Teleworking may have become commonplace during the COVID-19 pandemic, but for many workplaces it's a new concept, according to WSPS ergonomist Sarah Hobbs. As a result, people are grappling with how to manage it. "People are seeking a framework - policy and procedures - that can be communicated to teleworkers to ensure everyone is on the same page and knows what the expectations are."
Sarah knows just how great the appetite for information is. She recently hosted a virtual Safety Connection session on teleworking. Hosting online what has traditionally taken the form of community networking meetings with an expert speaker is just one of the ways WSPS consultants like Sarah are responding to the challenges presented by COVID-19. The demand for Sarah's session has already spurred scheduling of seven additional sessions.
Two of the most common questions in her session were, "Is a policy necessary?" and "What should be in it?"
"The downside of not having a teleworking policy is confusion, worry and questions from workers," says Sarah. "'How often do I have to report to my manager? What happens if I injure myself at home? My back is killing me from working at the kitchen table - what can I do?' A teleworking policy disseminated through email blasts, employee intranet, memos, or other means can address all of these issues and more."
There is no need to start from scratch. Instead, build on your workplace's existing practices and the many free resources from WSPS. Ensure objectives of the policy or procedure are listed, and roles and responsibilities are clear. Consider including this in your larger ergonomics or health and safety program. Sarah outlines below five components for consideration as part of your teleworking policy.
- Work scheduling. Provide clear direction about hours of work, duties, expectations, deadlines and overtime, while remaining flexible. Teleworkers may have children at home or elderly parents/grandparents to take care of. A full day's work may not be possible. "Home and work are so fluid and intertwined right now, a little bit of patience is needed to make this work for everyone," says Sarah.
- Communication. Set up a routine for managers, supervisors and/or peers to stay in touch with teleworkers on a regular basis to discuss progress or work through challenges. Provide etiquette guidelines for conducting virtual meetings (e.g., using video, audio and text) with colleagues, clients or customers, such as wearing appropriate clothing, being mindful of your background, and communicating with respect. Include which platforms to connect through and how, guidelines around instant messaging or "Slack" channels, and tips for setting up successful meetings (e.g., muting your line, providing agendas, and minimizing interruptions).
- Office/workstation set-up. Many teleworkers have had to set up home offices and workstations on the fly. "This could lay the groundwork for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)," says Sarah. What is the company's plan for home office equipment? Is it provided by the employer, the worker, or both? When and how is equipment being provided? Sarah suggests using free, downloadable WSPS resources to increase awareness of MSD risks and add some ergonomic science to makeshift offices, such as this recent article, Working at Home? 6 Steps for Setting up Your Workstation.
- Work environment. Adapt existing workplace practices to the home environment by providing best practices for fire protection, emergency procedures and electrical safety, internet security, and how to report an injury. Ask probing questions. Are extension cords in good condition? Are outlets grounded and not overloaded? Are carbon monoxide detectors in place? One way to assess hazards is to have each teleworker complete and (virtually) sign off on our Home Office Workstation Checklist (see "How WSPS can help").
- Mental health and wellness. Combined home and work obligations, plus worry about COVID-19, can take its toll on teleworkers' physical and mental health. Have conversations about these matters during your regular check-ins, says Sarah, and provide tips through communication channels for staying active, eating properly, taking breaks, and keeping mentally fit.
WSPS has many free resources to help you develop a policy for teleworkers, including information on
- developing a health and safety policy and program,
- electrical hazards, fire prevention and emergency response/preparedness,
- MSDs and ergonomics,
- workplace mental health.
Find more resources on WSPS' COVID-19 Hub.