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Risk in Context

Remote Work: Five Practices Risk Professionals Should Consider

Posted by Jeffrey Smagacz Tuesday, October 06, 2020

The surge in employees working remotely in response to measures intended to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have not yet translated into a notable increase in workers’ compensation claims from remote workers.

But after months of remote working, and with several companies signaling – or even announcing – that a full return to the physical workplace is unlikely to happen anytime soon, this could change.

A third of employers expect more than 50% of their workforce to work remotely for the long-term.
Source: Mercer

For employers, the message is clear: Ad-hoc arrangements made at the start of the pandemic may no longer be sufficient. Instead, some employers now are taking concrete action to help their people create a safe and hazard-free workspace that enhances productivity while at the same time protecting their business from a potential future surge in workers’ compensation claims.

1. Flexible Working Agreement is Key

The gradual increase in US employees working remotely predates the pandemic, with just under a quarter working from home on an average workday in 2019. The numbers shot up earlier this year as several states implemented stay-at-home orders. And while data shows that the number of employees working remotely due to COVID-19 started to drop at around the same time states began lifting restrictions, many employers are revisiting earlier plans to return their employees to a physical workspace.

Some companies have made clear that their employees will not be returning to their cubicles any time soon, with some publicly extending their work-from-home policy into next year and beyond. A recent Mercer survey found that nearly a third of respondents expect more than half of their workforce to remain remote once stay-at-home regulations are lifted, compared to less than 5% before the pandemic.

Only 8% of workers had returned to offices in New York City by mid-August.
Source: Partnership for New York City

Whether a company is embracing remote work in the long term or expecting employees to return to the physical workspace as soon as it is considered safe, it is clear that the prolonged period of remote working requires well-defined policies that allow employers to promote a safe and hazard-free workspace, irrespective of where that is situated. And the first step can be to establish a flexible working agreement that clearly sets out the working arrangements and expectations of both parties.

Flexibility is crucial, especially as some employees might need to change their working hours to care for dependents. Employers seem aware of this, with three-quarters of respondents to Mercer’s survey saying they’re updating an existing flexible working policy or creating a new one, while another 18% say that employees can informally work flexibly despite the company not having a formal policy. Any formal policy should provide information about the different types of flexible arrangements that are offered, eligibility for these programs, governance and approval processes, work standards and terms, as well as the role of both parties in aligning with the established standards, including who is responsible for equipment needed by the employee to carry out the job.

While flexible working arrangements seem to be here to stay, at least for the short term, employers will need to be cautious of potential pitfalls. One critical consideration is to ensure that any policies or actions are not discriminating against any protected class of employees, including when requiring some workers to return to the physical workplace while allowing – or even requiring – others to stay home. Employers will need to be mindful of the rationale behind any decisions and always consult with legal counsel.

2. Provide Remote Equipment Reimbursement

When people walked out of their workspace in March, they left behind a lot of the equipment that allows them to work comfortably and be productive. Adjustable chairs, monitors, ergonomic keyboards, and other equipment that can minimize the risk of musculoskeletal disorders — or ergonomic injuries — remained in deserted offices. Lacking a proper workstation and without a clear timeline for returning to the workplace, many employees not used to telecommuting had to be creative to find a place to work, making do with existing resources that may be far from ideal. This has created potential health and safety risks, which could lead to injuries and workers’ compensation claims.

270,000 cases of musculoskeletal disorders were reported in the US private sector in 2018.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

This is a prime concern for employers. According to guidance by the US Department of Labor, employers are not obliged to pay for the business expenses of employees working remotely as long as these costs don’t cause the employee’s wage rate to fall below required minimum wage or overtime compensation thresholds. Employers should also check state and local regulations and consult with legal counsel to ensure they are compliant with any relevant laws.

Despite this guidance and the current economic situation forcing many companies to cut down on spending, close to 20% of respondents to Mercer’s survey said they provide financial support for the purchase of ergonomics equipment to employees working remotely. Companies can consider establishing a monetary amount, either through a stipend or direct expense reimbursement, for specific expenses that might include investment in a workstation.

3. Educate on Safe Remote Working

Even companies that are not in a position to grant financial aid can take steps to improve their employees’ safety and wellbeing by providing learning resources that help them set up their remote workspace. A first step is regular communication, including the use of illustrations and images, to help employees create a safe workspace.

Because every employee’s environment is different, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Employers can provide a set of guidelines and best practices to help their people tailor their work environment according to their needs and resources, putting special focus on neck, shoulder, and wrist posture, including the importance of taking regular breaks.

Employers can also consider providing web-based training to help employees optimize their workstations. These online training sessions provide guidance on ergonomics and safety issues that employees are likely to encounter while working remotely. Aside from providing practical content that addresses the reality on the ground, these short training modules demonstrate that employers care about their people’s well-being.

Employees who need additional assistance can find virtual ergonomics assessments helpful. During these one-on-one sessions, ergonomics specialists take account of the individual’s specific circumstances and equipment and provide constructive information and suggest changes that can help improve the workspace. The aim is to help mitigate and resolve specific issues that may contribute to pain or discomfort for an employee, addressing them before they escalate to work-related injuries and associated musculoskeletal disorder claims or costs.

In addition, employers may focus on overall wellbeing by helping employees set up boundaries between work and home through a routine that mimics going to a physical workspace with set starting, finishing, and break times. Data suggests that many employees are allowing the lines between work and life to blur – Microsoft recently reported double-digit increases in after-hours Teams chats, while weekend usage has spiked by more than 200%. For employers accustomed to their employees punching in and out, this new reality can complicate their ability to track time, making it essential to create clear and concise written policies outlining expectations and requirements.

4. Focus on Communication

As months roll by without face-to-face interaction, keeping in touch with your people needs to remain a priority.

Consider providing your leaders with training and education to help them manage and engage virtual teams, which is a critical component for productivity. Regular communication is important to make sure that employees are doing well, have the resources they need to do their jobs, and know what is expected of them. Organizations can engage employees in a two-way dialogue in a number of ways, including one-on-one meetings with their manager, “ask me anything” sessions with company leaders, digital focus groups, and employee surveys. This two-way feedback is essential to identifying potential problems early and providing a path towards rectifying potential productivity roadblocks.

5. Prepare for Workers’ Compensation Claims

Whether an employee is working from the company’s own premises or at home, employers generally have the same exposure to liability from work-related accidents. An employee’s home, however, can present additional risks since employers do not have the same oversight of working environments. In view of a possible increase in workers’ compensation claims as remote working arrangements are extended, employers should consider taking action now to protect their business and their people through a number of steps:

  1. Advise employees on their ergonomic workspace. Explain how to safely use company equipment and provide other appropriate safety tips, including keeping floors free from trip hazards, like computer cords, and being cautious not to overload power outlets.
  2. Set up a process with your claims administrator to flag any claim related to remote working and carry out a proper investigation, especially since other colleagues will not witness injuries that happen in an employee’s home.
  3. Remind employees of the claim reporting process. Establish a reporting timeline and communicate these requirements with all employees working remotely.
  4. Emphasize the importance of regular communication between managers and their direct reports and provide managers with the necessary resources to facilitate this process.

The pandemic is not yet over and case numbers are expected to go up as the weather gets cooler and more activities move indoors, while seasonal illnesses could complicate an already difficult situation. Thus, even those companies returning their employees to a physical workplace should put structures in place that facilitate a quick return to remote working if the situation requires it and allow them to effectively manage any workers’ compensation claims from remote workers.

Jeffrey  Smagacz

Senior Vice President, Global Ergonomist, Marsh