As times change so do workplace practices, and little in recent memory has caused as much change as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Video calls, instant messaging systems and the scrapping of the daily commute have become a reality for many workers, suiting some more than others and ensuring human resources professionals have their work cut out for them.
But while questions of employee productivity were naturally first to emerge as companies transitioned to working from home, employer responsibility when it comes to the ergonomics and legalities of the home office have followed close behind.
According to ECU Centre for Work and Wellbeing Director Professor Tim Bentley, working remotely is nothing new, but the number of Australians doing so rose to around 30 per cent during pandemic restrictions.
“How we work has changed markedly under restrictions, as organisations and their workers had to shift rapidly to a home working environment without adequate preparation,” he said.
For Bodysmart Health Solutions Managing Director and Lead Occupational Physiotherapist Mike Masiello, working from home trends are diverse.
“We are seeing a mixed bag of arrangements between various organisations,” he said. “At one end, some companies have tightened up policies to only allow one to two days maximum per month, some companies have a 50 per cent split and others have a 100 per cent work-from-home situation.”
Mr Masiello said the implications of work-from-home arrangements could be large for employers.
Just as an employer is required to provide an employee with their tools of the trade in an office location, this obligation remains when an employee is working from home
“Many companies don’t realise that the legal requirements are actually more onerous than that of an office environment,” he said. “The employer is exposed to liability through injury that occurs to both the employee and the employee’s family in the environment.”
Some of the hazards of home working
The responsibility of the employer includes things such as cords, external devices and electrical devices, all of which they cannot control as it might in an office workplace.
“If a family member trips on an extension cord that powers the employee’s laptop while they are working, then the company would be liable for the management of the injury to that family member,” Mr Masiello said.
Conducting extensive research into the impacts of remote working, Professor Bentley said there was a strong trend towards people who worked from home struggling with social isolation and the loss of interaction with colleagues.
“The psychosocial hazard of social isolation has long been associated with working from home,” he said. “The loss of in-person contact with co-workers can result in stress and wellbeing impacts, particularly with employees who work remotely all the time, and for this reason a hybrid approach is often recommended.
“Remote working can also bring about feelings of being out of the loop at work, resulting in fears that remote workers are missing out on desirable assignments or career opportunities.”
The benefits of home working
On the positive side, Mr Masiello noted working remotely posed a great variety of advantages, particularly evident during COVID-19 lockdowns.
“The advancement and uptake of virtual office technology and improved competence in using the technology has meant many employers can actually work productively in the home environment,” he said.
Other benefits can include an improved home life and efficiency, according to Professor Bentley’s studies.
“Ongoing remote working can occur in a more organised and planned way, and can incorporate hybrid approaches, meaning many of the demands on flexible workers present during the period of forced flexibility are minimised,” he said.
Mr Masiello said he’d seen it all when it came to poor work-from-home conditions.
“We have seen some shocking home office environments, including using the ironing board as a desk,” he said. “Post-lockdown, we had a surge in injuries related to poorly designed home work environments.
“Employees have been seen working on a laptop at a dining table on a dining chair, with an extension cord running across the floor from a wall socket to the laptop. For long periods of the day, this would certainly create discomfort or an injury.
“It would be prudent for an employer to ask employees to at least complete a checklist or have an ergonomic assessment of their at-home office area.
“Sending through images would verify that the employee’s work area is appropriate and safe. There is considerable exposure for the employer here.”
What are the responsibilities for employers and employees?
According to WorkSafe Service Industries and Specialists Director Sally North, both employees and employers have varying requirements and responsibilities when working from home.
“An employer’s primary legal requirement is to the general duty of care of the employee and the Occupational Safety and Health Act and Regulations, ensuring all is followed,” she said.
“An employee would typically be required to provide their own suitable equipment and would be required to comply with instructions from employers, for example, to take breaks and contact the manager on a regular basis.
“It may also be a requirement to complete a safety checklist or a check of the area for ergonomic suitability.”
Furthermore, according to Ms North, it is becoming more and more common for employees to provide information about their workplace to employers.
“An employee will be asked to ensure that the work area they are working in is free from trip hazards and has adequate access,” she said.
When asked to comment on distinguishing a safe and non-safe workplace, Mr Masiello said there were pre-existing guidelines which should be considered and adopted.
“There are Australian standards that dictate the dimensions of desks and adjustability of chairs, storage etc. and these apply in the home office too,” he said.
“The work area needs to be set up in a way that does not expose the employee to risk. Generally, a dedicated desk with a task chair and a 24-inch monitor all adjusted to the employee’s dimensions would be a good start.
“It is not just about having the equipment, but making sure it is set up correctly.”
Professor Bentley said businesses should keep evolving their remote working models to establish procedures and develop line managers’ trust in remote workers, with the end goal that organisations move towards an outcomes-based culture.
“Managers and employees should check-in with co-workers regularly,” he said.
“Some employees are well-prepared to work from home, with a well-equipped home office and suitable ergonomic and workspace arrangement, whilst others are not.”
Mr Masiello’s six home working environment tips for employees:
1. Ensure you find a dedicated work area that is quiet and free of distractions.
2. Get a desk that is at least 1200mm and a reasonable quality adjustable chair.
3. Adjust your monitor so that the top third of the screen aligns at eye level.
4. Regularly get up and move (at least every 30 to 40 minutes).
5. If workplace injuries are sustained, notify your employer to seek out a knowledgeable ergonomic consultant to assist.
6. Have good communication with your employer.