The COVID pandemic in 2020 led to stay-at-home orders and social distancing concerns world-wide. This caused many companies to shift towards working remotely in order to keep their business running. While most people attribute its rise in popularity solely to the pandemic, remote work has actually been steadily rising in popularity since the 80s.
Most people use the terms remote work, telecommuting, and work from home interchangeably. While they’re all pretty similar, they actually refer to three distinct work situations:
- Remote work means that you work full-time from anywhere other than the office – at home, a cafe, or even a different country
- Telecommuting means that most work is done outside of the office, but you still stop by occasionally for in-office work
- Work from home refers to having an office where you work full-time, but you work from home every once in a while or during an emergency. This is seen as a more temporary situation than remote work or telecommuting – such as staying home with a sick child for a day or two, or in response to the COVID pandemic
(For the sake of simplicity, we’ll refer to all three collectively as remote work or working remotely for the rest of the article.)
With the internet, smartphones, and a multitude of software and apps, it’s easier than ever for employees to stay connected and productive, no matter where they are. There are several benefits of working remotely, including:
- Reduced Commuting
- Reduced Overhead
- Improved Employee Productivity
- Greater Schedule Flexibility
- Better Work/Life Balance
Although there are many benefits of remote work, it also presents several unique challenges. One of the biggest challenges of companies that work remotely is how to effectively manage the health and safety of their employees working remotely.
Managing Health and Safety of Remote Workers
Conduct Work Area Risk Assessments
Managing your employees’ health and safety isn’t easy when they work remotely, and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) doesn’t offer any clear guidance.
OSHA has made it clear that they don’t conduct inspections for remote workers, but employers still have a responsibility to ensure safe working conditions regardless of where employees are working from. This means that at this time, workplace safety regulations for remote workers is in a limbo state – leaving employers to come up with their own safety policies for remote workers.
A smart preemptive measure is to perform a risk assessment of remote work areas. Risk assessments will help identify any potential hazards or causes for concern. It’s important that employees have a work area that minimizes safety risks and maximizes productivity.
Important items to review include:
- Lighting – Ensure that there is sufficient lighting (natural or electrical) to limit eye strain and fatigue
- HVAC – Proper heating, AC, and ventilation will make sure that workers are comfortable, which increases productivity and morale
- Electricity – Check for damaged or faulty outlets, cords, and switches. Don’t overload outlets or extension cords with too many appliances or appliances with too much wattage
- Workplace Ergonomics – An often-overlooked but important part of any workplace is workstation ergonomics. ensure that chairs, desks, monitors, keyboards, and other items are set up to provide optimal posture, comfort, and performance. For more information, consult this checklist from the National Institutes of Health
Communication is Key
Staying in touch with remote workers is one of the easiest ways to manage their health and safety. Even if it’s just short messages, constant communication ensures that everyone stays in the loop with what’s happening during the day. While the lack of face-to-face interaction can make remote workers feel isolated and out of touch, there are several options that can keep people connected:
- Instant Messaging – apps such as Slack, Whatsapp, and Google Hangouts are great for urgent needs, questions, and casual check-ins
- Video Chat – Zoom, Skype, Google Meet are all popular options and work best for scheduled meetings
- Email – best utilized for regular business communications and should be replied to in a timely manner
- Phone Calls – can be used when necessary, but instant messaging or video chat are better options
Some key points to keep remote workers connected are:
- Establish a Check-in Schedule (starting work in the morning, after returning from lunch, etc.)
- Promote Social Interaction – it’s easy for people to feel more isolated when working remotely
- Communicate Effectively – instead of holding a video conference, sometimes a message or an email will suffice
- Utilize Team-Building Exercises – these can be fun diversions and promote teamwork skills
- Share Information with Those Who Need It – no one likes being left out of the loop
Other Tips for Remote Health and Safety
While it’s impossible for employers to control conditions at employee’s homes, there are ways to further promote the health and safety of remote workers:
- CDLE, the CWDCl, and OEDIT have collaborated with Colorado State University to offer two certificate programs for remote work meant to provide workers and employers with the keys to success when it comes to working remotely
- Create a company policy that clearly lays out all expectations and requirements for employees who want to work from home
- Require employees to have a dedicated work area at home and that they have all of the essentials needed to perform their duties
- Follow up with employees periodically to ensure they’re complying with all requirements of the company policy
- Review your own employer’s insurance policies to ensure that all contingencies are covered – including business travel incidents
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