Working from Home. The New Normal?

Business, Industry News,  Principals

A home confinement direction has been in place in Queensland since midnight on 29 March, 2020. Pursuant to the direction, residents of Queensland must not leave their usual place of residence except in permitted circumstances. One such permitted circumstance is for the purpose of work, but only to the extent necessary to perform work on behalf of an employer that’s engaged in an essential business, activity or undertaking and the work to be performed is of a nature that cannot reasonably be performed from home.

In light of the home confinement direction, there should only be limited circumstances in which it will be appropriate for workers in the real estate industry to be performing work from anywhere other than in a home workspace. And when directing or permitting employees to work from home, there are a number of matters which should be considered by employers, as set out below.

Work Health and Safety

Work health and safety laws still apply when a worker is working from home, and real estate businesses must therefore take reasonably practicable steps to ensure home workspaces are without risks to health and safety.

While it may not be reasonably practicable for a real estate agency to arrange a risk assessment of each and every home workspace, all businesses should at the minimum require workers to complete and return a risk assessment checklist designed to identify any serious and imminent risks to health and safety, such as electrical and tripping hazards.

In addition to considering the physical safety of workers, real estate businesses should also consider the mental health of staff and implement reasonably practicable steps to ensure their mental wellbeing while they remain isolated. This may involve regular team video calls to ensure team members remain in contact with one another, as well as one-on-one discussions where individual workers may raise any issues in a private setting.

Productivity and Workload

In the absence of solid metrics to measure an employee’s productivity and workload (e.g. number of transactions, listings, etc.), it will be extremely difficult for employers to ensure that staff are neither under-utilised nor over-worked. Monitoring records of staff log in and log off times may assist with monitoring workloads, as may monitoring staff telephone logs.

Employers may also consider introducing a time reporting system whereby employees report back to management on a daily basis in relation to what’s been achieved each day, and the approximate amount of time spent on each task. The need to monitor employee workloads should, however, be considered against the backdrop of employee mental health. If employees fear their work productivity is being excessively or unfairly scrutinised, this may increase the risk of bullying claims and WorkCover claims.

Performance Reviews

Employers should be considering how performance reviews will be conducted in a remote setting. While it’s critical that performance reviews be documented, it’s also important to bear in mind that the tone intended by the written word can be easily misinterpreted. It’s therefore worthwhile considering an initial performance discussion by way of teleconference or video conference, followed by email confirmation of what was discussed or agreed upon.

Data Security

In circumstances where employees may have access to clients’ personal information and financial information from the home workspace, it’s important to reinforce to employees the importance of data security, including:

  • Ensuring computers are password protected and screen locked when not in use;
  • Avoiding printing documents whenever possible, noting secure destruction of documents is less likely to be possible in the home workspace; and,
  • Ensuring the home workspace is secured, ideally including use of a locked filing cabinet for storage of any physical documents as well as functioning door and window locks fitted to the house.

Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourselves

Finally, it’s important to remember that we have all been forced to adapt to the “new normal” at a very rapid pace. Many of the recommendations outlined in this article may not be reasonably practicable – at least in the short term – for many real estate businesses and staff. However, if the current work restrictions continue for an extended period, the expectations regarding the systems to be implemented for home workspaces will increase. Real estate principals should therefore regularly review their systems to ensure that all reasonably practicable steps are being taken to ensure the health and safety of workers and the security of personal information.