Keep employment agreements and policies up-to-date
Over the past 18 months, we have seen significant changes to employees’ hours of work, rates of remuneration and the expansion of flexible working arrangements as businesses have adapted to the Covid economy.
With most sectors of our economy recovering, and and despite some occasional changes in alert levels, both employers and employees should ensure that any agreed post-Covid terms of employment or changes to the workplace are accurately recorded in their employment documentation.
Changes to hours of work and remuneration
In 2020, a significant proportion of businesses reduced their employees’ hours of work and rates of remuneration in response to the economic impact of Covid and claimed the government wage subsidy.
While many employees have returned to their previous hours and rates of pay, there is still a significant number who have not. It is important that employees’ rates of pay and hours of work are formally recorded; this will help avoid uncertainty and clarify how long the new hours/pay are intended to stay in place. The best way to achieve this is to prepare a variation letter for them to sign and return. This sets out an employee’s new hours of work and/or remuneration. They should of course seek independent legal advice.
Working from home
Covid has been extremely disruptive to our traditional ideas of what it means to be ‘at work’ and has been a catalyst for many businesses to introduce, or expand, flexibility for their employees. The introduction of working from home means that your employee’s home should also be recorded as a place of work in their employment agreement. This re-classification, however, raises some other issues that should be worked through.
Health and safety is important. For home-based workers who can perform their roles remotely, the main issue is whether their home is adequately set up to be a place of work. For example, are their desk, chair and computer screens ergonomically correct? If not, you should consider whether your business is prepared to subsidise or cover the cost of purchasing this furniture.
We recommend you consider whether the health and safety provisions in your employment agreements are fit for purpose in light of your employees’ homes being treated as a place of work.
Another issue is working from home expenses, such as internet and phone usage. You may wish to consider whether a weekly/fortnightly allowance is appropriate to subsidise employees’ expenses when working from home. Tax consequences will also need to be taken into account.
You will also want to ensure that sensitive business information remains confidential despite being in your employee’s home, and to ensure you have policies in place to address these issues.
What ‘flexible working’ looks like for a particular workplace is a major consideration. While many employees appreciate the flexibility that comes with working from home, you must take into account how allowing a large proportion of staff to work that way impacts your workplace culture and cohesion.
We recommend employers consider introducing flexible working policies in consultation with their staff in order to identify how often their employees can work from home and the rules and expectations around how they will stay connected while they are out of the office.
With travel bubbles open (and sometimes closing) with Australia and the Cook Islands, both employees and employers must be mindful of the possibility of employees being unable to return from overseas trips due to unanticipated Covid outbreaks.
Employers should develop overseas travel policies, in consultation with staff, to establish the process for authorising or declining an overseas travel request. If overseas travel is allowed, employers should consider whether their employees should take their work computer with them (if they are capable of working remotely) so there would be minimal business disruption if they are unable to return for some time.
Covid has thrown a spanner in the works in the way we carry out our day-to-day business. It has, however, given us all an opportunity to work in different ways. It is important to ensure your employment documentation reflects your workplace’s new normal.
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