More SME employees teleworking, but experts warn of workplace health and safety risks

Almost two in three SMEs are embracing teleworking, but with the rise of the out-of-office worker could come an influx of workplace health and safety law suits.

To mitigate this risk, Workpro general manager Tania Evans told SmartCompany employers need to be vigilant and keep careful documentation showing they’ve endeavoured to ensure the workers home environment is also safe.

“The media and the specialists and regulators are keen to make sure employers appreciate the complexities of someone teleworking,” she says.

“The working environment is now much more complex than just the office, it’s uncontrolled. From an employee’s perspective, when they’re working from home they’re not as concerned with workplace health and safety because they’re familiar with their environment.”

Evans says just like in an office environment, employers should be conducting audits of teleworkers homes to ensure they’re safe working environments.

“The employer has probably done an audit of the office, but when you have people working from home they also need procedures in place to do audits to control the risks and ensure the teleworkers safety,” she says.

“Working from home is complex and it takes management a lot more effort to keep them safe in their working environment.”

Evans says clear documentation of initiatives to ensure the teleworkers are in a safe environment is crucial.

“It’s really important that the employer educates, informs and has formalised documentation about what they’ve done to make sure the employee is safe.

“Have an audit check list which is signed off by both parties, make sure it’s ergonomically set up correctly and have specified set hours they will be working in the environment. Then if the employee chooses to work at other times, it’s their choice.”

Research from the Australian Communications and Media Authority released in October showed the majority of teleworkers didn’t perceive any negatives; however, of those who did, 20% said there was reduced access to colleagues.

SmartCompany has also previously been told working from home can be a lonely environment and workers can be pigeon-holed into certain roles.

Evans says to avoid the risk teleworkers becoming lonely and disconnected, communication methodologies need to be in place to make sure teleworkers can still be connected to other employees.

“It’s very important to have robust communication methodologies. It’s important the person at home has the opportunity to be part of workplace culture. If they’re at home five days a week, the employer needs to reach out and make an effort to go and see that individual every so often,” she says.

The rise of teleworking in business culture has been brought about by the evolution of technology, and the numbers are predicted to keep increasing.

The Australian managing director of Polycom, a video and telecommunication technology company, Gary Denman told SmartCompany while technology allows teleworking to take place; the drive behind it comes from the leadership and culture of a business.

“When we talk to customers there are a couple of things which are clear – they see teleworking as part of their culture, it enhances their offer to employees, and often helps to retain staff by allowing for more flexible working hours,” he says.

“More and more businesses are also geographically spread out and with globalisation employees come from different places. Bringing teams together through technology has been a big driver.”

MYOB’s latest survey released yesterday revealed a 7% jump in the number of SMEs teleworking, up from 57% in March to 64%. 

Denman says the consumerisation of IT, the bring-your-own device culture and easy access high-speed broadband networks have been the technological developments driving teleworking, but there are more changes coming.

“We’re on the early curve of the technology. People are experimenting with telehubs at the moment,” he says.

“We’re still social animals and enjoy the interaction with other people, but for people working a long way from the office, if you can go somewhere 10km away and not 30km, that has benefits.”

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