Employer Legal aspects of Remote Working

Legal details normally turn people off, but it is extremely important stuff! Kelly Mansfield is an editor and writer at Workplace Law. Workplace Law specialises in employment law, health & safety and environmental management and is a provider of information, training, consultancy and support services. Kelly has written a post for us that considers some of the main legal issues for employers in light of the recently released Flexible Working Regulations 2014.

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Is Remote Working the way Forward for Employers as well as Employees?

Remote working is the new workplace fad, but can all employers trust their staff to work responsibly away from their desk? With employers implementing workplace rules that mean workers must travel to the office each day to carry out their working activities, it would appear that some bosses want to keep a close eye on their staff.

However, forcing employees to make their way into the office every day can actually have numerous detrimental effects.

With over a fifth of commuters in the UK spending more than 30 minutes travelling to work on a daily basis and the cost of travel ever increasing, both time and money is being wasted by forcing workers to always travel to work.

As new legislation come into force though, it will be interesting to see whether employers find themselves having to be more adjustable.

Photo by

Photo by Sarah Joy, Flickr

The Flexible Working Regulations 2014, which came into force on 30 June 2014, allows any employee with 26 weeks’ continuous service to request flexible working. Prior to the new regulations, only employees with children aged under 17, or 18 if disabled, and those caring for the elderly, who have 26 weeks’ continuous service, were able to request flexible working.

So will this change simply mean that employers will be bombarded with applications from employees wishing to change their working environment, or their working hours, or maybe even a combination of the two? The answer is probably yes, but employers must remember that they are not legally required to accept an application. However, they must have a good reason to reject it if they choose to.

A business can actually only refuse the request under eight specific business reasons, and must go through a very structured, legal and time-bound procedure when considering the request. If the request is granted, it’s a permanent change to terms and conditions; if it is not granted, the employee has the right to appeal and thereafter, the process is closed.

Implications for statistics

It is extremely likely that the introduction of the new regulations will ensure there is an increase in the amount of people who work from home. However, statistics show that a large number of people already do enjoy flexible working.

In line with the National Work from Home Day in May this year, TUC findings were published, which stated that the number of people who say they usually work from home has increased by 62,000 over the course of the last 12 months. The way people work has been beginning to change for the past few years and the new flexible working regulations will possibly accelerate the figures in the coming months.

Invasion of privacy?

It is vital to remember that no matter where an employee’s workspace may be, any area used for working at home must comply with the legal requirements which apply to all workplaces.

As ever, there are numerous legal issues which apply to office-based workers, but if you have employees working at home while still employed, then health and safety remains a fundamental issue.

To assess if a homeworking space is compliant, a suitable and sufficient risk assessment is required. This process could perhaps feel like an invasion of the employee’s personal space, if the assessment is carried out by a professional, or even a Manager of the workplace, and they are investigating around one’s home. However, it is possible for the employee to undertake the assessment themselves, providing they have the correct training and direction.

Photo by Infusionsoft, Flickr

Photo by Infusionsoft, Flickr

For inexperienced staff, it is important that they are led through the process and if the individual is required to complete the assessment, consideration should be given as to general safety training.

Keeping an eye

Email / internet use obviously enables better communication between a remote worker and their employer or other colleagues, but does it allow employers to keep an eye on their staff working away from the office and ensure that work is being completed? Do employers have the right to monitor the use of email / internet?

This remains a highly contentious issue and in terms of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 (RIPA), it is unlawful to intercept communications without the consent of the communicating parties.

Ideally, employers need to put together an email / internet policy document in line with the Data Protection Act 1998 and ensure that all workers are aware of it, understand it and then follow accordingly.

Within the policy, details on whether employers are potentially going to be delving into employees’ emails can be included. When it comes to monitoring emails, employers need to be careful and should only monitor messages’ address or heading.

Advising employees that their emails might be monitored for business purposes and then educating them on the terms of the policy is the way forward for employers. Informing employees about what does and does not constitute proper use of the system and explaining that any breach of the policy will result in disciplinary action is also advised.

Look to the future

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) states that technology has meant we’re increasingly on the move and that workers can now adapt to handling their time and workload more flexibly to suit both business and personal needs, which of course if handled correctly, can be a benefit for both employer and employee.

The introduction of the new flexible working regulations enhances the need for employers to recognise the necessity to move towards modern ways of working, and create the right organisational culture and relationship with employees so that requests for flexible working are considered fairly and result in a beneficial outcome.

As flexible working starts to become the norm, it is crucial employers start to get on board with the idea and more importantly, realise that with the right attitude from both parties, working remotely can prove extremely beneficial.

10 things I intensely dislike about Google Hangouts

OK, so I don’t hate Google Hangouts. It’s an incredibly useful tool, and it’s free. We use it a lot at Open Knowledge for ad hoc meetings, catch up calls, scheduled webinars and sessions, even for parties.

Open Knowledge Foundation online Christmas party: We were treated to carols, christmas outfits, tales of cheese eating and show & tell of Christmas presents - this is shabby man in the picture!

Open Knowledge online Christmas party

However I find it a confusing tool to use and I’m always getting caught out by it in some way. I think I get it…and then I discover I’ve messed up. So here are 10 things that annoy me and the lessons I’ve learnt.

1. Screen sharing – Screen sharing on Google Hangouts is confusing. If you are trying to present slides the best way seems to be to share your desktop and present your slides using presentation mode. You’ll need to get someone else to monitor the chat but at least people can see your slides properly – and not some sad, half-version of them with notes. And you know exactly what people can see – no confusion there. Sharing a window (or part of your desk top) just doesn’t seem to work that well ☹

screen sharing

2. Broadcasting a Google Hangout – Set up your Google Hangout on Air page and then go directly from that page to the hangout using the start button. Only go by this route, do not pass go and do not collect £200. Do not use the url for the hangout that you’ve got along the way. Doing that means you will end you up in a hangout with no broadcast button, which means no streaming and no YouTube video! I’ve made this mistake a few times. Also the “Start broadcasting” button is often grayed out for ages before you can start, or maybe that’s just my broadband!

3. Muting when typing – I get the point but arrrrgggggh!!

4. Number of participants – Google Hangouts has a limit of 10 active participants, 15 if you have Google+ premium or create the hangout from a Google Calendar event. Sometimes 15 is not enough!

5. People popping up – If you run a Google Hangout on Air and share the Hangout link openly be prepared to have people (normally teenagers) popping up in the middle of the session. Normally they just should something silly then leave. Oh joy!

6. Too much going on – Facilitating a Google Hangout on Air by yourself if tricky. There is just too much to keep an eye on. There’s the chat in the Hangout, the chat in the Hangout on Air and also the Q&A thing too. I just don’t have that many hands or enough space in my head.

7. Crash – When a Google Hangout on Air crashes for the person who set it up a new Hangout on Air needs to be started. Grrr! This caused problems at the Making it Matter workshop I ran.

8. Google monopoly – If you don’t do Google then you could be shut out of the fun. For example if you want to participate in a Hangout on Air by asking questions or commenting in the accompanying chat you need a Google+ account. Not very inclusive.

9. Loosing your chat – Once it’s gone it’s gone! Or at least it seems like that. If you accidentally drop out and come back in the chat has gone – it’s like people talking behind your back! It would be good if there was a way to hang on to your chat in a Hangout. I keep loosing important links.

10. Google effects – Fun for 5 minutes then annoying and confusing – mainly because you are distracted by searching for an effect you’ve used once before but can no longer seem to find!

effects

I actually didn’t think I’d be able to come up with 10 things but it wasn’t tricky…

Charles Dickens’ Home Working Shed

Over the weekend We took a trip down to Kent and had a day out in Rochester. It’s a really interesting place and those who have visited will know that it has many Charles Dickens connections.

Down a little lane we found Charles Dickens’ two-storey Swiss chalet. The chalet used be in the garden at Gad’s Hill Place, Higham and was used as a summer study house. Dickens wrote many of his famous novels there from 1865 until his death in 1870. The chalet is currently in the gardens of Eastgate House in Rochester.

So what struck me about the chalet is that it is essentially an elaborate remote working/home office/shed! Dickens must have struggled with many of the issues we remote workers struggle with – interruptions from family, messy working space, feeling the cold etc.

Maybe I should do a tour of famous people’s home working spaces? ;-)

chalet

Unfortunately the chalet is in a bit of a bad way and needs considerable restoration. There is an appeal to raise over £100,000 which hopes to sort out the wood rot and give the chalet a much needed make over.

Are you Mumbling?

We’re still on the hunt for a ‘video conferencing/webinar service type thing’ at Open Knowledge and a couple of weeks ago we tried out Mumble.

mumbleMumble is a voice chat application for groups that has been designed primarily for gaming. Mumble is the client application and Murmur is the server application. The client, Mumble, runs on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux and I had no problem downloading it once.

There isn’t a huge amount to say about Mumble, it does what it says on the tin, but we were all extremely impressed with the latency and sound quality. It pretty much felt like you were talking to someone on a good landline, or better to be honest. The reason for this is ‘de-noising’ – apparently this a standard part of Speex 1.1 implementation.

Mumble

One annoying thing is the text-to-speech feature – which speaks out all the chat messages. Luckily this can be turned off, and I can see some advantages in having it.

I guess the biggest issue with Mumble is that you can’t screen share, so the possibilities are limited. But as a voice chat application it was pretty smart!

There is a good FAQ on the technical aspects of Mumble.

Amplifying Making it Matter

Last week I managed to hook up with old friends, Kirsty and Rich Pitkin from Event Amplifier when they helped me with streaming a one-day workshop I was organising.

Room set up at start of day

Room set up at start of day

The workshop (Making it Matter: Supporting education in the developing world through open and linked data) took place on 16th May at the Friends House in London. The aim of the day was to bring together software developers, educators and individuals from the development community to see how they can work together by using open and linked data to support education in the developing world. We recognised from the start that many of the people we’d like to participate weren’t going to be able to make it. Some of these people live on the other side of the globe and wouldn’t be able to come up with travel funds for a one-day event. Streaming the day and, possibly more importantly, making the videos from the workshop available online became high priority.

Here’s a summary of what we did.

Pre-event

We created a Google doc so that those interested in participating remotely could register their interest and add comments on areas of interest.

remote5

We also created a remote participation page for the event. This included details of the programme, an embed of the streaming, a form for questions from the remote audience, a link to the etherpad to be used for the break-out group session, information on the hashtag (#mim14) and an embed of the Twitter stream.

A couple of days before the workshop we contacted remote speakers and provided them with details of what was required. They were asked for the email address associated with their Google presence, a copy of their slides and any links they might wish to show and an alternative contact route (e.g. Skype name, mobile telephone number). All speakers were asked to share slides in advance. The day before Kirsty ran a rehearsal hangout for the remote presenters so they could familiarise themselves with Google hangout features, check their settings and ask any questions. We then scheduled a Google Hangout on air for the entire day.

During the event

Kirsty and Rich have lots of useful equipment (cameras, mics, extension leads, tape etc.) so they brought this along to the venue and we set up the room. We had a laptop at the front with the slides on for presenters to use, a camera (1) at the back of the room for general recording of the day and a second camera (2) near the front, which would be connected to a laptop logged in to Google Hangouts and streaming using Google Hangouts on air. The venue provided a projector and speakers. We also had a microphone reasonably near to the lectern at the front. Later on we switched to a lapel microphone when drilling noise outside the room became a little too much.

The Google Hangout setup - camera 2

The Google Hangout setup – camera 2

Speakers presented from the main lectern and were asked to try and stand reasonably still. They were filmed on both cameras, but camera 2 provided the feed for the Google hangout.

remote4

As mentioned some of the speakers presented remotely. Two did this by recording a video in advance and this was sent directly to the Google hangout and simultaneously played on the main projector in the room. The other two presented directly in the Google hangout – they were asked to turn up 20 minutes before their scheduled presentation time. For these presentations the hangout was opened up on laptop on the lectern and shown to everyone.

There were 3 breakout group sessions during the day. Feedback from these was also streamed – this is the first time I’ve seen this happen. Remote participants were able to join in the conversation remotely using an event etherpad.

Post-event

After the workshop the video footage was chunked up, given a title page and uploaded to YouTube. They were then shared along with the slides on the LinkedUp website. All outcomes from the breakout group groups was summarized in a blog post and the choicest tweets were pulled into a Storify.

remote2

Any small problems?

At one point due to a problem with the speakers we ended up with the Google hangout people ahead of the people actually physically at the event. Kirsty and Rich were able to play music during periods when there was nothing being streamed – this let people know they were in the right place.

remote3

In the middle of the afternoon the Google Hangout crashed. Unfortunately the only way round this is to start a new hangout. This meant a new code had to be embedded in the remote participation page and shared with those watching via Twitter. Luckily due to the two cameras there is no break in the final videos of sessions.

The wifi at the venue was fine but we still had a few teething problems when Google hangouts was shared with those in the room. We got it to work eventually after a little faffing but had to show the slides separately and move them on manually at the presenter’s request – good job we had them in advance! Whenever you have a technical hitch the problem is always when do you decide to drop something from the schedule because it’s just not working.

I scheduled lots of tweets in advance to save myself time, this was fine but we were a little over timing wise so people got to hear the details a little early.

A few top tips

Have a master programme with details of what is happening for each talk, this should include links to the slides in various formats, links to videos and details of whether someone is presenting physically or remotely. Our master also had all the login details for accounts – just in case. We had an offline version and an online one. The online had quick links to all the slides, which I’d uploaded to the website in pdf version as a back up.

remote1

Have a back channel for event amplifier communication during the event as you’ll probably end up ignoring your emails.

The hashtag I picked for the event turned out to be shared by quite a few other events including the Memphis in May barbecue championships! Luckily none were on the same day. Next time I’d probably go for a more unique hashtag – though that might mean using up a little more space in tweets.

Get your post-event stuff (blog posts, slides, videos etc.) up as soon as possible after the event – that way there is still momentum from the day. Big thanks to Kirsty and Rich for being super speedy with the video processing and for all their other help!

Office Optional: Building Trust

A few weeks back saw the first Office Optional Conference – a new conference for distributed teams organized by Lean Startup and chaired by Sarah Milstein. The actual conference was held in San Francisco but I managed to catch quite a few of the streamed sessions from the luxury of my own comfy work chair! Slides from the day are available on Slideshare.

Here are a couple of the sessions I caught, I was particularly interested in the area of building trust – as this is a key issue for us at work at the moment.

Sarah Milstein chairs

Sarah Milstein chairs

David Casali and Lori McLeese from Automattic, the company behind WordPress, offered some Lessons from the World’s Biggest Distributed Company. Automattic has workers in home offices around the globe–with no central headquarters, much like Open Knowledge where I work. However they are much bigger with more than 230 employees in 30 countries and growing fast. David and Lori talked about how at Automattic they have 40 hour trials for new starters as a way to see if they will fit in to the organisation. This allows both parties to get insights into whether the situation will work. The long term effect of this was that hiring had become more successful process with more trust and communication. They concluded with the quote “Management exists to minimise the problems created by its own hiring mistakes” ;-)

Cheryl Contee from Fission Strategy gave an interesting talk on how you Build Culture, Establish Trust within an distributed organization. Cheryl explained that despite the plethora of tools (Yammer, Quik time, Zoom – video conferencing – Google communities, ossana – to name but a few) it is their core values that lead to the building of trust. These are:

  1. Success through collaboration – what unites is bigger than what divides
  2. Beauty and excellence
  3. Learning and sharing
  4. Teaching and empowering
  5. Resourceful creativity
  6. Fun and inspiration

Cheryl explained how you need to create a culture of trust in each other by assuming good intentions and optimising systems before tweaking people. Her motto was to hire slow – fire fast (eeek! – but here the emphasis is on hiring people you will want for the long haul). There was some interesting discussion around healthy conflict versus unhealthy conflict and how organisations need to build an environment for healthy conflict.

Videos of the Office Optional talks are available for a cost – but here are some of the remote working tips shared, more are available from the Office Optional blog.

  • For in-person meetings, we don’t do ANYTHING that we think could be accomplished in a virtual setting, and instead pack our team retreats/conferences with things like: intense, long-term planning brainstorm sessions; team building, conversations about things that are deeply personal. — Sarah, Teach for America, Wheeling WV
  • We also try to spend our in-person time in different team members’ home towns, so that we get to see them “in their element,” meet their families, eat at their local restaurants, hike in their local parks, etc. It’s HUGE and completely amplifies the purpose of getting together in person. — Sarah, Teach for America
  • Occasionally, we’ll have a distributed movie-watching session using Netflix. We open up a HipChat channel for commentary. Works great for team bonding! — Shaunuak Kashyap, Rackspace, San Jose CA
  • Oversharing is key, so we have a daily QOTD (question of the day) in our chatroom every day, even if the questions are really dumb. I love knowing which of our team members secretly listens to Miley Cyrus while working.– Sarah, LKR Social Media, Mammoth Lakes CA
  • Our onboarding tradition: get the whole team on Hangout. Each person asks the new hire a weird and personal question, then the new hire gets to ask one back to them. Side effect: existing team members learn even more about each other. — Sarah, LKR Social Media
  • Security is important for protecting IP. I’ve been using Zoom for HD web meetings. Zoom provides three levels of security: 128-bit encryption, password-protected meetings, ability to lock the meeting after everyone has joined so no one else can eavesdrop. — Rich Harris, TeamLeadContrast, Plattsburgh NY
  • Test your new headset and microphone before using it in for meetings first time! — Galina Landes, Emanio, Walnut Creek CA

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Know Your Company

We are trying out Know Your Company at work.

know 09.48.29Know Your Company is an online tool that was originally built by Basecamp (formerly 37signals). The idea is that through asking questions (both work-related and social) of employees and then sharing these answers everyone involved will get to know their company and the people in it better. There is a significant trust element behind this and everyone, especially the management, need to be ready to hear some truths that might be difficult to handle.

know 09.46.38

A tool like Know Your Company can be incredibly important in a dispersed team environment when opportunities to just ‘say how you feel’ or talk about what you are up to’ are minimal. I’ve talked about how we build in Watercooler moments before but this is an attempt to further facilitate those discussions.

knowt 20.40.46

So every week we answer three questions – the request comes via email. You can answer these questions openly or send the answer to just the management team. There is no obligation to answer. The answers given openly are shared later on in the week.

The questions cover:

  • How employees feel about the business, the work, the culture, etc.
  • What everyone in the company is working on.
  • More about each other as people. This could be a favorite recipe or movie. The small connections can bring people a little closer together.

Know Your Company have some ground rules for managers:

  1. You have to want the truth. This isn’t about checking a box. This is about genuinely getting to know your people better.
  2. You have to ask questions. You can’t expect information to come to you. A leader’s job is to go first, and start the conversation.
  3. You have to be committed to taking action. The entire purpose of feedback is to do something with it. Otherwise, why ask for feedback at all?
  4. You have to make it a routine. You can’t ask for feedback just twice a year. Information dumps aren’t useful or timely enough to act on.
  5. You have to make it easy. It can’t be a burden to get to know each other better, or else no one will do it – including you.
Some of the responses to 'what are you reading'

Some of the responses to ‘what are you reading’

      So far the experiment has been interesting.

know20.40.38I now know that I can chat to many of my colleagues about graphic novels (one of my favourite genres!) and I have a better idea of what people are up to. I’m also more aware of how different we are as individuals, issues bother others that I hadn’t given a second thought to, and I’m sure it is vise versa. I knew this before through discussions had in online meetings, but I think allowing us to express our own personal feelings through the answers to questions seems to be less confrontational and more objective. Building trust within our organization is a key priority right now and I’m glad our management team are trying out ways in which this can be done. Maybe it has given us a little space in which to reflect and has dampened people’s fuse a little. Surely a good thing!