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Employers need to be careful on how technology affects staff, companies warned

With technology now a major part of the employer-employee relationship, fast-growing businesses need to be mindful of how it is used, a leading lawyer has warned.

In the build-up to this year’s Fastest 50 Awards for fast-growing businesses, Paul Scope, an employment partner at Ward Hadaway in Newcastle, said that technology is paving the way for huge changes in the workplace – and the pace of those changes is rapid.

He said: “Flexible working is becoming increasingly common and this isn’t just a technological issue, it’s also a cultural issue – employees increasingly expect more from the ‘life’ part of work/life balance. That means that embracing flexible working is an important recruitment tool to help you get the best talent.

“Technology is allowing us all to work more flexibly. I can log on to my laptop anywhere in the world and it is exactly the same as if I am sat at my desk. My mobile phone can also do most of what I could do at my desk. This means I am not tied to any location and the email you just received could have been sent from anywhere.

“I am not the only one to take advantage of this. Remote-working has been steadily increasing year on year and we have seen increasing numbers of employers, including ourselves, allowing home-working, flexible working, hot-desking and other options.

“While there are cost benefits for both employers and employees, the new arrangements need to be carefully managed.

“A company needs to have a clear remote-working policy so everyone understands expectations and managers are confident about managing and communicating with remote workers. It can be difficult to manage a person who works remotely most of the time and a lack of direct contact can restrict effective communication, which can lead to mistrust or disputes between employees.

“It is therefore important to strike the right balance.”

He added: “Businesses risk facing problems with grievances or even employment tribunal claims if they do not stay focused on the risks that technology poses.”

The CIPD published a report stating that a third of employees feel that they cannot switch off in their personal time with 40% checking their work mobile or emails at least five times a day outside of work hours. Many, however, recognise that technology helps them work more productively and flexibly.

Mr Scope said that employers cannot ignore the Working Time Regulations (WTR) 1998, which stipulate maximum working hours and include provisions for rest days. But flexible work and smartphone technology together pose several questions, he said.

“The WTR entitlements have increasingly become the subject of complex litigation as the courts wrestle with how to apply them to the new and flexible ways in which people work.

“For example, in the case of mobile workers, it was recently confirmed that the time they spend travelling from home to their first assignment (and from their last assignment back home) should constitute working time for the purposes of the WTR. There have also been cases where employees have received compensation for working too many hours as a result of out of hours emails.

“There are an increasing number of employment tribunal cases where employees have been dismissed after making inappropriate comments on social media platforms. Employees use multiple devices and comments on the internet can be both permanent and misinterpreted, so everyone needs to be clear about what is acceptable and what isn’t.”

He added that employers need to think very carefully about what steps they can take to mitigate these risks. For some employers, this will require a cultural shift away from expecting the 24/7 connection with employees that technology has made possible, but will also require increased knowledge of an employee’s activities outside of the normal workplace.

Mr Scope said: “We work with companies on a regular basis to review and update their approach to using technology in the workplace as we know that keeping up-to-date with modern employment practices is a must.”

His comments come as the build-up continues to the North East Fastest 50, the annual run-down of the fastest-growing privately owned companies in the region which Ward Hadaway organises in association with The Journal.

The 21st Ward Hadaway Fastest 50 awards ceremony will take place on October 12 at Baltic, the Centre for Contemporary Art, in Gateshead.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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