Office safety

Safe on the home front

Protecting the health and safety of teleworkers

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Establishing a program

When creating a telework program, it is essential for employers to determine which workers should be eligible to work remotely. Although some positions – such as security guards – require an employee’s physical presence in the work area, many others have at least some potential for telework.

Auten uses medical professions as an example. Physically seeing patients is an obvious requirement of the job, but other tasks such as paperwork and reporting could be performed off-site, she said.

Auten said that it is important for employers and employees to create a telework plan that is mutually beneficial, noting that telework does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. “A lot of times we see a part-time telework option – two or three days a week,” she said. “It is almost the most optimal for a lot of industries because you still have face-to-face client interactions and you can be with team members, but you don’t necessarily have to drive in every day.”

Experts recommend that safety training be a critical component of any telework policy. In Harrington’s study, after receiving safety training, 66 percent of teleworkers made changes to their home office or work habits, and many reported feeling less work-related discomfort as a result. Yet despite this apparent need for training, 82 percent of study participants reported that they had received no initial teleworker safety training from their employer.

In conjunction with training, Wilsker and several others recommend that employers supply workers with a comprehensive safety checklist when starting a telework program. “When you’re in an office, you have somebody who takes a look to make sure that the circuits aren’t overloaded, to make sure that there are no fire hazards, to make sure there are no dangerous chemicals, to make sure there aren’t things left out that you can fall over,” he said. “But when you’re home, you need to do it yourself, and to do it, you need a checklist.”

Many organizations, such as Telework!VA and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, offer sample checklists that employers can customize for the particular needs of their workforce. These completed checklists can be accompanied by digital images of the home office so employers can assess and address any potential hazards that may be present.

Auten noted that it is important for teleworkers to have a specific work area in their home, rather than simply working on the couch or from the kitchen table. “They should have a dedicated work space,” she said. “This helps, I think, from a safety standpoint – you’re not moving anything in the work space, you’ve got everything in one location.”

Beyond simply assessing the safety of employees’ home work spaces, telework policies should cover liability issues, according to Telework!VA, including who is responsible for purchasing office equipment, who is liable if equipment needs to be replaced or repaired, and how the organization will handle reporting non-work-related injuries.

As with any effective safety program, communication between employers and employees is critical. CCOHS points to the importance of daily communication between employees to eliminate any hazards that may be associated with working alone. The agency also urges employers to encourage telework employees to report incidents and injuries in the same way they would if they were in the office.

Trends

Although telework has been increasing in recent years, “it’s a lot slower than we’d like to see,” Wilsker said. “But I know that the number of people doing this is going to spike tremendously.”

Telework!VA was formed in 2005. Auten noted that at that time, employers considered telework a nice benefit, but did not see it as critical to an organization’s operations. But she agrees that times are changing. “Since then, we’ve probably seen what we would call a ‘perfect storm’ of factors,” she said.

This “storm” included a series of emergency and weather-related office shutdowns, health pandemics, worsening traffic patterns, and increasing fuel costs.

She believes telework will be more accepted in the not-so-distant future, noting that managers who generally have the biggest issues with telework are the ones who have never been exposed to it.

“What we found is that as managers became more exposed to telework, their attitudes toward the telework changed favorably,” she said. “And when they teleworked themselves, they really saw the benefit of it. So it’s really an educational opportunity to get managers on-board in understanding that this isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ – it’s really critical and can help your employees do their job.”

'How do I know they're working?'

Regardless of the benefits touted by proponents of telework, many organizations remain resistant to implementing such a change.

Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Washington-based Telework Coalition, said one of the main roadblocks is a lack of trust between managers and employees. “The biggest question I get is: ‘How do I know they’re working?’ My comeback is: ‘How do you know they’re working when they’re in the office?’ It’s great that you can see them, but how do you know that they’re working?”

He noted that while in the office, workers have a number of distractions, whether it is talking to co-workers, checking personal email or social networking sites, or going out for cigarette breaks. “When you go to an office, you start at 8 a.m. and you leave at 5 p.m.; you have to get all this peripheral stuff done in addition to getting your work done. So a lot of people just don’t have time for work,” he said. “It’s all the things that people do that are distractions during the day.”

Some research indicates that, contrary to many managers’ perceptions, teleworkers actually are more productive than employees working in an office. According to a Richmond,VA-based Telework!VA report, when the Maryland Department of Transportation introduced telework to its employees, the department experienced a 27 percent increase in productivity. Likewise, research indicated that employees at American Express who telework produce 43 percent more business than employees in the office.

Cindy Auten, general manger of the Alexandria, VA-based Telework Exchange, believes the focus on having workers in the office represents a generation gap. “Anytime you change the way people work, you’ll always come up against some resistance,” she said. “I think it’s a generational thing.”

Management training is necessary to produce an effective telework program that is accepted by management. “It’s a cultural shift,” Auten said. Managers “really need to focus on what [employees] do and their work output, as opposed to punching a time clock or seeing them sitting at a desk.”

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