By Sarah Saha, Regional CEO APAC and MENA at Emex
The pandemic has challenged an outdated workplace to accelerate itself into the 21st century, as social topics and sustainability continues to influence our culture. In the ‘new normal’, traditional office hours of 9-5 are a thing of the past.
Early in the pandemic, COVID lockdowns forced millions around the world into a work from home environment, which many employees now prefer to the office. It is estimated that fewer than 1 in 10 workers wanted to return to the office full time after the easing of COVID restrictions. As society begins to open up again, businesses are looking for a way to combine the best parts of office work and working from home into a new business model that most are referring to as ‘hybrid work.’
A hybrid work model has its advantages. Businesses can still maintain a level of office culture, whilst saving in overheads; less office space housing employees means resources can be spent on other things to support growth. However, even in the provision of a flexible workplace, employers are still responsible for the health and safety of their employees, and liable if something goes wrong. Now more than ever, businesses must ensure they have suitable, accessible health and safety systems in place to prevent employees from feeling disconnected and isolated.
An employer’s responsibility to ensure a safe working environment and look after employees’ physical and mental wellbeing remains as critical in a remote work setting as on a regular site. Employees must know where to go to access help in both of their working environments, which poses new challenges to health and safety reporting. This position calls for an integrated approach to EHS (environment, health and safety), which empowers employees and brings them to the forefront of wellbeing discussions.
In a society which is increasingly aware of how physical and mental wellbeing are interconnected, protecting employees in a hybrid workforce is vital, but no easy task. This is leading to EHS becoming a part of wider ESG or sustainability strategies.
Here are three things which employers must consider in developing and EHS strategy for the world of hybrid working environments:
The right to switch off
Recent statistics show that half of professionals are prone to longer working hours at home, which can escalate into them suffering from burnout. This also puts a strain on both mental and physical wellbeing. Therefore, it is vital that employers promote structured but flexible working hours and employees get away from their home desks to maintain good health.
When working from home, employees are prone to a sedentary lifestyle. A recent Vitality report found that 70% of employees favour hybrid working over purely remote work due to the increased physical activity this brings. Therefore, employers must be promoting the same amount of physical activity and length of working day to employees working remotely as they do to those coming into the office.
This is a key area where “leading indicators” (metrics which focus on proactive and continuous improvement) can be a beneficial part of an EHS strategy and reporting process. Employers need to take an active role in ensuring their employees are staying active. Whilst we don’t necessarily want to see a return to a scheduled session that resembles that of PE, employers can easily suggest online workouts, or organise a walking challenge as examples.
Taking a proactive approach now is likely to fend of potential reputational or legal damage in the future. The French government has already put in place the “right to disconnect” which gives employees the right to not respond to work emails or messages outside of their contracted hours. As hybrid working becomes the norm, we can expect to see other governments across the world put in place similar protection for employees – and possibly penalties for companies seen to be crossing the (digital) line between work life and home life.
Issues that can be easily resolved in an office environment, such as poor ergonomics, become challenging once the work environment changes. Yet employers are just as liable for remote employees as those on site. On site or in the office, employers can easily ensure their employees working conditions are up to scratch and provide support services such as occupational therapists. However, at home it becomes more difficult for employees to know who to discuss issues with. As businesses move towards hybrid work, naturally fewer employees will be on site at once. Equipment can be shared, reducing business costs, whilst also ensuring employees remain safe at work. This also creates a foundation for SMEs to be able to invest in their employees at home, as what they save in on-site overheads can be reallocated for providing support in the home environment.
Often, issues lie in employees not knowing where to access products like ergonomic chairs, and therefore workplaces must implement a behaviour-based safety (BBS) observation system that allows employees to alert management to issues from any mobile device.
Streamlining reporting processes
A streamlined reporting process not only allows employees to easily complete remote working assessments, but it reduces the administrative load on managers. Ensuring five employees are safe on site is one thing, but when whole departments are shifting between working remotely or in the office, efficient workflow management is critical.
Businesses must be ensuring that they are utilising the time they have available to tackle health and safety issues at the time, head on. As employees start to switch between working at home and on site, employers need to implement systems in place that allow staff to input into risks assessments, incident managing, and inspections wherever they are. Not only does this lead to an efficient health and safety reporting process, but businesses can then utilise their time and reposition it into other areas of their business. Ultimately, utilising time and allowing employers to tackle health and safety issues in real time, head on.
Not only this, but companies must be truly transparent about their health and safety systems. Centralised systems allow all relevant stakeholders to connect through a single unified platform that can monitor physical and mental wellbeing along with health and safety reporting. This can be a powerful tool when dealing with stakeholders, as it builds trust in what the business is doing well, as well as areas for improvement.
Hybrid working is here, and it’s here to stay. As employees and employers reap up the benefits of their flexible working conditions, health and safety systems must not be put on the backburner. Employers must streamline reporting processes and promote employees’ physical and mental wellbeing positively through a simple, accessible EHS platform which supports an open and proactive health and safety culture.