Woman working from home

Long-Term Working from Home: Managing Risk, Limiting Liability

July 23rd, 2020

Antea Group held a virtual EHSxTech event on July 8th that brought together over 40 EHS professionals from over 20 different technology companies to discuss managing risks and liabilities associated with employees working from home (WFH). What initially started as a short-term response to the pandemic has turned into a long-term situation. This “new normal” has come with significant and potentially permanent changes to how businesses operate. Our informal poll of the EHS professionals that attended the event indicated the following:

  • Today: Unsurprisingly, 92% indicated that over 50% of their workforce is currently working from home.
  • 2021: 90% indicated that over 50% of their workforce is expected to work from home in 2021.
  • Permanently: 29% indicated that over 50% of their workforce will likely work from home permanently.

While working from the couch (or bed) may have been fun back in March, the extension cord is now a trip hazard, and employees’ necks and backs may now be feeling the long-term effects of a poor workstation setup.

What can EHS professionals do to ensure that employees working from home for the foreseeable future have a safe work environment and remain productive? What are proven ways to manage company risk and limit liability when you have little control over the work environment?

A Blast from the Past

Julie Kreger-King, Antea Group Senior Consultant and long-time EHS professional in Silicon Valley, offers some perspective and wise advice to participants drawing upon her past tenure as Global EHS Director for a major tech company.

“Working-from-home isn’t new to the tech industry. Back in the day, companies used to have a telecommute policy for remote or home-based employees that spelled out requirements and expectations for both the company and the employee. This formal program was usually managed collaboratively by HR and EHS.”

Julie continues, “Over the past few years, working from home has become ubiquitous due to the mass adoption of laptops and ease of corporate intranet access. These part-time, less formal WFH arrangements have typically been considered more of an employee perk and a way to help employees achieve more work-life balance. These days, many tech companies allow employees to work from home with minimal or no guidance on employee expectations or company provisions beyond providing a laptop and fast internet connection. Now that it is clear a much larger percentage of the workforce will be WFH long-term or permanently, it’s time to dust off the telecommute policy and update it for today’s new normal.”

So, what’s in a telecommute policy? And what if your company culture doesn’t really embrace written policies? Read on, we have answers for you.

Telecommute Policy - Updated for Today's New Normal

The purpose of a telecommute policy is to clearly lay out company requirements and expectations related to employees working from home. This can include the following:

  • Various types of working from home arrangements the company offers: part-time, full-time, voluntary, involuntary, temporary, permanent, COVID-19 specific, etc.
  • Eligibility requirements to be permitted to work from home, such as adequate workspace, internet speed, etc.  
  • Roles and responsibilities of employees and managers when an employee is working from home
  • Salary and other conditions of employment related to the working from home arrangement: relocation and adjusted wages, time keeping, performance expectations, etc.
  • Health and safety policies: ergonomics, training, home office safety self-assessment checklist
  • Equipment/assets provided for working from home including IT equipment, furniture, etc.
  • Finance policies related to reimbursable working from home expenses
  • Insurance provisions that outline the coverage and limitations of existing policies as they relate to the home office: property insurance, workers compensation, liability insurance
  • Information Technology network security requirements

Getting a policy in place is a great starting point! Next, as the EHS professional, your focus is to make sure that the employee has a safe (and productive) workspace in their home. It can be tricky to balance company duty-of-care with employee privacy. The best option is to have a formal signed WFH agreement tailored specifically to each employee. This ensures that both the manager and the employee have read and understood the expectations. From a safety and liability perspective, the individualized agreement should include these sections:

  • Work Arrangement: Write out the specific arrangement for that employee (permanent, temporary, 5 days/week, physical location, working hours, etc.). Establishing physical work location and requiring notification of location changes is important for insurance coverage and tax purposes, but it is also important when determining compensability for accidents that occur at home. Did the accident happen at the agreed-upon “home office” location? Did it occur during working hours?
  • Workspace: Ideally, the employee has a separate part of their home they can designate as their home office workspace. The agreement and policy need to be clear that the employee has an obligation to maintain a safe home workspace. Best practice is to provide the employee with a self-assessment checklist. See below to download our Working from Home Self-Assessment Checklist. This covers topics such as the work environment, emergency management, electrical safety, lone working, employee well-being, and ergonomics. As part of the agreement, the employee should complete the checklist when they set up their workspace and then review it at least annually to ensure the space remains safe. It also helps with employee mental wellness if they can literally or figuratively “close the door” at the end of the workday.
  • Equipment and Services: This is the place to define what equipment the company will provide such as an ergonomic chair, monitor, printer, fire extinguisher, etc. and what the employee is expected to provide. This might be electrical extension cords in good condition, adequate lighting, quiet space, etc. This is also where you would outline services available to work from home employees such as remote ergonomics evaluations, wellness benefits, telehealth, etc.
  • Lone Working: There may be special conditions necessary for employees that live alone. Consider daily check-ins as a best practice.
  • Incidents and Accidents: Injuries while working from home may be compensable. Make sure that employees know where they should report incidents and accidents while working from home.

Policy, Smolicy - That's Not OUR Company

As you are reading this, you may be nodding your head and agreeing that these are reasonable actions to take, but also may be thinking that a written policy that employees are required to sign would never fly within your company. Maybe it simply doesn’t fit with your culture, or maybe you don’t have the resources to undertake this amount of administration. 

That’s ok, you can still take time to establish some basic minimum safety expectations for your working from home employees. You can implement these safety practices in a more informal manner through trainings, webinars, one on one discussions between managers and employees, employee forums, email blasts, and other internal communication channels. Regular communication through a variety of channels will provide your employees with the right information and help build a strong EHS culture in your company. 

Whatever you decide to do, be sure to engage your managers and make sure they are trained on the working from home safety expectations including their role in making sure their employees have a safe working environment and are knowledgeable about the resources available to them. 

 

Download our Working from Home Self-Assessment Checklist

 

Are you in the technology industry and looking for EHS&S support? Contact us today to talk about your needs.

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