The last few months have proven challenging for companies of all sizes. The impact of coronavirus has led to a major shift in the way firms work. One trend in particular that's exploded in popularity is home working, something that doesn’t look set to change any time soon.
A permanent home working revolution?
Even though governments around the world have been keen to encourage people to get back to the workplace and instil a sense of normality, it's far from clear whether this is something workers will welcome.
Apart from worries about the safety of workplaces while the pandemic is still ongoing, many employees have actually found home working brings a range of benefits, from increased productivity to removing the time and expense of commuting.
Therefore, even post-COVID-19, the home working revolution will remain. One study by Gartner in April found almost three-quarters of businesses (74%) intend to move at least some of their on-site positions to remote working, while UK research found nine out of ten people who'd experienced home working during the country's lockdown would like to continue in some form.
It's clear that home working is going to become a permanent part of the business landscape. So what responsibilities do enterprises have to ensure these personnel can operate as effectively and as safely as possible?
Your legal responsibilities
From a legal standpoint, businesses in the US have only a limited set of responsibilities when it comes to ensuring the health and wellbeing of employees working from home.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) makes a clear distinction between home office work and other types of work that can be done from an employee's home, such as home-based manufacturing. It’s stated that for home office work, it won’t hold employers liable for workspaces, or require employers to inspect these facilities.
This isn't the case everywhere. In the UK, employers have the same health and safety responsibilities for home workers as for any other employees, and so should conduct a risk assessment to identify any hazards.
Regardless of any legal requirements, your duty of care to your workforce doesn't stop at the front door of your office, so you should be taking steps to minimize any risks.
Helping employees cope with isolation
One of the biggest challenges will be ensuring employees are able to cope with working for long periods without direct supervision or interaction with managers and colleagues. This can lead to them feeling isolated, especially if they feel they don’t have anyone to turn to for help should things go wrong.
To tackle this, it's vital that lines of communication between managers and remote teams are maintained at all times. This should include:
- Regular team meetings via videoconference that ensure colleagues can get to know each other and have discussions that aren't always work-related.
- Frequent one-on-one meetings with managers where employees can bring up any concerns. While these can be done remotely over video calls, it can be beneficial to meet face-to-face where possible, either in the office or at another location such as a coffee shop.
- Easy access to resources such as policy documents, training materials and helplines. This will allow employees to reach out and find answers in situations where they may have otherwise spoken directly to colleagues in the office.
- Ensuring remote workers are consulted on decision-making about their workplaces and are fully involved in office social activities.
These efforts are essential in reducing stress levels associated with lone working and supporting employees' mental health. Making sure employees know they can reach out at any time is essential in ensuring their wellbeing.
The right working environment
As well as workers' mental health, you also need to think about the physical impact of home working. This is especially important when it comes to the use of the display screen equipment they’ll be working with for many hours at a time.
For example, in the office, most businesses are likely to have taken steps to consider the ergonomics of their workstations, such as the height of desks and screens and the type of chairs used, but this may not be the case for home workers.
Some individuals may end up using unsuitable workstations that mean they have to strain their neck looking down at a screen, or are sitting on seats that don't spread pressure evenly. This may be especially true for workers still using environments put together rapidly in response to the pandemic and not intended for long-term use.
You can help by allowing workers to take home smaller equipment from the office, such as ergonomic keyboards, risers or back supports. For larger items such as desks or chairs, you should offer practical advice on what they need to do, or even consider contributing to purchases of suitable equipment.
You may not be able to fully control the environment in which home workers do their jobs, but by giving the right advice - from encouraging the use of light, airy workspaces to reminding them of the electrical risks if they overload domestic power sockets - you can help ensure their physical health is as protected as their mental health.