Managing employee relations in a remote working environment

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:

  1. Where possible, use equipment or furniture that you, the employer, have supplied rather than the employee’s own equipment or furniture.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Conclusion

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 on our website here

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