation, benefits or responsibilities, but that flexibility may be required in compliance with applicable laws, regulations and other company policies; and
  • The company's position with regards to reimbursement of expenses and additional costs associated with working from home i.e access to internet use.
Can an employer require employees to work entirely or predominantly from home? Is employee consent required? What are the main risks?
Employers generally have a duty of care to their employees to reasonably manage workplace risks and ensure a safe working environment. Usually working from home arrangements are implemented on a voluntary based agreement between employers and employees with relevant terms and conditions. However, if employees are required to work predominantly from home based on government issued health and safety restrictions, then it is unlikely employee consent will be required and employees must cooperate and comply fully with reasonable preventative measures or directives, observe company policies and take reasonable care of their own safety. Additionally, employers should be aware of any increased health and safety risks that may arise from working from home, including heightened psychological hazards. Employers should keep in regular contact with their workers and keey them apprised of any resources they may have. 
 
Do employees have any entitlement to allowances/benefits if required to work from home?
Employers must ensure workers continue to access their usual workplace entitlements, including breaks, standard hours and any agreed flexible work arrangements. A company may also have a policy framework in place to consider requests for reimbursement of expenses incurred while performing required tasks. Some examples may include a portion of expenses associated with electricity, mobile phone, or internet access. In the absence of a policy, employers may consider requests on a circumstantial basis. In some countries, employees may also be eligible to claim on tax a proportion of work related expenses. Employees should confer with their governing tax authority with regards to tax deduction entitlements. 
What are the key trends in relation to home working?

The remote working environment has increased employee desire to continue to work from home and there is now a greater demand for flexible working arrangements. Key trends that have emerged in relation to home working include:

  • Stronger economical use of time, greater reward and recognition, less office disruptions and decreased absenteeism; 
  • Minimised work related travel and food expenses; 
  • A reduction in commuting provides for reduced stress and a stronger work/life balance; 
  • Greater expenditure on technology and digital infrastructure rather than office spaces; 
  • A larger emphasis on cybersecurity and insurance; and
  • An increase in remote digital networking opportunities 

Get an insight into the current situation in other jurisdictions from our global legal team.

 

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