Looking after employees, including lone workers, in this era of flexible working

Flexible, or “flexi”, working, also known as hybrid working, presents specific challenges to employer organisations. Regardless of whether or not they have a duty of care policy in place, employers have a duty to ensure their employees are safe in their workplace, wherever they are working. That can throw up particular challenges because many employees no longer work in a fixed place, a situation that changes day by day in some cases.

Gone are the days when senior executives were the ones most likely to work flexibly. The work and duty of care landscape has changed beyond recognition, with the result that new approaches to, and tools to optimise, duty of care, are coming under the spotlight.

The Changing Working Environment

Driven in the past two years by the Covid-19 pandemic, and by the increasingly widespread use of mobile computing, the idea of what comprises a workplace has changed. Another driver, lagging those two factors, is their financial consequence: office rental costs, which can be reduced through partial office closure, in tandem in some cases with the use of lower cost satellite offices.

The main point here, of course, is the rise and rise of working from home, or WFH, since the pandemic started. Some think the pendulum has swung too much to WFH. The result is an emerging compromise that includes a mixed of home and office working, and/ or using hot-desking at work or workspaces away from the office.

The new work landscape, which includes various working-on-the-move environments – typically mixed with WFH and some time spent in an office – requires risks to employees to be assessed.

Assessing Risk

A first or early step is the risk assessment, historically the foundation for the rollout of health and safety regulations in an organisation. Assessments of this type are a useful way for management to identify patterns of risk. HR/H&S and security personnel can then step in to address ways of reducing, and better managing, risks to employees.

For employees working in different locations at different times, senior management might want to look at the most effective way to communicate  with staff when necessity requires it.  “Necessity” is typically driven by emergencies – or anticipated emergencies such as a weather storm or a terrorist incident, although both can happen with little or no warning. But necessity can include mental health emergencies unrelated to external events.   

A communication method that overcomes reluctance by staff to check their emails, SMS or other messaging app on a regular basis is ideal.  

One other point for consideration is the increasing number of employees who spend more time on their own than before the pandemic, and say they feel more isolated. Employers of lone workers should take appropriate measures to check on their wellbeing. It’s important to involve employees in any wellbeing programme before it’s fully implemented, to help ensure buy-in by the lone workers and therefore optimise the programmne’s effectiveness.

Pro & Cons For Lone Working

WFH or remotely as a lone worker can be beneficial to both employer and employee. Increased employee productivity can be one benefit to the employer – if only because the employee doesn’t spend time commuting to and from the office, and, in addition, might suffer from fewer distractions when working. An advantage for the employee is the sense of freedom, and trust from their employer, they can enjoy. Another is the flexi approach to work, especially if it’s desired by the employee. 

Other benefits for employers are (i) savings on some office costs, in some cases at least  (ii) expansion of the corporate presence in strategic locations, achieved by having more staff in any desired number of locations.

A “con” for lone workers is the sense of isolation that some will experience if only because of a lack of the direct supervision they may prefer. One-to-one or group virtual meetings can be useful in giving them direction and keeping them focused and supported.

Legal & Safety Points

The employer organisation is responsible for the health, safety and welfare not only of its employees but also of any on-site contractors, self-employed/freelance workers or volunteers; in some case, wherever they are working, not just on-site.

Although working alone on- or off-site is usually be very safe, the law does require organisations to consider, and deal with, any health and safety risk that might arise. Measures to help create a working environment that is safe (or the safest possible!) for lone workers can be different to what is expected for other staff. One difference is based around “Is the employee fit and healthy enough to work on their own, and does their workplace, whatever and wherever it is, present a risk to them?”

Systems to keep in touch with employees and be able to respond promptly to requests (or even just a hint of a request) for help are useful. On the other hand, staff and self-employed workers have responsibilities to take reasonable care of themselves – and, where relevant, others in the workplace. They also have a responsibility to co-operate with their organisation in meeting its legal obligations.

Employers’ Responsibilities Around Employee Safety

It’s a given that employers should do their best to protect the health, safety and welfare of their staff, and, to an extent, others, including freelances, who come into the corporate orbit. This means ensuring that staff and others are given protection from anything that may cause them harm – typically by controlling risks to injury or health that can arise in any place of work, the home and elsewhere included. This is where risk assessments can be so useful.

Consequently, employers must give information about risks in the workplace(s), and how staff are protected, including via training on how to deal with or reduce the risks. Likewise, employers are obligated to consult employees on health and safety issues, via line managers or health and safety representatives appointed by a trade union or elected by the workforce.

Managing Stress & Supporting Staff Mental Health

Managing work-related stress among employees involves understanding what is generally acceptable “normal” behaviour, and therefore being able to recognise abnormal behavior, preferably at an early stage.

Feeling poorly managed, overwhelmed or mistreated in the workplace can worsen negative mental health conditions, even in the best or better performing staff. Employers have a legal responsibility, within reason, to help.

Any poor contact – e.g. where lone workers and other employees can feel “disconnected”, abandoned or isolated – between management and lone workers etc can be remedied.  Solutions include management and staff agreeing on a time to keep in touch, whether by virtual one-to-one or group meetings or meeting face-to-face. Solutions can also include improving relationships with co-workers and management, if necessary.

Meetings can include updating staff with the latest company or office news, and encouraging lone workers in particular to attend social events and activities. It’s important to ensure lone workers are consulted about changes that have implications for them. Consultation could lead to training courses aimed at improving  employees’ work standards and to initiating employee safety and wellbeing programmes.

The mental health charity Mind underlines risks to not paying attention to mental health in the workplace.  “Our research confirms that a culture of fear and silence around mental health is costly to employers”, Mind points out. Its research findings include…

  • More than one in five (21%) employees admitted they called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress had affected them
  • 14% agreed they had resigned and 42% had considered resigning when asked how workplace stress had affected them
  • 30% of staff disagreed with the statement “I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed”
  • 56% of employers said they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but don’t feel they have the right training or guidance

Proving the success of steps/programmes designed to help employees

Budgeting pressures don’t make it easy for HR or employee safety departments to showcase their success stories. They must also handle duty of care obligations in what can be a tightening budget. Within this context, showcasing success to senior management has a role to play.

Success stories can cover improved employee retention, lower absenteeism and overall improved wellbeing – and improvements in productivity. Successes like these might mean the current budget remains intact. However, more detail could be required to prove ROI.

HR or employee safety departments should work out at least the approximate net cost of a programme by determining how much it costs to implement, then subtracting the cost savings associated with it. The financial aspects – e.g. cost outcome analysis, cost-effective analysis or cost-benefit analysis – of health and safety programmes should be addressed. These analyses have their uses, but one may be more appropriate for showcasing than the others.

Proving cost savings can be a challenge, which is why is it’s crucial to demonstrate – quantitatively – that a programme is having a positive impact. Matching visibility built on solid foundations with financial accuracy is key.

Technology-Based Approaches

Deploying risk reduction and associated health and safety programmes can be made much easier through the use of a smartphone app, which links to a server-based dashboard managed by an appropriate department. The app enables employers to initiate, build and maintain better communications – and relations – with lone workers and other staff wherever they are nationally or internationally.

Management or team leaders can oversee communications that include mass-mailouts of messages alerting staff to actual or anticipated risk to wellbeing, including risk to life, incidents. Mailouts also can be about new health and safety guidelines, and include psychologically-supportive messages designed to optimise the mental wellbeing of all or selected staff.

Apps like this are not solely one-way, top-down. Employees can proactively use them whenever they wish to communicate to the HR/H&S or security department about risk-to-health-or-life situations they are in or expect to find themselves in. They can also use apps to communicate about high levels of stress or unhappiness they are experiencing.

Vismo’s solution for communication is Vismo Notify – Vismo Notify – Vismo.

To Conclude

To conclude – in this era of flexi working we increasingly find ourselves in, steps can be taken by management to help ensure that optimum levels of employee wellbeing are aimed for and attained. A starting point, to recap, is a risk assessment, followed by a review of the programmes and tools that can help all in an organisation – senior executives included. Yes, they too can require help.