What's Happening?

As remote work takes hold, employees must be ready



The rise of the at-home office brings its unique array of challenges. Here’s how to navigate them and to ease the transition, writes Spiros Fatouros, CEO of Marsh Africa.

The pandemic will likely drive lasting change, including in how we work. After an initial adjustment period, employers and employees are embracing remote working, and now see it as the way of the future. While that can be a net positive in many ways, it’s important for employers to be ready to manage associated risks, including the prospect of compensable injuries occurring in employees’ homes.

Remote Working Challenges

In March 2020, unprecedented lockdown and stay-at-home orders were enacted as the novel coronavirus rapidly spread across South Africa. This forced many companies to wade into uncharted waters: shifting the majority of their employees – or, in some cases, all of them – to full-time remote work.

In the pandemic’s early days, C-suite executives, department heads and managers wondered whether employees would remain productive while working from home. Did employees have the right tools to do their jobs? Could they avoid distractions? Would technology systems withstand the new demands on them?

Those early fears largely proved to be unfounded. 90% of US employers surveyed by Mercer in summer 2020 said their employees’ productivity had not suffered amid the transition to remote work – and in some cases, had improved.

Working from home, however, can have drawbacks. A study of office workers published in the Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine in March 2021 highlighted a number of negative developments associated with full-time remote work amid the pandemic. Among other challenges, remote workers:

Communicated with each other less than they did prior to the pandemic.

Exercised less and were otherwise less physically active.

Spent on average 1.5 hours more each day at their workstations.

Faced a number of distractions in their homes, including children and pets.

The New Normal

Still, providing employees with more flexibility – including the option to work from home more regularly – is set to be a lasting legacy of Covid-19. Mercer research shows that, globally, one in three companies anticipate half or more of their employees working remotely post-Covid-19 – a dramatic change from prior to the pandemic.

There are several reasons why remote work will persist – at least for office-based professions. One prominent driver is cost: by allowing employees to work from their homes in sizable numbers, employers can reduce their real estate footprints and operating expenses.

Another is to attract talent. Flexible work arrangements have long been a perk offered by some employers. But they can also be a key to unlocking potential in previously underrepresented candidate pools, especially as more employees focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Despite these benefits, however, employers must be mindful of the potential risks that come with remote working. That includes the possibility of employee injuries in their new home office settings.

A Focus on Ergonomics

As companies adapt to working from home becoming a permanent feature of their workplaces, it’s imperative that they take steps to limit the frequency and severity of injuries to remote workers.

A first step is to identify, mitigate, and resolve specific issues that could contribute to pain or discomfort before they escalate to work-related injuries and workers’ compensation claims. Coupled with specific safety measures, this could theoretically make the risk of injury to employees working from home no greater than it would be if they were working in office environments.

Although every employee will be working in a unique setting, employers can share guidelines to help workers tailor their environments to fit their needs and resources. Special emphasis should be given to neck, shoulder and wrist posture.

Web-based training can similarly help employees to optimize their workstations. Online training sessions can highlight common ergonomics and safety issues associated with remote work and best practices for easing discomfort, including taking regular breaks.

Ergonomic specialists can also conduct virtual assessments of an employee’s specific circumstances and equipment. This can provide workers with constructive advice on how they can improve their workspaces and limit the likelihood of injury.

Remote Working Safety Checklist

A number of safety measures can help remote workers to limit the frequency and severity of injuries at home. Employers should work with remote employees to ensure they have clearly defined workspaces that are free from distractions, obstructions and clutter. Employees should also ensure they have:

  • Appropriately designed desks, computers, and other equipment to eliminate strain in accordance with ergonomic guidelines.

  • Ergonomic chairs.

  • Adequate lighting.

  • Good ventilation and temperature control and working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

  • Secured phone lines, electrical cords and extension wires.

  • Electrical equipment that is free of recognized hazards, including frayed, loose, or exposed wires, and sufficient electrical outlets to support them.

  • Easily accessible first aid kits and emergency contact information.

Getting Ready for Claims

Although the process of managing a remote worker’s claim is largely the same as it is for managing a claim for an injury occurring in a company office, there are some nuances. Before a claim arises, it’s important for employers to work with their insurers and third-party administrators (TPAs) to establish specific protocols for remote working claims, with a focus on:

• Reporting timelines. Employers should emphasize that injuries must be reported within an established period of time – preferably, within 24 hours.

• Investigative processes. Injuries occurring at home will often not be witnessed by others, making it difficult – if not impossible – to disprove that an injury occurred in the course or scope of employment.

In the event of a claim, it is important to document the precise location and time of injury. Employers should also seek to direct injured workers to effective providers, as early treatment can help to accelerate recovery. Where possible, consider making use of telehealth options.

As they manage claims, employers should focus on employees’ wellbeing and demonstrate that they care for them. A more collaborative approach to workers’ compensation claims – characterised by communication, education and transparency – can contribute to better outcomes.

Lastly, employers should consider post-loss strategies. Employers should be creative in return-to-work accommodations for workers who do not typically work in offices. Sharing an employee’s job description and physical job demands with health care providers and providing ergonomic support to employees when they are ready to resume work can help to accelerate recovery for workers and reduce costs for employers.