Remote work, virtual work, work from home. Call it what you will, but 2020 will forever be remembered as the year tens of millions of Americans left their offices behind and decamped to their basements, bedrooms, dens and elsewhere throughout their homes. In fact, last year more than 60% of U.S. workers became homebound, according to a Gallup poll.1
And if you think the work-from-home trend will disappear when the U.S. finally has COVID-19 under control, think again. Many organizations have already expressed plans to be more flexible about where their employees work. Most notably, some of the nation’s largest technology companies have said workers will not return to their offices until late 2021 at the soonest, while others will let employees work remotely permanently.2 In fact, more than 80% of business leaders will allow at least part-time remote work going forward and 47% will allow remote work full time, according to a July 2020 Gartner survey.3
When it comes to managing risk, leaders are having to reconfigure and reconsider the types of issues that are emerging from this massive paradigm shift. Many types of risks that organizations planned and prepared for during decades of in-office work are changing, requiring almost every company to take a new look at potential challenges.
Below we highlight some of the key risks that decision-makers should examine and ways to mitigate them.
Far more than just instructions on how to sit at our desks, ergonomics involves how humans interact with their working environment. And it’s not only about preventing injuries. Overall health, wellness, creativity and productivity can all be impacted, for better or worse, by ergonomics.
Before the pandemic, worksite ergonomics had become an integral part of many organizations’ operations. But now with staff working from home, how can companies respond to mitigate risk?
It all begins with making a consistent, comprehensive assessment of your employees’ ergonomic situations at home. This exercise can identify the potential for problems ranging from eye strain to musculoskeletal injuries and disorders like carpal-tunnel syndrome. It’s critical to educate staff about the early warning signs of trouble so they and their managers can address issues before they become significant problems.
Organizations such as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration offer tools for assessing and mitigating the risks of working at home.4 Sources like these cover the gamut of sound advice ranging from posture and positioning to computer hardware/components to help keep staff healthy.
Leaders and managers also need to design and implement processes for soliciting feedback from remote employees on an ongoing basis to monitor for potential risks. Make it a point to respond to reasonable requests from staff for solutions to make their workdays healthier both physically and mentally. These benefits can range from a new keyboard to flex time for helping their children with virtual school.
During the pandemic, we have observed that workers compensation claims have fallen. However, organizations should be moving now to minimize the risk of at-home injuries and disorders emerging as remote work becomes more commonplace.
Slip-and-fall injuries are another potential exposure that can occur when employees are working remotely. Whether or not these types of workers compensation claims are compensable will vary from state to state. Accident prevention is the key to avoiding these types of claims altogether. Employees can help prevent these types of accidents by keeping computer/telephone cords bound and hidden, keeping workspaces clear of any other tripping hazards (e.g., boxes, clutter), keeping the workspace in one area of the home, and, lastly, avoiding using a workspace upstairs or in the basement of the home whenever possible.
Cybersecurity was already a significant risk before the pandemic, but has only become much more complicated with employees and devices scattered far afield. Your network now is not only accessible from every remote employee’s home, but also from everywhere they go remotely with their work laptop and phone to take a break from COVID-19 lockdowns.
Organizations need to rethink how they educate and train staff to protect their networks, as well as assess their technology. One of the key strategies for keeping network resources safe is to remind employees to avoid using company devices for personal matters, including email. Some organizations are supplying employees with devices to use only for work.
In any case, staff should be instructed to practice sound digital behavior. For example, they should never click on or engage with content unless they personally know the sender. They should also be aware of phishing scams that hack a colleague’s email address to lure a victim into clicking on a malicious link or sharing sensitive information. In the event of this type of attack, all employees should be alerted immediately.
From a technology standpoint, organizations should be using a virtual private network (VPN) for home-based workers. A VPN enables users to create a private connection to your company’s resources over a not-so-private or public network. Staff should also make certain that they log off your network and lock their devices when not in use.
Physical security is vital too, in that employees who work with hard-copy documents at home should destroy them (e.g. shredding) at home before recycling them or bring them to an office location for shredding.
In conclusion, by most accounts many companies have managed the transition to remote work quite successfully. Now that they have, they should not let down their guard against the key risks that have emerged due to this huge change. With a robust plan and consistent vigilance, organizations can greatly reduce the probability of problems that could impact their employees, their systems and their overall operations.
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