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Setting Up Safe Workspaces For Your Remote Employees

When working from a traditional office environment, the average employee doesn’t have to think too hard about whether their set up is safe. Office layouts, chairs, desks and lighting have likely been chosen long before any employees set foot in the office, and requirements like first aid kits and fire extinguishers are all taken care of by management.

But what happens when you have employees who work from home or another location outside the office? Who is responsible for a safe, functioning set up? And how do you know what safe actually means?

As an employer, how do you ensure your staff will remain safe throughout their working hours if you haven’t been in control of the setup? And as an employee, how do you make sure you’re protected?

In this article, we’ll guide you through the steps to take to ensure all your employees are safe — even if they’re working remotely.

Do your research

Depending on where you live in the world, there may be government policies or requirements to adhere to when setting up a workspace. It’s a good idea to look this up ahead of time to ensure that everyone is protected. Remembering that requirements may be different from colleagues residing internationally (or even in a different state).  

An example of a work place health and safety checklist.

Emma Heuston, commercial lawyer, author of The Tracksuit Economy

and founder of The Remote Expert, a law firm specialising in remote work, says difficulty finding resources was one of her primary motivators for writing her book and subsequently setting up The Remote Expert. 

“There’s not actually a place online, and that’s frustrating since so many people work remotely now,” she says.

“[In Australia,] there’s some work health and safety (WHS) law in each State, and there’s the Commonwealth act about WHS, but they’re more a general obligation on the employer to keep the workplace safe, [rather than specific requirements]. They don’t extend specifically to remote workspaces, though remote work places fall under the general obligations of the employer.”

As a general rule, workspaces should be clear of clutter and a safe distance from fire hazards like stoves or heaters. Cables should be secured to avoid trip hazards, in good condition and overloading avoided. The worker should be equipped with smoke alarms, first aid kits, heating and cooling options and lockable doors and windows. Laptops and sensitive data should be password protected and not be left alone with others.

Emma provides resources and services to help make the process of remote work easier on the employer and employee. One such service is an online audit of employee’s home offices to ensure compliance with a safety standard. It includes questions, videos and an opportunity to upload photos for assessment.

“Then, at the bottom [of the questionnaire form], there’s an acknowledgement that you’ve completed this that you understand it, which helps satisfy that the employer has shown a duty of care to the employee,” she says.

These kinds of services are helpful during an initial set up, particularly if you’re not sure about the requirements. Though Emma does recommend completing an audit each year or every time your employee moves.

Set up a remote work policy

As well as ensuring everyone is protected from accidents, it’s a good idea to provide some internal policies and contracts to protect the employee.

“Talk to the employee about their expectations but also have a remote work policy or a flexible work policy in place as a guideline,” Emma says.

She suggests writing up a new contract for current employees transitioning to remote work as well to ensure all expectations are clearly laid out.

“That way it’s not just a scenario where someone starts gradually doing it [working from home] and then all of a sudden they’re working from home exclusively, and you haven’t changed their employment agreement and if you need to pull them back into the office it might be more difficult to do so.”

The contract would be where you could place any company requirements you may have.

“It’ll be things like – they’ve got to keep their virus security up to date, the hours of work that you would expect them to be available, whether they can have a child there while they’re working. Setting those boundaries and expectations.”

Formalise your check in

Once your employee has onboard and set up their space, you’ll want to develop some method of surveying it.

At Shield, we get all new recruits to upload a picture of their workspace to a slack channel as part of their onboarding process. This not only provides an opportunity for the team to interact with the new onboard with comments, advice, encouragement (or simply emojis), but it’s also a way for us to keep an eye on any critical issues that they may have overlooked. 

The Remote Expert has a similar method. Through her online interactive Work Health and Safety Audit, Emma asks her client’s employees to upload photos of their home workspaces where she can assess and advise of any issues.

“I check their reports before collating a response to their employer. Things to look out for are overloaded power boards or unsafe set ups. I will make a note in a due diligence report and provide to the employer to action further,” Emma says.

“The employer might elect to send back some instructions to the employee to fix the issue. Then, if something happens to the employee, at least the employer has fulfilled their obligation to this employee by making them aware of these issues.”

She says this interactive method is an easy way for companies to bypass the time-consuming and expensive process of in-person audits.

“You want to make it easy for everyone but have an adequate level of protection at the same time,” she says.

What Equipment Should you Provide your Remote Employee?

If you have a remote employee, chances are you’re already providing them with some equipment, even if it’s only a laptop. If you’re not – you should seriously consider it. If you provide for in office employees, why not remote employees? Importantly, it also allows you to have some control over the quality and safety of their set up.

You could provide each employee with the exact same items, but this can be a little tricky if you have a global team (and also assumes everyone has similar needs from their equipment, which isn’t the case.) Instead, at ShieldGEO we’ve provided a budget guide for each item with links to models we recommend. We’ve done this for everything from laptops and desks through to lamps, keyboards and headsets. This gives a guide to the standard of quality we expect to ensure the work is adequate as well as safe.

Depending on circumstances we will either purchase our employees chosen items for them or reimburse them after the fact.

Don’t forget about wellbeing

General wellbeing is just as important as physical safety in the workplace. It’s essential to set up workspaces in the most ergonomic way to protect workers from chronic illnesses such as back pain and vision impairment.

Ergonomics, in this case, refers to how we sit at our desk to work. To ensure the best solution, a workers chair, desk and equipment set up must allow optimum sitting to reduce the risk of pain or injury. 

Emma’s audit has an ergonomics section which outlines best practices. You can also read an in-depth guide here.

Data security

A safe working environment should also extend to include the safety of sensitive company data.

You’ll want to ensure that virus software is up to date and consider providing training around storing documents. It’s a good idea to password protect computers and make steps to keep them locked away when unattended in shared spaces.

Emma suggests setting up some boundaries around how a work laptop is used – things like only installing certain apps and warning against downloading pirated movies or torrents as a starting point.

In instances where there is movement in work location, it’s a good idea to have everything stored in the cloud for access from anywhere.

Not only is it unfair “to contact a colleague and ask them to scan in 50 pages because you’ve left something at work,” Emma says, “but it’ll keep any important documentation safe”.  

-Bree Caggiati

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