Even though lockdown conditions are beginning to ease, it’s clear that many organisations won’t be returning to ‘business as usual’ any time soon and will be continuing with some aspects of remote work. There are many upsides to this but one area that organisations need to focus on is employee relations, and ensuring that they continue to meet their obligation to provide a safe workplace.
I discussed this with Martin Reid, Managing Principal, Workplace Relations at Coulter Roache Solicitors in Geelong. You can listen to the discussion here, read a summary below, or read the full transcript further down the page.
When I asked Martin what has changed in terms of employer obligations now that many more people are working remotely he was very emphatic that nothing has changed. Employers have always had obligations to employees working from home and that continues to be the case. However, more employers now have remote workers, and will continue to have remote workers, even if only part time, so they need to be aware of what their obligations are.
Occupational Health and Safety in the Home Workplace
One key priority for employers is to know that Occupational Health and Safety regulations that apply in a normal workplace also apply to a home if a worker is being paid to work from home. This includes the elimination of hazards, such as extension leads, loose rugs or slippery stairways, as well as ergonomic risks that might arise from working at a desk.
Precedents have been set where employers have been successfully sued due to accidents that have happened in the home, one of the most well known being a case where a worker sued for a broken collarbone suffered after she slipped on the stairs getting a cup of coffee.
Some key tips for employers to consider for this are:
- Where possible, use equipment or furniture that you, the employer, have supplied rather than the employee’s own equipment or furniture.
- Where possible, deliver that equipment or furniture to the employee’s home and use that as an opportunity to assess the risks of the ‘workplace’. This can be done by fostering a culture of trust where staff members welcome a visit from an operations manager oor someone with suitable responsibilities to conduct such an assessment.
- Where it’s not possible for the employer or a representative to assess the workplace, provide the employee with a checklist, with suitable guidelines, confirming that they have done their own assessment and deemed it safe and suitable for work.
Maintaining Psychological Safety
Physical safety is just one aspect of the employer’s obligations but another key area to monitor is psychological safety.
Now that the novelty of working in isolation has worn off, the effects have become apparent already and can be eased by ensuring there is at least daily contact via video conferencing among team members. This is the minimum effort that employers should make and should include some sort of informal interactions between team members.
Some have gone as far as to schedule tea breaks via Zoom so staff can interact on a more social level. Unlike the usual office workspace, seeing each other on Zoom in the home environment has opened up conversations that otherwise might not have happened. Discussions about pets, family members, mementos around the house...
Even as workplaces move back to having people work from the office, the psychological safety of those who continue to work from home on a part time basis will need to be considered.
Maintaining Standards and Protocols
One aspect of team communication that managers and leaders need to stay on top of is ensuring that team members maintain acceptable standards of behaviour.
Turning up to a Zoom meeting with a camera of and not participating in the meeting would fall below usual standards.
And remembering to pass information on to one another can easily be forgotten without the visual prompt of seeing someone in the hallway or coffee room. While there is no bad intent in this situation, the outcome can be less than favourable so staff members need to be on top of such things and communicate with purpose.
As organisations begin a return to the normal workplace managers will also need to ensure that ‘casual’ standards aren’t tolerated more than is necessary. This will be a fine line to cross and will require diplomacy, especially as staff members will want to see some of the relaxed standards continue.
Honouring Workplace Environment Expectations
As employers and managers begin to welcome staff members back to the workplace there are two levels of concern for them.
One - ensuring the environment caters to physical distancing requirements, and other infrastructure issues such as making hand sanitiser available, increasing cleaning routines and so one.
In some cases processes and procedures will need to be revised or used as examples for others to follow. At Coulter Roache, for example, they already have a specific process for signing wills that lends itself perfectly to social distancing and hygiene requirements.
Two - respecting the concerns that staff members might have about being in a confined workspace again. Some will be more relaxed than others and some will be very fearful, preferring to continue working from home. This may require some creative thinking such as staggering routines to reduce staff numbers at any given time.
The new normal is going to be very different in some ways to the old normal but also very similar in many other ways. What won’t change is the duty of care employers have but now the scope of that care has changed dramatically.
Employers concerned about their obligations should seek professional advice. Martin Reid can be reached at Coulter Roache, phone 03 5273 5273, and you can contact me at Workplace Harmony Solutions 1300 141 643.
Read The Full Transcript Here
[CATHERINE] I'm Catherine Gillespie, Managing Director of Workplace Harmony Solutions and Workplace Conflict Resolution. I'll be speaking with Martin Reid, Managing Principal, Employee Relations, Coulter Roache Lawyers, a well known law firm and an organisation that has successfully supported its staff to work remotely.
I wanted to ask Martin questions about the aspects that organisations should be considering and addressing when allowing their staff to work remotely. Considering people have been working at home now and flexible work arrangements for a long while, what is different now? Do you think it's because...
[MARTIN] Absolutely nothing.
[Catherine] Okay. What do we want to make different out of it now then?
[MARTIN] Oh, I think we probably want to make it much more accessible don't we? I think everybody's worked out that it's actually a much more efficient way to work. It's better for the employees, not, I don't think full time from home, but just generally speaking, I think it's actually been a real positive and has certainly been for Coulter Roache.
[CATHERINE] In fact, a couple of conversations I've been having with people where, we've really been enjoying having Zoom meetings because, you know, I, I sit on two boards and in one of the board meetings, one of the persons was giving their child a hug before they went off to bed, you know, really young newborn and in another one, someone was sitting petting their dog.
[MARTIN] I can have a dog. We have, we've had plenty of that. One of the women that worked for us at working from home and you know, I mean subject to some criticism perhaps about their parenting skills. There is a fair, there is a fair bit of interaction with the children going on whilst at work.
Now, I mean, obviously I'd suggest you use the word No a bit more often than is used, through some of these parents who seem to placate their children rather than, I would just send them away. But it seems to be a real trick of students, of kids at the moment, seeing mums on the Zoom meeting, how do I get what I want? Now's my time.
[CATHERINE] Yes, true. So given that we're not really used to, we're not really foreign, with working from home arrangements, there will be some organisations and some people who are. Yeah. So maybe it's, what should they be aware of? What do you, what do you see as the major occupational health and safety risks of this current situation then?
[MARTIN] Well ultimately, obviously the most obvious ones are the ones that people don't realise, which is what goes on in the home. So obviously you can't, you know, manufacturing jobs or anything like that, they can't occur at home. But the ones that we're talking about, generally administrative jobs are, jobs like yours and mine that involve working in front of a computer. That doesn't mean that they don't come with their own inherent risks.
Now, as we talked before about the Hargraves case, that was a simple situation where the workstation was upstairs and the loos, the kitchen, everything else was downstairs, so it was necessary for the particular employee to be up and down the stairs constantly during the day. She slipped because she was wearing some socks and fell down the stairs and broke her collarbone is what I heard.
Now in those circumstances, the employer should have been aware that that was an unsafe workplace. So the same thing would apply now with respect to any employees around, you know, you should inspect the workplace, being at home, look for things like extension leads that might be a tripping hazard. Look for the floor, whether it's the lino or the carpet that may have been lifting and we want to make sure as well that the lighting is appropriate. All the types of things that you would do in a normal office environment, including the ergonomic setup of the computer as well. Because all those things are how somebody gets injured.
And unfortunately for so many of us, you think, "Oh well somebody is at home, they're set up, they're comfortable, they know what's right". But quite literally, if they trip over an extension cord and they hurt themselves, then the employer is liable for that because they're at work.
[CATHERINE] I was smiling about the ergonomics of the desk because now that my work is much more restricted to sitting at a desk working rather than traveling to see clients, I know that I've had to put practices in place to ensure that I'm well set up and that I'm taking regular breaks to stretch and move.
So it would be highly impractical for an employer to get to everybody's house, especially given our social distancing rules and lockdown at the moment, to assess the safety of the work environment for each employee. So what can they do about that rather than just assuming that their employee's creating a safe workplace?
[MARTIN] Well, you can have a checklist. For example, you can have a checklist with some of the things we talked about before, those things, whether or not there is proper storage for books, all that type of thing. You would then, you would then send out a checklist setting out all of those particular things. Are there, have you checked the floor underneath you? Have you checked the ergonomics of the setup?
And generally speaking, we try to, an employer should try to use their equipment in a home rather than the employee's equipment because there's a real doubt if you like, of that. So if the circumstances are you asking for someone to work from home, you should supply the equipment as well, which gives you the opportunity to get into the home.
But if you can't, you instead provide them with a checklist and get a response, get the employee to respond to say, "Yes, I've checked all these things. You know, the floor is clear. There are no, there are no extension leads, proper lighting. I have it set up so that I can, I can use the, the keyboard properly with my back straight". All those sorts of things.
And in fact, even if you like, get them to provide a video of their workplace, but where, where possible and I can only [inaudible] from Coulter Roache, and those circumstances, you should have somebody come to the home of the employee. And that's what we've done predominantly all the cases because we have a culture of working from home for the lawyers, but we've also extended that to the admin staff now. So our operations manager and our systems manager have gone to the homes to set them up to make sure that it's a proper place to work because, quite literally, people will start working on the kitchen bench.
[CATHERINE] Interesting, interesting point. And I also think that there's another side issue for employers to think there about if people are using their own home equipment, well what are the safety features on that piece of equipment in terms of virus protection or access to information by somebody else, a third party, kids who then get on and play with that computer at another time. So that's a cyber security issue.
[MARTIN] Well, as you said at the start of the conversation, that everybody's doing it now, but the whole concept of working from home is fraught with danger. So if it's not handled correctly by the employer, that there are all sorts of risks including the ones that you talked about just then. Cyber fraud, all sorts of things, which is why as I said earlier, the employees use the, you know, the employer's equipment and not their own because that's where those risks really start to escalate.
[CATHERINE] We've been talking abou, some obvious physical safety requirements. What about keeping workers psychologically safe in the workplace, if they're now working remotely from their colleagues or working at home? Have you not just got any hints, but if you are also been aware of any concerns that are being raised in that space as well?
[MARTIN] Yes, we have. I can only can speak from experience, even just with Coulter Roache, because the teams are all working remotely, there is a real sense, especially for some of the junior staff, who perhaps haven't got their family at home, that are living in a rented environment with all their friends, there's a real sense of disconnection and an isolation and we've been very, very careful about making sure that we have a regular schedule, that's every day, a Zoom meeting with everybody in the particular teams, where everyone sits down and including jokes, we have a little schedule where we sit down and talk about a matter, but I talk about, we also have little jokes, to keep everybody feeling like they're part of the team because that is a real concern for people that,...
As we talked earlier, if you're at home with your family, in fact, you know, the isolation might not be there, but for others working, you know, working like that in isolation, it can be a real risk to their psychological well being. And it's something employers should take very, very seriously.
And I, I don't know whether you've noticed it yourself, but there's been a real fantastic, "This is great. I want to work from home. I don't have to drive to work" at the start of things. And now after about a month in, we're getting people saying, "I'd really like to come back to the workplace now if I could," and I mentioned earlier this has changed the culture of work forever. I think people will work from home more and more, but it won't be five days a week. I don't think you would find anybody who wants to be at home by themselves or working from home five days a week. I think it will.
[MARTIN] I think it'll help employees like they'll be able to stay at home one day a week or even two. So there's two days they don't have to jump in the car or to get on to public transport. But I really don't think for someone's psychological wellbeing longterm that working from home is an asset for anybody.
[CATHERINE] Oh yes. I had an interesting comment from a client who said that they now regularly scheduled 10:30 morning tea breaks with a Zoom meeting. So everybody comes and sits together with a cup of coffee and their tea and has a bit of a chat and the jokes, et cetera, and keeps up with the social chatter.
[MARTIN] Yeah, I love the, you know, pictures of their dogs, all that kind of stuff. They're kind of normal human interactions that you have to sort of create here through the electronic medium.
So you've got to do your best to try and provide a normal environment. Get everybody on; what have you been up to, there's questions about these meetings, questions about people's home life, what they've been doing, something you wouldn't normally do in an organised setting at work.
You might talk to somebody when you're going to get a coffee and ask them how their weekend was. But in these circumstances, because it's the only time you have to communicate with everybody, you ask those specific questions, "What's everybody been doing? What, you know, what are you doing to keep yourself interested? Anybody watched anything interesting on television?" All those types of things.
So much as you described, a real get together, rather than just a meeting about what works or who's been doing what...
[CATHERINE] Yeah. And, and I can see a couple of aspects here. One around some rules or guidelines about Zoom meeting etiquette. One client did say that they called a team meeting and one of their staff logged in but then didn't turn their video on and kept themselves mute for most of the meeting. So you know, to not have some guidelines around how you're going to participate in that meeting could create some issues for staff as well.
[CATHERINE] I also wanted to raise that this communication issue to me says that we actually need to be reaching out in a variety of ways a number of times through the week because I would say that working remotely has the propensity to allow people to avoid conversations or to forget to pass information on because you don't see each other walking down the hallway.
[MARTIN] Yes. Most definitely. You think about perhaps some of those, those more difficult management conversations that you'd rather not have. The immediacy of those conversations that perhaps you put to one side because the person's not in your immediate environment. I agree with you.
It's, there can be some real traps to working from home, which would be as much as we've talked about so many times before, allowing poor behavior to continue because somebody is outside your general area of touch, if you like, and so you allow poor behavior to continue and to circumstances where it creates a problem for you further down the track.
It's really easy I think for everybody to fall away from the normal rigours of the employment situation and treat it almost like you're on a, you know, you're not really working at the moment, but instead I think you're dead right Catherine, there needs to be a real concentration, a real effort to ensure that all the proper rules and processes are followed, whether somebody is working from their home office or the office next to you.
[CATHERINE] I can see issues arising when managers have been very compassionate and empathetic and loosened some of those guiding principles that there have been instilling in the office space, or the manufacturing space, wherever the use workplace is, letting them relax, while people are working remotely because at some stage I can see, like you said, us filtering back into that usual work space again and some staff may very well say, "Well, why aren't we continuing in this relaxed manner if we'd been allowed to do that in the past?" So can you see pitfalls like that occurring where you're going to be, your services are going to be required to manage some of these employee relations issues?
[MARTIN] No doubt. And I think that should be dealt with before it gets to that situation. And again, purely from a Coulter Roache perspective, we've got a very sophisticated system that not only can tell when somebody is actually logged onto their computer to start the day's work, but it can actually tell how long a person was active on the computer for the day.
And that's putting aside the whole heap of time recording issues you have for lawyers. And that's really important to ensure that employees are actually held to account for the time when then when they're not in the office. Because the obvious thing is, for example, is to, yeah, turn the computer on, go down, turn the television back on and I've got my phone with me so any emails coming in, I can check them then. So it's really important that employers set boundaries and rules.
So we made it clear to all our staff that, in a sense that we're watching your or that we will be doing this. And in fact we've found the opposite, which is that the employees have actually been more efficient at home than they are in the office. Now, one can only assume that's because there's less time for them to talk to their fellow employees, you know, in the smoko room or whatever it is that they do.
But we find that we set those boundaries very early on and that they've all really responded very well. But if you don't set those boundaries, you're right, you, you'll create a situation where, "Actually I don't want to come into work. I prefer to work from home because I only have to do three hours at home. If you make me come into the office, you're gonna make me do a full day's work". So you'll have people saying, "Oh, now working from home is what I want to do."
So you really need to keep your employees under control and ensure that they have enough work to do and that they have a, they have a proper functioning day, including the thing that you talked about before, designated work breaks, designated starting times, designated finishing times.
Obviously, depending on the seniority of a particular staff member, it doesn't need to be that structured. But for your general staff members, it's a simpler structure. One that won't create problems for you in the future if you have a very structured work day, even though they're working from home.
[CATHERINE] And what do you see as some of the concerns for people when they're starting to be required to go back into their usual place of work? Say, for example, we've been given the instruction that people can start to return to their workplaces and I say, "I don't want to do that, I'm worried about being infected," what do you see employers can be doing to prepare themselves for those situations?
[MARTIN] It's difficult. The question is that because it's, it's easy for someone and more difficult for others depending on how much space they have, for example. So what you'd need to, to ensure that we maintain social distancing for as long as we possibly can so that we don't return immediately, especially when you have employees that are perhaps slightly nervous about, about becoming infected, that they are able to work in a place which gives them distance from other employees and certainly, and a lot of employers have that ability to keep those spaces. They need to ensure that they can do that for as long as possible.
They also need to ensure that the work practices themselves continue. So many of those things we are, we will still continue despite the restrictions being lifted when they are, to try to encourage clients still to use Zoom meetings, and to send things through email in terms of circumstances where the virus still exists.
Now, for example, there are certain things that you must do face to face, like for example, signing of wills. We have a very strict procedure for that where the will is put into a room that the person is given a brand new pen that has never been used by anybody else. They take it out of the packet themselves. They sign their will. It's witnessed by one of the lawyers through the window of the particular office. They then go and sign the document themselves with a separate pen. That particular individual leaves with that, with that pen as a memento and their will.
So there are, there are simple ways that you can just go about ensuring that social distancing is encouraged and maintained for as long as possible until such time as we can say, either the disease has been eradicated or we have some sort of vaccine for it.
[CATHERINE] There's some really helpful tips there, Martin and I think it's going to take a little bit of creative thinking for employers, for example, staggering start times, break times, when people return back into the workplace, whether they return on different days, you know, how many people you have in the workplace, usual work practices, how many people you still have working from home.
So it's just going to take some planning and a bit of strategy and some clever tips like that I think to be able to make everybody feel comfortable because again, the workplace has to be both physically and psychologically safe and I can see there being some concerns around psychological safety requirements as people come back to the usual workplace. Let's organise to have another chat about some of the other concerns that we can see arising in workplaces over this time. It'd be good to catch up with you again.
[MARTIN] Okay. Whenever you're ready. You're a very busy woman. Anytime.
[CATHERINE] Thank you Martin for your time and for sharing your insights with us.
[CATHERINE] This current moment in time really is an opportunity for organisations to be focusing on employee relations matters. As organisations look to return to some type of a normal, whatever that is, there will be opportunities emerging for employees to find new avenues of employment. And if organisations aren't addressing employee relations matters, then you'll be losing trained staff that you've put all this time and effort into so far.
So if you'd like some support in addressing employee relations issues, please contact Martin Reid at Coulter Roache or myself at Workplace Harmony Solutions.