HR health and wellbeing special 5/6: managing the wellbeing of home workers and remote staff

Little is known today about the impact of remote, mobile and flexible working on employee health and wellbeing. Sales staff driving hundreds of miles a week, home-based ‘teleworkers’ and mobile service engineers are all off-site, but how much attention is being paid to their working environment, psychological state, health and general wellbeing?

This could become a big issue for HR directors because flexible and remote working is on the rise, driven by the proliferation of high-speed communication links, mobile devices meaning people need less time in offices, and employers needing to cut overheads.

A Robert Half UK survey recently revealed 38% of HRDs plan to offer remote working in the first half of 2012, while 44% believe remote working has increased in the past three years. "The trend for homeworking and flexible or 'agile' working began in places such as Japan. Today organisations across Europe and the US are continuing the trend, because of many benefits to work/life balance and productivity," says Paul Litchfield, BT Group's chief medical officer.

"The focus must be on making it work effectively for all, though, and that means using selection criteria to ensure only suitable roles are carried out remotely, employing people who can adapt to working this way, giving training and support to help them cope with the anomalies of being away from the core operation." When it comes to monitoring what is being achieved, BT prefers outcome-based systems to activity-based systems - so avoiding the Big Brother sense of being checked up on, rather than supported, says Litchfield.

He says issues for HR to watch include: the fact homeworkers might be tempted to work long or chaotic hours; that they could feel isolated if efforts are not made to extend communication and contact in the right way; and could suffer stress that might not be noticed by line managers.

An in-depth review entitled The health and wellbeing of remote and mobile workers, produced in 2009 by the Institute of Occupational Medicine and the British Occupational Health Research Foundation (BOHRF), alluded to a shortage of evidence around what ergonomic and psychological factors affect remote and mobile workers (RMWs). The review assessed a host of medical studies, and concluded challenges to RMWs can include social/professional isolation, a tendency to work longer hours, and the frustration of having unclear roles, and limited feedback from peers and line managers.

"It is unclear whether individuals can access occupational health, HR or training easily when working this way, and companies should be aware of this," says Joanne Crawford, senior ergonomist at the Institute of Occupational Medicine. "Managers may need guidance in managing workers and building trust for those working away from the workplace."

New technology such as mobile devices and web access should make it easier for HR to maintain contact with remote workers, to identify health problems and resolve them. "We see engineers and telecoms workers having smartphones and laptops with them to be able to 'check in' to regional offices, which is really helping employers make sure their teams are safe and well, and in constant contact," says Crawford. "It is important staff see this as employers carrying out a duty of care, rather than as being checked up on." She says another issue to watch is that reliance on technology can also change the way people work. "Not switching off the technology could potentially have a negative impact by increasing perceived workload and forcing up levels of stress," she suggests.

HR departments understand picking up on wellness issues and building resilience can reduce the cost of sickness and absence, reduce the risk of litigation, enhance retention and improve engagement and performance. Online health assessments look attractive to organisations with remote workers, as they can be offered regardless of location, and needn't be costly. "Systems such as ours are automated, but also deliver highly personalised health and lifestyle reports back to individuals, spelling out the next steps they need to take to improve their diet, or reduce stress, for example," says Jessica Colling, product director of Vielife, which provides wellbeing consultancy to organisations including Telefónica 02, Amazon and Kimberly-Clark. "We make sure the service can be paper-based too, so employees who don't work with computers aren't excluded - engineers digging up roads for a water company, for example." Although individual reports are confidential, employers can aggregate the data and so spot issues such as home workers not getting enough exercise, or field sales agents feeling excessively stressed.

Under the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974), employers have a legal duty of care to staff. Risk assessments must be carried out to spot possible hazards, wherever a person is working, and many companies opt to provide the desk and IT equipment to homeworkers, and ensure communication is always possible to minimise problems.

Organisations with a good track record of wellbeing provision go out of their way to offer their remote workers additional support services such as occupational health or rehabilitation. If wellbeing is a core value of the employer, it must be meticulously inclusive, to avoid possible disengagement. "A lot of thought and effort goes into how we reach out to our remote workers to ensure they have all the necessary health and safety checks, but also benefit from the engagement efforts and wellbeing perks colleagues in our offices are getting," says Gill Phipps, HR policy and projects manager at Simplyhealth. "Not thinking about their wellbeing could lead to feelings of isolation and distance from the company."

BT has more than 92,000 employees worldwide, including 9,400 home workers. In total, around 69,000 are enabled to work flexibly. Equipment is provided, risk assessments are carried out, and the company website has an expansive 'how to' guide, helping employees feel connected and informed. Line managers are trained to assess how these individuals are coping and BT uses the Health & Safety Executive's six management standards as a guide for addressing workplace stress: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. Other measures include making sure there is a clearly defined schedule of contact and that colleagues are using tools of communication to keep the social element of their work alive - video links, instant messaging, face-to-face meetings, events.

"Specifically for our engineers working in remote and hazardous locations around the world, we have a 'safe and well' process, which makes sure there is regular, reliable contact, the right medical support where needed, and we do medical clearance for these people and their families before they set off," says Litchfield at BT Group. "That might be ensuring everyone is vaccinated for a certain region, or checking appropriate facilities are in reach if someone has an existing condition."

Keeping in contact and offering the right provisions are essential for businesses with workers overseas. CEGA Group Services is a provider of medical risk assessment, emergency assistance and claims management, and director Rob Upton says companies must be clear about their legal obligations. "It is all about preparation, planning and protocols. Employers need to have a procedure in place to identify and proactively mitigate risks associated with working overseas," he says. CEGA's recent work includes the repatriation of 94 members of the BBC's Philharmonic Orchestra from Japan, after their tour was halted in the wake of the country's catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. For clients with employees working far from quality healthcare, CEGA can manage wellbeing by using 'telemedicine'. This equips users with diagnostic telemedicine technology, which transmits clinical data, voice, pictures and real-time video via wi-fi, ethernet, GSM and satellite phone connections to a UK-based medical team, 24 hours a day. "It enables a treatment plan to be established, based on hard medical data, facilitating diagnosis, treatment and decision-making on the need for medical evacuation," explains Upton.

Should the worst happen to an employee working overseas, a firm will need to demonstrate it has put suitable duty-of-care procedures in place to meet legal requirements. This means covering every reasonable eventuality and employers can't afford for cost to be an issue. "Safeguarding employees' wellbeing overseas brings the benefit of protecting a company's critical assets, its staff," says Upton. "Cutting back on this is a false economy; not just because it can expose an employer to legal action and even prosecution under the Corporate Manslaughter Act, but also because it can decrease productivity and increase expenditure if an employee is unable to work and needs to be replaced."

Even on UK soil, the high psychological demands of working alone, or musculo-skeletal problems resulting from using a vehicle as a mobile office, are just two issues that might arise from RMW. Crawford says one option if remote working is jeopardising wellbeing is job re-design - simply designing in more time at the office. But for organisations specifically aiming to offer their staff flexibility and cut travel time and property overheads, this defeats the point. Hiring 'touch-down' office space might bridge the gap between work and home. Serviced office provider Regus says three-quarters of its customers are now using its facilities for pay-as-you-go, 'third place working': flexible or agile workers stopping off to use computers and video-conferencing, have meetings and recharge between appointments. "A major wellbeing issue is addressed because these individuals would otherwise be working at home or travelling long, stressful journeys to regional offices," says Andrew Brown, group communications director at Regus. "Their managers have the reassurance health and safety is covered in our offices, and staff provided with everything they need to get work done in comfort."

Yell's mobile salesforce has opted to work this way, and has seen its productivity increase by 10%, says Brown. Google, GlaxoSmithKline, Nokia, Salesforce and Twitter are also advocates of third place working. "These companies are finding that employees respond well to being treated like grown-ups and being empowered to work in ways that suit them best," says Brown.

Remote and flexible working can be a solution for employers under pressure to control costs and offer a better work-life balance, but wellbeing must be factored in. Communications tools, online assessments and flexible use of office space will all help, but occupational health experts stress the importance of human contact. "Face-to-face meetings and team events must still happen," urges Litchfield.

"No-one likes to feel left out of the loop, and social interactions - from chats with the boss, to water-cooler moments with colleagues - carry enormous weight when it comes to employee wellbeing and engagement."

Case study: Plantronics

Aiming to improve the work-life balance of staff, while also halving its office space in the UK, headset manufacturer Plantronics launched 'Smarter Working', its voluntary flexible working programme, two years ago. The company didn't want to jeopardise health, lose productivity or undermine colleague relationships, so carried out a detailed pre-audit with not-for-profit initiative Work Wise UK, to discover what impact working flexibly between home and office might have on employees.

Plantronics' HRD EMEA, Norma Pearce, says this was essential to weigh up pros and cons for the business and employees, examine the legal aspects around duty of care, plan how to ensure healthy working environments and start thinking about how to manage 'distributed workers' responsibly.

Plantronics set out its full flexible working policy, and drew up an assessment system to ascertain whether flexible working was suitable for every individual. "We have an assessment form for the employee and another for the line manager to complete, so both understand all the criteria needed to make it work," explains Pearce, who says line manager buy-in has been critical to the success of the programme.

"As part of their assessment, the employee describes the home environment they'll be working in. It allows us to ensure they aren't working off a bed in a bedsit, or being distracted by children, for example."

There is also online training provided by specialist, covering how to set up a safe home office, how to manage one's own performance and communicate effectively. "It is not practical for us to visit every home, but we make it clear to employees that we are entitled to visit them in their home office at any time, and if problems are suspected, we can carry out occupational health assessments and suggest changes," says Pearce.

Office equipment and robust broadband connectivity is provided, and constant communication is guaranteed, as Plantronics employees all have a laptop set up with Microsoft Lync, showing when people are online and what their 'status' is.

'Smarter Working' employees still come into the office one to three days a week, so there is plenty of contact and interaction. Gym membership is available. Engagement workplace satisfaction surveys take into account how home work is affecting people, and Plantronics has seen improvements in both these areas. "People have responded well to the trust element and say it takes the stress out of their family lives," says Pearce. "If someone wants to see a school play or visit their mother in hospital, they know it's not a problem if they have carried out calls earlier or will work in the evening."

Of Plantronics' UK team, 40% (120) have now officially moved onto a Smarter Working contract, and even those not on the contract can work flexibly - away from the office. (The uptake of Smarter Working is limited, because many people are employed in the engineering facility onsite.) People are proving to be more productive when released from the 9-to-5 regime, but one concern is individuals overdoing it. "I have stressed to managers they must make sure people aren't working stupid hours, so we constantly monitor this," says Pearce. Performance is measured on results, not on hours worked; HR reiterates this regularly.

On a Smarter Working contract, Ian Gould, product manager, EMEA, works between home and the office, flexible hours. Typically making conference calls at home to Europe early in the morning, and to the US in the evening, he is able to take some leisure time during the day. He hot-desks when visiting the office. "It helps you manage your life in a better way, without compromising," says Gould. "I do the things I like outside of work, and keep the family happy too. The flipside is you sometimes work long days, but you map out spare time on other occasions."

Case study: Simplyhealth

UK healthcare provider Simplyhealth is mindful its 130 remote workers must not be overlooked when it comes to wellbeing. Making up a tenth of the total workforce, these employees are either sales representatives 'in the field', or 'independent living' engineers visiting homes of customers who need equipment such as ramps and mobility scooters.

"These colleagues are all customer-facing and are important brand advocates for Simplyhealth, so it is absolutely worth it for us to make them feel fully engaged with the company and supported in every aspect of their work," says Gill Phipps, HR policy and projects manager at Simplyhealth.

The company has alternative ways to deliver its extensive health and wellbeing policies for remote workers. This starts at induction, when they are given tailored training for things such as defensive driving, how to be safe at night (because some sales visits are out-of-hours) and there are risk assessments for their particular role. Contact is very important, so mobile salespeople have BlackBerrys and talk to their line managers daily, have regular face-to-face briefings and a 'buddying' system, so pairs of salespeople are in regular contact to encourage and support each other. There are also online desk assessments to make sure occupational health issues are raised and additional support through an EAP and occupational health advice when needed. Wellbeing days that office staff benefit from - when an external company comes in to provide massage, healthy diet advice and fitness workshops, for instance - are provided to remote workers when they have their regional sales team meetings. Even the 'free fruit days' are extended to remote workers, as line managers provide fruit at meetings, and flu jab vouchers go out to anyone that can't have the jab done on site.

"People are quick to notice any unfairness in how they are being treated and we certainly don't want anyone to feel neglected," says Phipps. "There are internal resource costs to get this right - more communication from HR, printing newsletters for example, but it is totally worth it, to ensure everybody is positively engaged and feeling healthy."