Teleworking - or working from home

Teleworking  is the growing trend for people to work away from the office using information technology. 

Teleworking means moving the work, not the worker. Phones, computers connected to the internet and other tools mean daily trips to a central office can be unnecessary. Teleworking can include working from home, a satellite office or in the field. Some people telework now and then, while for others it is a regular activity.

Update:  2020 COVID-19 Pandemic

Due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, an increasing number of workers are now working remotely at home in measures intended to slow infection rates. In addition, there are workers who are being required to self-isolate for 14 days due to either having been in contact with someone who has the disease or because they have returned from overseas may be well and expected to work from home. At the moment in Victoria, many thousands of workers are working from home due to Stage 4 or Stage 3 restrictions.

Duties of Employers

Employers of workers who work remotely still have a duty of care to these employers. While there may be benefits, according to research done by a business school in Nottingham, flexible working from home can create a whole new set of stressful problems. Teleworkers face increased pressure from family, feelings of guilt unless they work long hours, and disruption of normal home life, the study done by the Nottingham Business School shows. (Read more: BBC News)

Work for long periods at computers can give rise to back pain or overuse injuries, stress or visual discomfort if adequate precautions are not taken. Employers have a duty to assess and reduce risks; ensure workstations meet minimum requirements; plan breaks or changes of activity; provide eye tests on request; and provide health and safety training and information.

The employer must consider following factors:

  1. Work environment: The work environment must be free of hazards such as poorly positioned cords or wires, or ungrounded or overheated electrical equipment.
  2. Workstation: Just like in the office, a home-based workstation must include an appropriate, quality desk and chair that is adjustable to suit the worker. The keyboard must be at the right height so that arms and wrists are in a neutral position. Lighting must also be sufficient, with minimal reflection or glare. The cost of any extra equipment should be covered by the employer. 
  3. Scheduling: There is a tendency for teleworkers to not take breaks. Without the natural breaks of meeting with co-workers or walking to a printer, the teleworker tends to spend long periods in the same position, doing repetitive motions that may lead to musculoskeletal injuries.
  4. Workload and fatigue: Many teleworkers experienced increased fatigue whether due to changes in the type of work, the work environment, meetings and so on. 
  5. Emergency measures: Emergency measures, such as evacuation, first aid facilities, and other measures as necessary must be in place for the safety of teleworkers.
  6. Remote access: access to IT systems, etc
  7. Psychological wellbeing: maintain regular contact with the workers through phone calls, instant messaging, meetings on online platforms, and so on.
  8. Responsibilities: Even though the worker is working at home, it needs to be absolutely clear that the employer has responsibility for health and safety issues and worker's compensation. An employer representative must ensure the work environment is safe, and stay in touch with the worker. As for the worker, he or she must report accidents or injuries to their supervisor, just as workers at the worksite are required to do.  It is probably worthwhile to have these details in writing to avoid any confusion, especially in the event of a compensation claim. Also to include in the agreement: which parts of the home are considered "the workplace", and that the employer or a health and safety committee representative has the right to access this area of the home to conduct a health and safety inspection.

So some questions to consider - or to convert into a simple checklist:

  1. Is the chair and workstation ergonomic and are there adequately sized work surfaces?
  2. Does the office space have a working smoke detector?
  3. Is a fire extinguisher readily available?
  4. Is there a basic first aid kit?
  5. Are exits from the work area clear and unobstructed?
  6. Are all electrical cords and appliances safely secured and checked?
  7. Are there any tripping hazards?
  8. Are all floor coverings safe and non-slip?
  9. Are there appropriate handrails on any stairs?
  10. Is the lighting appropriate for the work being undertaken?
  11. Is there proper ventilation and adequate heating/cooling?

Here is a sample checklistComcare also has a checklist [pdf]

https://ohsrepswfh.netlify.com/story

Advice to workers to maintain 'mental health' 

This advice is from Comcare (March 2020)

  • Establish a routine and boundaries with family and friends around work hours
  • Schedule regular meetings to maintain ongoing contact with colleagues and clients to stay connected and foster positive working relationships
  • Organise ongoing communications via phone, email and via your organisation’s videoconferencing and instant messaging platforms
  • Use outdoor spaces where possible when taking breaks and try to incorporate some exercise or other activity during the day
  • Playing music or listening to the radio helps to create a more pleasant working environment
  • Identify potential distractions and put strategies in place to minimise them, for example separating work activities from home activities.

Safe Work Australia has also put advice on its website, including: Working from home - Workstation set up guide (COVID-10)

The UK's Trade Union Congress, jointly with the (then) Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and employer groups, produced a publication, Telework Guidance (pdf file) for employers and employees.   It is the first European framework agreement to be implemented in the UK through a consultative process. The guide covers a large number of matters: OHS, HR, training, allowances, personal support and information security. In the UK, from April 2004, parents of children under the age of six have had the right to request that their employer allows them to work flexibly - this includes the right to request working from home.

The number of people who are teleworking and working away from the place of work in Europe was on the increase even before the pandemic, according to a study from Eurofound's European Working Conditions Observatory (EWCO). About half of the working population in the EU works at their place of work all of the time, results from the recent Fourth European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) show, and it concludes 'employees who work from home either predominantly or partly report a better work-life balance and, as a result, higher levels of job satisfaction.'  Now with the measures being taken to control the pandemic, even more workers are working from home.
Eurofound Reports (Place of Work And Working Conditions and Telework in the European Union.)

Fatigue - why online meetings are so tiring

During the Coronavirus pandemic, BBC Worklife, looked at the phenomenon of video meetings and fatigue. Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, who explores sustainable learning and development in the workplace, and Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, who studies workplace wellbeing and teamwork effectiveness, gave their views. Some of the issues identified by them include:

  • a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face meeting - we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy
  • silence on a video call is more of a challenge 
  • when we are 'on camera' we are very aware we are being watched

Furthermore, the mere fact we are having to hold virtual meetings highlights why we are needing to do so: the current pandemic and what this means for us all. The mixing up of work and personal lives, work space and family space - all contributes to this stress. 

To reduce the fatigue, the experts suggest limiting video calls to those that are necessary. Turning on the camera should be optional and in general there should be more understanding that cameras do not always have to be on throughout each meeting. Having the screen off to the side, instead of straight ahead, could also help  concentration, particularly in group meetings. Read the entire article here: The reason Zoom calls drain your energy. BBC Worklife 

Returning to work

Most, though perhaps not all, workers will eventually be returning to their workplaces as countries relax the lockdown measures. Some employers in Australia were already putting measures into place to have workers return to work by the end of April. Crucial to the development of any such plans and procedures is ensuring that HSRs are consulted. 

The UK's peak union council has produced a timely new report: Preparing for the return to work outside the home: a trade union approach. The TUC says its report sets out what it believes the government must do now to ensure a safe transition from lockdown, looking at how to safely return to work outside the home, the enforcement measures needed to protect workers, and how best to protect workers’ livelihoods.

What happens if you get injured while working from home?

Injuries sustained in or out of the course of employment are covered by WorkCover. If you are working from home for your employer, injuries sustained while working are work related.

Although your employer must provide a safe working environment (see above), your employer doesn’t have the same control of your home office as the usual workplace, therefore some grey areas may occur in the event of injury while working at home.

If you sustain a work-related injury while working from home, you must report the injury to your employer. This needs to be in writing either via the usual reporting methods if you were at the physical workplace or via email, text etc. It is important to keep a copy of the notification of injury to the employer.

Medical advice should be sought as soon as possible from your treating doctor. Advise your doctor that the injury is work-related and occurred while working from home.

A claim for compensation should be made for any medical costs and/or time lost from work. The claim form is available from a post office, the WorkSafe website or your doctor may also have one.

The claim form must be submitted to your employer as soon as possible after the injury (there are strict time frames that apply). If you require time off work, a WorkCover certificate of capacity is also required (these are issued by your doctor).

Send the claim form, certificate of capacity and any medical receipts or accounts to the employer. It is important to make sure you keep copies of all documents for your records.

There are strict time frames for a decision to be made on the claim. 38 days from lodgement with your employer. If your claim is rejected or you haven’t had a decision on your claim, you should contact Union Assist immediately for advice and assistance.

If you are unsure of your rights an entitlements regarding an injury sustained while working from home, contact Union Assist on 9639 6144 or info@unionassist.org.au for further advice and guidance.

More information

  • Working from homelengthy guidance on the Safe Work Australia website, developed as more Australian workers worked from home due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
  •  TUC guide to risk assessments for homeworkers - Produced by the UK's peak union council, this guide gives guidance on workers’ rights and employers’ duties to address risks including accidents, injuries, mental health problems and violence. 
  • WorkSafe Victoria Guidance (March 2020) Minimising the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19): Working from home. This guidance provides information on the duties of employers and the health and safety issues to consider when setting up a home office. 
  • Advice from Comcare on working remotely - on its Coronavirus page
  • Normal life has been disrupted - Managing the disruption caused by COVID-19 [pdf]  This is an Occupational Therapy Guide providing general advice for those spending much more time at home, either due to work or just generally. It has some useful advice.
  • Australian workers and OHS Reps might find some useful information in the document: The Telework Guidance (pdf file)
  • From the Australian Bureau of Statistics: Teleworking, New South Wales, Oct 2001 - Summary of findings  
  • The Telework Association - based in the UK, this is a membership only association providing news, newsletters, and so on. There are similar organisations in other countries.

Last amended August 2020