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The challenges of social distancing

23 March 2020

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has required many life-style changes

Within a matter of weeks people have found themselves required to stay home for self-isolation, or requested to stay home as part of social distancing.

The civil obligation of social distancing has affected many areas of life, though most obviously in the way people work. COVID-19 has led many to either prepare to or indeed work from home. While this is a revolutionary change to employment in many sectors, employment obligations do not cease. Accordingly, this sudden shift comes with some necessary considerations.

A safe workplace

Employment obligations still apply to employers, even if the employees are outside of the normal workplace. A major obligation the employers must be bearing in mind as workers shift to remote workers is the duty to ensure the health and safety of workers, so far as is reasonably practicable.

As the isolation and social distancing measures have come in quite suddenly, not all employees will have ideal workspaces at home to work at. Employers are obligated to enquire about an employee's workspace and make sure it is comfortable, safe and suitable in the same manner they would for workspaces in the workplace. For instance, employees should have a comfortable chair and desk, sufficient space and resources to complete their work.

It isn't just employers who should be thinking about health and safety though. Employees are charged with taking reasonable care of their own health and safety and reasonable care that others are not harmed by something they do or don't do. This means they should still be reporting hazards and making sure they aren't deliberately putting themselves in an unsafe environment.

The best way to ensure employers and employees are aware of their respective duties is to have a clear Health and Safety Policy and a Work from Home Policy that sets out the relevant obligations and responsibilities. Employers should also consider whether a workspace checklist or an external assessment may be necessary if working from home continues long term.

Privacy and data security

When employees are out of the workplace, issues relating to privacy and security can become more challenging.

Employees should be made aware of the confidentiality and security obligations of their role, and be careful not to leave sensitive information in the open. This is particularly important when printing or destroying work-related documents, or working in common spaces with others.

Employers should also consider how IT issues are dealt with as such issues can become exacerbated by remote working. Particularly as employees may be using new remote working technologies and devices that may be used for both work and personal use, all of which open them up to increased security and incompatibility risks. To prevent issues and increase security, employers should ensure employees have suitable, up to date software and hardware for the role, that the employee knows how to use any relevant devices and that any necessary anti-malware software is installed.


Both employee and employer retain their duty of good faith, including the duties to be active and constructive, and responsive and communicative, even when working remotely. Due to the lack of face-to-face interaction, strong channels of communication will be essential.

Employers and employees should explore the best channels of remote communication, whether that be sticking to emails and phone calls, or branching out to alternative options like video calling and instant messaging programs.

Employee mental health

Social distancing and self-isolation are perhaps most impactful on personal wellbeing.

Remote working blurs the line between work and home life, where workers can struggle to disconnect from work, checking emails consistently outside regular work hours. The lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues can also result in employees feeling they have less support and connection in the workplace. This will be exacerbated by the fact that social distancing or isolation will also be limiting interactions in the employee's personal life.

Employers and employees should arrange regular check ins to discuss issues, questions and ensure the employee is well supported in their work. Employers should also consider offering employees EAP if they do not already.

Employers and employees should also be conscious that despite the remote environment, the obligations to work regular work hours, and take regular breaks, remain the same as when they were in the workplace. This can often require an element of trust on both sides. Frequent check ins and open communication can assist with ensuring the employee is not over working or underworking. A clear Working from Home policy may also assist.

The response to COVID-19 brings with it interesting challenges to the workforce. It may be changing everyone's routine, but the fundamental employment obligations, both legal and personal, remain as important as ever.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm and Women's Refuge are partnering to bring your business an understanding of the effects of domestic violence and the new laws assisting victims of domestic violence at work. Contact us to discuss your needs.

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