Working from home looks set to be a part of many people’s lives for some time to come. At the beginning of lockdown in March, employees would have been forgiven for thinking that their office moving to their spare room or kitchen table would be a temporary affair. The reality is that many will remain there until next year.
RBS announced that almost 50,000 workers will not go back into the office until 2021, even as the government urged employers to encourage their staff to return. While many people may have been able to deal with a few months at home, the prospect of many more to come throws up a series of questions for them and their bosses.
HMRC says that some of the cost of working from home may be eligible for tax relief, such as business phone calls or the gas and electricity for your work area. However, expenses that are used for both private and business use cannot be claimed for. Fill out a P87 form if they are less than £2,500 for the year. You will need records and receipts when filling it out.
If more, you will need to complete a self-assessment tax return. However, it can be difficult to apportion costs so you can, instead, claim tax relief on £6 a week. Or your employer is allowed to pay you £6 a week tax-free.
Getting set up
At the start of lockdown computer retailers reported a glut of orders as companies stocked up on laptops needed by staff to work from home. However, not all employers will agree to cover the cost, and many workers can find they have to foot the bill themselves for setting up a home office, or they have to use their own equipment. Conciliation service Acas says both sides should agree beforehand on how they should work and what equipment will be used.
Employers should carry out risk assessments – if not, they could be found at fault in a future claim for something like repetitive strain injury. The chance of problems arising grow with the amount of time workers are at home, says Caroline Doran Millett, an employment lawyer at Royds Withy King. She expects there to be a series of claims in the coming years as a result of using incorrect work equipment.
“If someone gets injured because the employer has not done a risk assessment, it falls back to the employer and we are looking at potential personal injury,” she says. “Now it is not a short-term thing, there needs to be a lot more thought put into it and this does involve expenses, which is why a lot of employers are trying to punt it down the road.”
Rights remain the same
In or out of the office, employers have the same obligations. John Palmer of Acas says there should be good communication between the two sides, especially if there is increased stress.
“If an employee is pregnant… the rules broadly apply like they would in any workplace, for example carrying out a risk assessment,” he says. “One possible upside to this is that for some pregnant women, working from home could bring benefits, such as not having to commute and having instant access to everything in their house.”
With children at home the working day is much less coherent for many parents and can lead to unintended interruptions, as witnessed on TV news shows recently. Covering childcare has been a significant stress, and the prospect of children returning to schools will be a relief for many. Legally, you can take time off to look after any dependants, but it is typically unpaid, and really intended to cover short-term emergencies.
“If an employee can’t make childcare arrangements that work in harmony with their job, they are likely to be able to take what is called ‘time off for dependants’, which is generally unpaid leave,” says Palmer. “It might also be their situation could qualify for furlough leave, too. What employers need to be careful of, is that they do not end up discriminating against some groups when they could have been a little more flexible.”
The insurance industry has said employees now working from home will continue to be insured under their home policies but this may change.
“If you are an office-based worker and are working from home as a result of the pandemic, your home insurance cover will not be affected. You do not need to contact your insurer to update your documents or extend your cover,” says the Association of British Insurers (ABI).
This is to be reviewed on 1 September. It explains: “If you are able to return to work, but are choosing to work from home more often, then you may need to inform your insurer. Check your policy documents or insurer’s website, and if you are still unsure, check with your insurer.”
Some household policies also allow you to claim legal expenses. This could be necessary if you are involved in a dispute with your employer, a prospect some will be facing as the threat of recession looms. There are checks and balances – some policies say that there has to be a 51% chance of success, but up to £100,000 can be claimed in some instances.
What if I don’t want to go back?
While many workers will be spending the rest of the year in their back room, others will be going back to the office. But many will not want to return to the “dead time” of commuting, or face the risk of contracting coronavirus while there. The Law Society, the professional body for solicitors, has said that before coronavirus, employees would have had to return but now they are entitled to ask questions about what safeguards are in place. Under the government’s plans to get employees back to work, businesses have a duty to have a risk assessment.
“If you’re unsure whether the workplace is safe, ask your employer to explain the measures they’re implementing to bring the risks down to an acceptable level,” the Law Society recommends.