Even if you stay away from newspapers and television, the impact of COVID-19 can be seen in balance sheets and customer relationships. Apart from that, employers are obligated to assess the transmission risks associated with their particular workforce and business model.

For many employers and employees, this means a continued facilitation of remote work. The phased relaxation of quarantine rules was announced by the PM back in May, but a recent uptick of cases in Australia (and subsequent quarantine measures) illustrate the probability that COVID-19 will not be a linear process.

Remote work could be a relevant feature of the workplace for a long time, and it’s important for employers to understand their obligations to employees who are working remotely.

Keeping up with the rules

The official guidance around remote work may change in different geographical areas, but Australia’s model WHS laws continue to provide a roadmap of every employer’s duty of care for employee health. As explained by SafeWork Australia, the employer’s duty of care “extends to identifying and managing the risks of exposure to the COVID-19 virus and putting appropriate controls in place in every workplace where the employer engages workers to carry out work or directs or influences workers in carrying out work.”

Setting the stage for remote work

The decision whether or not to facilitate remote work in a given case should be made in consultation with employees and/or employee representatives, with close attention to contagion-risk and workflow issues. When an employer and employee agree to a remote work arrangement, the employer’s duty of care extends to the home office environment. To that end, employers should:

  • Advise remote workers on how to establish a safe and productive home office, including steps to avoid sedentary behaviour.
  • Allow employees to borrow any necessary equipment from the company office in order to establish a functional home office.
  • Take steps (e.g. issuing a questionnaire) to ensure that any existing policies around health and safety (e.g. ergonomics) are implemented in the employee’s home office environment.
  • Provide employees with resources around mental health and wellbeing, including any employee assistance programs currently in place.
  • Clarify how the organisation’s existing policies and procedures (e.g. reporting an injury or hazard, completing timesheets, etc.) apply to the home office environment.
  • Keep an open line of communication with employees, and designate someone to be the contact person for questions or concerns around remote work.

Beyond compliance

Of course, no set of guidelines can account for every detail or every situation. Decisions on whether or not to activate remote work – and in what capacity – will continue to be informed by different business models, workflows, job descriptions, living arrangements, and individual health concerns.

What’s clear is that the employer’s duty of care doesn’t end with the decision to facilitate remote work, even though working remotely is itself a safety measure at present.

An employer of one or more remote workers is still subject to model WHS laws, in addition to state and local laws around workplace safety. Employers have a lesser degree of control over the work environments of remote employees, but leaving people to their own devices without guidance or support would not be in compliance with the law.

Crafting internal policies that apply WHS laws to remote work environments is a vital undertaking – and not just in terms of compliance. An informed, organised, participatory approach to remote work is our best chance for optimal performance in this altered professional landscape. It demonstrates a commitment to the physical and mental wellbeing of employees, helps build positive work cultures, and prepares employers for the continued relevance of remote work in a new era.

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