From one day to the next, many companies sent their employees to work from home: a precautionary measure that comes with many legal uncertainties. What is allowed, and what must an employee do when working from home? Who pays for the costs of working materials? And what happens if the laptop breaks down at home? We explain your rights and obligations when working from home and how you are protected.
Let's start with the most important question: Are you currently allowed to simply work from home? The answer is no. You are not per se entitled to work from home – unless this is explicitly stated in your contract or in a collective or works agreement. In these cases, as an employee you can insist on working from home at least to a certain extent. The reverse is also true: Your boss cannot force you to work from home. Such an agreement must always be made by mutual consent. If you want to work from home, talk to your employer. Right now many companies are thinking about work-at-home policies to prevent the spread of the virus. The chances are not bad that you will find a solution, even if it is only temporary.
What if you are afraid of being infected with Covid-19? Simply staying at home without health reasons is not possible. Even if your colleague coughs or your neighbour shows the slightest hint of a cold, that is not enough. If you want to stay away from work, you need a sick note.
The situation is different if you have a well-founded, serious suspicion that you will endanger your health if you continue to work. For example, if you are in a high-risk group and cannot keep to the distance regulations, you should talk to your employer. They have a duty of care for their employees.
Regardless of coronavirus, you should of course stay at home if you feel ill. Inform your employer and ask your doctor or the local health authority what you should do. Even if you have been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with Covid-19, stay at home until you are told how to deal with the suspected case.
Let's assume you've had contact with someone infected with Covid-19 and you're quarantined for two weeks. In this case, the so-called duty of loyalty to the employer requires that you continue to work from home if you have the possibility to do so.
When working from home, the same rules apply as at your regular workplace. So you can't just sit around and drink coffee – you have to work just as many hours and be just as focussed as in the office. For example, your supervisor may insist that you officially sign in and out. They may also insist that you are available during core hours. In principle, your supervisor may also check your performance randomly. However, this does not mean that they are allowed to monitor you eight hours a day via webcam or use keyloggers to record your keystrokes. Employee monitoring must always be appropriate and transparent.
Theoretically, your boss may also take a look at your workplace to make sure that it is properly equipped. Although the law allows this, your boss is unlikely to act on it during times when social contact is restricted.
You are legally insured against accidents when working from home, provided that the accident occurs while you are working. If you walk to the printer and trip, for example, you are covered. If, on the other hand, you slip while hanging up the laundry or fall off the ladder while cleaning the windows, this is your private matter. For such domestic accidents, it is advisable to take out personal accident insurance.
What about when you are at home preparing lunch or going to the toilet? Then this counts as a purely private activity for which the German statutory accident insurance does not apply. The reason: You are working in your familiar surroundings. In the workplace, on the other hand, you are also insured when going to the toilet or eating meals.
Under normal circumstances, your employer is contractually obliged to provide you with work materials. This includes a computer or notebook with docking station, monitor, keyboard, mouse and other materials necessary when working from home. A desk or office chair can also be agreed on. In fact, the employer actually has to make sure that you comply with the health and safety regulations at home – just as you do at work. For example, the room must have daylight and must not have cables running across it.
But during the coronavirus pandemic, things are likely to be a bit different in reality. Many employees act pragmatically and use their personal laptops, even if they are not obliged to do so. Be aware that it’s a difficult time for both employers and staff. Simply refusing to work because your employer does not have enough laptops is not helpful and not recommended in any case. Many companies are simply overwhelmed by the sudden shift to working from home.
If you decide to set up a workplace at home, clarify in advance what costs the employer will cover. For example, if you need a printer when working from home, the employer must take care of it – but they don't have to pay for an expensive designer chair.
And as far as the increased electricity costs are concerned: Normally, your employer would have to pay the additional costs here as well. But how do you find out whether your electricity costs are 17 or 38 cents higher? And what if you use your stove at home and don't go to the canteen? How can you calculate the costs of your internet usage? As you can see, in reality it is hardly possible to determine the actual costs incurred. Therefore, it makes sense to agree on a fixed monthly sum.
In this case, your employer is obliged to procure and pay for a replacement – regardless of whether it is your personal or business computer. After all, it's important that you can continue to work. Of course, the only condition is that you have not deliberately damaged the computer yourself. Unfortunately, it is not possible to insure your work materials with your liability insurance. This insurance protects you against claims for damages that you cause to third parties in your private sphere.
If you work from home, you will not be able to avoid using company internal data. But even when working from home, you must still follow all rules and regulations regarding data protection. This is a big challenge for your employer, because they could be liable for data protection violations – no matter whether they occur at home or in the office.
Depending on what kind of data you come into contact with, your employer may have to ensure that you can only access the company network via a password-protected VPN connection or that all hardware is encrypted. Strictly speaking, your employer must also make sure that your workplace is lockable so that other people in your household cannot read or listen in.
You'll notice that there's often a big gap between theory and practice. Maybe you are working in the kitchen or living room while your children are building a train track across the whole apartment or have just discovered painting the wall for themselves? Or maybe you share a PC with your life partner?
It is important that you do not handle personal data lightly. If certain trade secrets and sensitive data are not intended for your family's eyes, but your computer is accessible to everyone, you should inform your employer. They must then decide how to solve the problem. If there is a data breach, you must report it to your employer. In any case, a work-at-home policy is recommended.