Remote working – employment law considerations for the next digital revolution

Few could have predicted the extent to which business would embrace home working following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the reality is simply unavoidable – remote working is now commonplace.

There are many widely publicised examples of the advantages of home working, such as much greater use of connectivity tools, reduced travel costs, and in some cases improved efficiency and productivity. It’s therefore not at all surprising to hear that businesses are already talking openly about how their policies on home working will change considerably even after the threat of Covid-19 has abated.

While home working has the potential to result in many benefits for both employees and businesses, there are also downsides. Collaboration between teams and departments is naturally more difficult and there is the risk of employees feeling isolated or disengaged which can have potential mental health implications. It’s also sadly true that some employees will take advantage of more flexibility and become an even greater headache for their managers.

It is therefore crucial that businesses manage these changes carefully and there is a clear niche for new digital reality technologies to assist with this. Rather than simply accepting the “new normal”, some companies are already using this time as an opportunity to harness technology to create a “new and improved normal” as they seek to enhance the home working experience.

Augmenting the home workplace

While some employees may have a home office set up, others are working from their kitchens, lounges or bedrooms and struggling to separate their home and work lives. Could virtual reality be the answer to this challenge? There’s no question that with current tech, we could all strap on a headset and step into a fully modelled office space. Moreover, this workplace could be easily upgraded and designed for optimal comfort and productivity. With such an immersive environment, there would be scope to considerably reduce the distractions that employees may otherwise face within the home.

Virtual reality can also improve social interaction. “Zoom fatigue” which few people had heard of in 2019 is now the subject of many articles and, after a long day of video conferences, an evening of webcam drinks or quizzes has already lost its appeal for many. Using virtual reality, teams could step into a coffee shop or bar to have an informal catch up. As well as being able to enjoy the new surroundings, they should also have a much better read of each other’s body language than on a traditional video call.

There are many other benefits digital reality technology could bring. Augmented reality could be used to project instructions and guidance for specific workstreams and to facilitate remote support from other colleagues. Employees could also collaborate on a project or design with each user being able to view and manipulate it simultaneously in real time. There is also considerable scope to improve training and assessment of employees with some businesses already routinely placing prospective employees in simulated environments so that they can demonstrate key skills.

The legal ramifications

The potential for these technologies is obviously very exciting but there are naturally some legal implications to think through – the key areas to consider are summarised below:

Health and safety

As with all employees working from home, employers will need to ensure that they have carried out an appropriate risk assessment and that their employees are using digital reality technology safely. With virtual technologies, space will be a key consideration, although travelling between their virtual office, cafeteria and the board room will need less space than you might think.

As well as considering the physical space that employees will be working in, employers will also need to consider the other impacts of digital reality technology on health and safety. For example, prolonged use of certain digital reality environments can lead to headaches and nausea and employers may need to cap the length of any meeting or training session held through such technology and encourage individuals to take regular breaks.

Discrimination

While digital reality technologies may be very effective in increasing collaboration between teams, it will be important to ensure that all individuals are included in any move to such technologies.

Some commentators have noted that individuals with certain disabilities may not be able to experience digital reality tech to its full extent, for example, those with visual or sensory impairments or whose who cannot make the necessary head or body movements. Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for any employees that suffer from a condition that qualifies as a disability under the Equality Act and if employers are considering a roll-out of digital reality technologies, they will need to consider how accessible the particular technology is and whether any adjustments should be made.

Data protection

Digital reality technology often generates a large amount of data – for example, some technologies are specifically designed to track every action that an employee makes. While this data may be helpful in monitoring employees, improving the software/technology or assisting with the training experience (e.g. by allowing employees to re-watch their performance in a training simulation), employers will need to ensure that the data is processed lawfully and in accordance with the principles set out in the GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018.

Final thoughts

Digital reality technology is likely to bring many advantages to the workplace, particularly at a time when remote working looks set to continue (at the very least in the short to medium term). It will be imperative though that such significant changes in the way that we work are implemented with the appropriate care.

If you are looking to introduce digital reality technology and would like further advice on the legal issues to consider, please reach out to any of the contacts listed.