Employers have a duty to provide a safe place and systems of work for their employees.
Discharging that duty can be relatively straightforward when all of your employees are in one place: the physical workplace. That workplace might be furnished with ergonomic chairs, encourage social conversations in the corridor, and place your employees’ desks, and their productivity, in clear view.
But when a pandemic effects a revolution, by making remote work common, employers must re-think their approach. They have to answer this question: How do you ensure a safe place of work when that place is an employee’s home?
Here are three practical suggestions.
1. Provide satisfactory equipment
There are many scenarios in which injuries may occur in an employee’s home while they are working. If an accident or injury occurs in the course of employment, then the employer will be liable. An employer can minimise the risk of accidents and injuries by ensuring that employees have satisfactory equipment, either by providing it themselves, or ensuring that employees have the means and constructions to acquire the correct equipment. For instance, you may ship desks, chairs, computers, and other equipment directly to an employee’s home.
2. Set clear rules and expectations about hours of work
The distinction between work and ‘not work’, when one’s home is also one’s workplace, has become blurred. That blurring lends itself to employees working more hours than normal, and at times of day during which they had previously not worked. In a study of 3.1 million people at more than 21,000 companies, researchers found that the average workday lasted 48 minutes longer than workdays before the pandemic, and that people sent an average of 1.4 more emails each day.
Fatigue and injury are more likely to result in these circumstances, and there is also a legal risk that an employee may say that they worked overtime, or in the evening or on the weekend, and demand overtime and penalty rates.
Employers should be alert to the blurred boundaries between work and not work, and set clear rules and expectations about exactly when an employee should be working. For example, have a clear policy about when employees can and should send and reply to emails – and stick to those rules yourself.
3. Understand your employees’ home situations
Working from home can often replace colleagues with spouses, family members, and housemates. This new workplace, that was once a domestic environment, has meant that employers’ health and safety obligations now extend to areas that are difficult for employers to control.
In a tragic case decided late last year, the NSW Court of Appeal held that the murder of Michel Carroll by her partner in 2010 occurred during the course of her employment. When she was murdered, Carroll was working from home and during business hours, and she was therefore covered by worker’s compensation legislation. In circumstances where partners may both be required to work from home, research by the Australian Institute of Criminology found that one in ten Australian women in a relationship have experienced domestic violence during the pandemic.
These conditions raise serious legal issues for employers. Employers should make efforts to understand particular employees’ situations at home, which may involve interpersonal issues, by establishing secure means of communication for talking about sensitive issues and by creating systems for staying in touch regularly. That way, employees are not left to work alone for long periods of time, and employers can play an active role in ensuring their social and emotional wellbeing.
Remote work is here to stay.
It is a new paradigm, in which old ideas of command and control do not fit comfortably. Employers must re-think their approach to workplace relations and safety.