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With the rise of remote working and a distributed workforce, what health and safety risks does this pose to employers and employees?
It’s an employer’s responsibility to make sure that staff working remotely are doing so in safe conditions. If they’re on a client’s building site, that may not be surprising, but it also extends to the type of chair they’re sitting on in their home office.
The benefits of flexible working have been widely recognised. Research by Cranfield University found that there was either no difference in performance, or an improvement (considering the quantity and quality of work produced) when staff worked beyond the confines of nine-to-five and a commute to the office.
Increasing numbers of people are opting for flexible working. The Institute of Leadership & Management reports that “once seen as something only for carers or the less career-minded”, it is now common.
Are you sitting comfortably?
But what about those ergonomic office chairs? Stephen Campbell, senior health and safety consultant at Mentor, the bank’s business consultancy service, says: “There needs to be training and information given to employees [working remotely].”
Just as in the case of an accident at the office, an employer can be held responsible if a work-related accident happens at home. And in theory, a bad back caused by unsuitable seating at home could also be blamed on the employer. So though it may be to the employee’s benefit to work from home, it’s important to not simply brush off responsibilities towards remote workers.
“The employer has a liability as well as a statutory duty – the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999,” says Campbell. He advises businesses to undertake assessment of the safety of all working environments. “The natural process is to identify the scope of the work activities you expect to carry out,” he says.
He adds that for workers with office roles, it’s acceptable to ask them to undertake an assessment themselves. Employers need to consider adequate workspace, lighting, and IT equipment. “If there are any issues, the management or a supervisor needs to take appropriate action,” says Campbell.
For those with more physical jobs, or anyone who might be using specialised equipment, he recommends that site assessments are undertaken by the employer. One example is the common task of packing products at home.
“I’d expect the employer to be involved in the risk assessment because there is an element of fire risk if a lot of materials are around,” says Campbell. “And [the risks of] manual lifting to consider.”
- Consider what tasks are involved and the risks.
- The employer has a responsibility to make sure reviews are carried out periodically.
- In a high-risk environment the employer should carry out the risk assessment themselves.
- If equipment is involved, insurance policies must be checked to ensure they include cover for items that may not be kept in the office.
The wider culture
Physical danger is not the only consideration; it’s also an employer’s duty to make sure that staff feel part of the workforce when they’re not in the office.
Sam Dukes, head of marketing and communications at ILM, a City & Guilds Group business says: “There is often a perception that homeworking promotes isolation, and has a negative effect on teamwork. However, technological advances mean that regular communications, ready availability, and team-building opportunities are instant. For any company looking to install flexible working in their organisation, making sure that they have the right infrastructure in place to support this is vital.”
Cheryl Isaacs is a performance and behavioral specialist, and director at OPM Consulting, which offers training to businesses across a wide range of work-related issues including remote working. She indicates that the best way to approach remote working is by following a set of clear procedures, which ensures all roles and personality types are treated with understanding.
1. Fairness: “The most important point is: can everyone do it [work from home] and what about people who can’t?” she says. Expectations need to be managed, and for those who have to be in the office, alternative perks should be offered.
2. Technology: “How easy is it for them to share information?” asks Isaacs. “People assume email is going to be the way we communicate. Maybe, but sometimes not. Reliable messenger services are really useful. With email it can take longer; you don’t always look at your inbox.”
3. Time management: “We assume people have the skills to work from home. But some people can’t prioritise and need to speak to their boss every few minutes. Some people can be left to it. It would be the same in the office, but you’re more likely to have a conversation [in that environment].”
She adds that there are a number of training options for people who realise they need to learn how to manage their time better at home, from recognising their most productive hours to sharing production targets with colleagues for tasks that are dull or repetitive.
4. Personalities: Some people may be better suited to working at home than others, namely those who are analytical or driven to reach targets and are likely to be happy working alone, versus more sociable and expressive types. Members of this second group are “more likely to want to talk to people – the person who comes up to your desk and wants to talk about the weekend”, according to Isaacs. She suggests that managers need to be aware of their employees’ characteristics so that those who don’t naturally adapt can be helped out.
5. Preventing isolation: “It sounds simple but it’s all about communication and how frequently you communicate with staff. You need to have processes in place to do that – specify times and dates. It might be every day; it might be once a week on a Friday afternoon.” She says it’s easy for people to start panicking and imagine they’re left out of processes or decision-making without frequent communication.
For all the areas that need attention for a successful policy, Dukes is positive: “Fostering an appreciation for the benefits of homeworking throughout an organisation is what will create the culture that allows flexible working to flourish. Essentially, it comes down to the individuals involved.
“The qualities that make up a good homeworker, for example, are the same as those that make up a good manager – such as strong communication skills, effective planning, and commitment to the team and organisational goals.”
RBS Mentor offers expert business advice on employment law and HR, health and safety, and environmental management.
Credit: OPM Consulting / RBS – Business Hub
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