How do we do it safely?
At Justitia we are keenly aware of the challenges facing organisations when it comes to remote working, as we are facing them as well! As entire organisations adjust to an online environment, we are all feeling our way, identifying solutions and working together to make a seemingly impossible situation possible. So this is a first in a series of blogs that will address some of the challenges and risks involved with this ‘new normal’. We would also like to share with our clients our template COVID-19 WFH Checklist to assist with managing the risks of a remote workforce. If you would like to receive this template, or if we can provide any further support, please contact Nicola Martin on 03 8621 4540.
Managing mental wellbeing
One of the greatest risks to a worker in present times is not tripping over a cord or lifting a box the wrong way, but maintaining a healthy state of mind while working remotely/at home. In a study of 2,500 remote workers by online brand development agency Buffer, 19% of remote workers said that their biggest struggle with remote working was loneliness, while 22% said that they struggled to unplug after work. These issues are further amplified by the stress and anxiety many of us are currently experiencing surrounding COVID-19, not to mention the ever-increasing limitations on people’s movement. Less exercise is bound to impact on an employee’s sense of well-being and mitigation strategies will be critical.
It is of vital importance that employers mitigate the impacts of social isolation, particularly where they have staff who live alone. We are incredibly fortunate to have a myriad of technologies that can connect our workplaces remotely, so employees should be encouraged to use these as much as possible. Non-work related catch-ups should be scheduled regularly, ideally over a video messaging app (there are a number of apps that offer a free subscription). Consider assigning remote working “buddies” and asking that individuals check in on their buddy daily. Conduct social events such as Friday night drinks remotely and have a regular chat over your mid-morning coffee.
Employers should also embrace the flexibility that remote working provides. Rather than continuing to work to the traditional work day, employees should be encouraged to work in the way that best suits their present circumstances. This may mean early starts and early finishes, or more evening working for the night owls (or those juggling childcare arrangements). At the same time, employers need to ensure that the boundaries between work and personal lives do not blur, and that employees can unplug from work every day. This requires practise, time, adaptability, trial and error and trust; all crucial for navigating the challenges that lie ahead.
It is a good time to ensure that your organisation’s policies and communications are clear, simple and easy to access remotely. Ensure that you can get a message out quickly and effectively to employees, particularly as the situation around COVID-19 is changing rapidly.
This does not just apply to policies regarding remote working. If your organisation does not have policies in place regarding issues such as Equal Opportunity and Prevention of Sexual Harassment, Workplace Bullying and Work Health and Safety, it is not too late to introduce them. Risks such as workplace bullying and sexual harassment do not vanish when the physical office is empty. Rather, managing conduct becomes more challenging making the need for clear, succinct policies and procedures for raising concerns even more crucial.
Organisations should also ensure that all employees share the same expectations around the frequency, timing and methods of communication. For example, it can be helpful to encourage the use of instant messaging systems for quick questions, while in depth conversations may be dealt with through a phone call or a video conference. Redirecting everyday communications to instant messaging and video chats can ensure that important messages do not get drowned out in a sea of emails. It also allows emails to be reserved for business related work. Some people require more time to adapt to the various platforms, and dedicating time to training everyone up means everyone is brought along on this more fast changing journey.
Occupational health and safety obligations
For some, working from home is a regular part of life while for others, it is a new experience. Either way, the spread of COVID-19 has led to a mass flight to the home office. In all cases, it is essential to ensure that your worker’s remote working environment is safe in order to meet your work health and safety obligations. Furthermore, given courts have found that injuries sustained while working from home may arise ‘out of, or in the course of employment’, a safe home working environment can reduce your risk of workers’ compensation claims.
Under work health and safety legislation, the definition of ‘workplace’ includes a working from home scenario. Accordingly, employers are legally obliged to take steps to eliminate or otherwise reduce risks to health and safety in the home working environment so far as reasonably practicable. Employers must consider factors such as the likelihood and degree of potential harm, as well as the ability and cost of eliminating or reducing the hazard or risk. When applied to a working from home scenario, what is “reasonably practicable” will depend on the individual circumstances. For example,
- What work are employees required to do from home?
- What equipment will they be using?
- What sort of training has been conducted to ensure the employee knows about potential risks?
What is reasonably practicable is also likely to take into account the current circumstances around COVID-19. For example, in ordinary circumstances it may be reasonably practicable to expect that an employee who wishes to work from home once a week will have a computer desk and adjustable chair set up in a quiet, well-lit area away from noise and distraction. However, in COVID-19 times where entire workforces are required to suddenly work from home, schools are closed and households are expected to remain home where possible, what is ‘reasonably practicable’ changes dramatically.
The key for employers going forward will be to ensure that their workers are working from home in the safest environment that can reasonably be provided. One approach employers may wish to consider is asking employees to do a WFH checklist, which will assist in identifying any significant risks that should or can be eliminated. Employers could also consider allowing employees to take monitors, keyboards or even furniture such as an adjustable desk chair home from the workplace. Keeping a register of items walking out the door is also a sensible idea.
Likewise remember that employees must take reasonable care for their own health and safety, as well as taking reasonable care that their acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons. While employees are working remotely, this obligation still applies. It is important that employees are aware of their responsibilities and factors that may make their working environment “unsafe”, along with what steps may reasonably be taken to eliminate or reduce these factors.
Managing risk when employees are working from home is a challenge and the majority of Australian employers are in some way grappling with how to meet their work health and safety obligations in the current environment. At Justitia we are assisting clients with practical approaches to managing risk in the COVID era. We look forward to sharing with our community the myriad ways to make these new working arrangements safe, sustainable and enjoyable.
For further enquiries please contact Nicola Martin on 8621 4540.