People all over the UK are working from home to try and curb the spread of coronavirus.
For some people, working remotely is not new. More than 4 million people usually work remotely, according to the Office for National Statistics, which is equivalent to around one in seven workers.
Despite an increasing number of companies embracing flexible working, however, the concept is new to many businesses. Although Brits have been advised to start working from home “where possible” and avoid pubs, theatres and other social venues, some companies are still unsure about letting their staff work from home.
Working remotely comes with many benefits, but in the current situation, staying at home and self-isolating is a crucial factor in reducing the spread of Covid-19. The UK is now several weeks behind Italy – the worst-hit country in Europe – and more stringent new measures may be introduced in the near future.
So what should you do if your boss says you can’t work remotely – and what are your rights?
Danielle Parsons, employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, says whether your company can refuse to let you work from home depends on the situation. “Generally, as an employee you are obliged to comply with a reasonable management instruction,” she says.
“The current government advice is encouraging home working where possible so people can avoid offices and unnecessary travel to stop the spread of the virus and this is a major public health and safety issue, so most employers are likely to follow this guidance where possible, but this doesn’t strictly speaking mean that you can now legally refuse to go into the office or work.
“Depending on the workplace, it may be reasonable for your employer to expect you to attend work as normal. For example, if your job is not office based and you mostly work outside then you won’t be in the situation where you are remote working to avoid office space.”
If an employee is refusing to attend work then the employer should consider carefully why this is alongside the current government guidance and the public health advice.
“Depending on the reason for refusal, the employer may decide to take disciplinary action against or withhold pay,” Parsons says.
“If you don’t want to attend work then you should discuss the reasons for this with your employer and try to reach some other agreement with them. If you can’t then you should seek legal advice right away.”
Crucially, though, an employer has a duty of care towards its employees and should not put them in danger. If you have any concerns – such as an underlying health problem – then it’s important that your workplace takes them seriously.
“If you are afraid to attend your workplace then I suggest you discuss your concerns with your employer,” Parsons advises. “Your employer should listen to your concerns and try to offer flexible working and the chance to work remotely in line with the government guidance. It may be that some jobs cannot be carried out from home.”
If you still don’t want to attend the office then you could speak to your employer about taking holiday or unpaid leave, but your employer doesn’t have to agree to this, Parsons adds.
“If you unreasonably refuse to attend work then your employer may decide to take disciplinary action, but given the seriousness of the coronavirus situation, any employer should seek legal advice before taking any such action,” she says.
“If you are an employee and you have concerns that you are being treated unfairly in relation to this then you should seek legal advice right away as you may have potential legal claims.”