By Guy Osmond
Since the arrival of COVID-19, we have all seen both domestic and work changes at a pace we did not expect and have probably never encountered. It is quite possible that some of what I write here may be out of date almost before it is published so it should be taken as a ‘how we see it’ snapshot at the time of publication rather than a definitive document to endure for ever!
It is also worth mentioning that my perspective relates to the specific activities in which I am involved. I am quite certain it will be easy enough to search elsewhere for blogs, webinars and handouts about other aspects of our experience.
Phase 1: Rabbit in the Headlights
On March 10th and 11th, we were exhibiting at the Health & Wellbeing at Work Exhibition at the NEC. We had abandoned hugs and handshakes for elbow bumping and there was a lot of talk about corporate roll-out plans for home working. Most employers had a Business Continuity Plan but these often foresee a catastrophic IT failure, a denial of service event or perhaps a fire in one building. Evacuating the entire staff, possibly globally, was a very different matter altogether. The initial focus for all was therefore to get the IT and communications working efficiently – or, at least, adequately.
It then became clear that most employers fell into one of two distinct categories: those who were proactive about equipping their homeworkers (by ordering new products or allowing them to take equipment from their workstation) and those who were prepared to ride out the first few weeks and see what happened. Most fell into the latter category.
Phase 2: Getting a Grip
It soon become apparent that lockdown was going to last much more than a few weeks as both employer categories merged into a single cohort. Everyone started making more structured plans for their homeworkers. Months, rather than weeks, become the expectation for homeworking and, for many, returning to the office at some stage ceased to be inevitable.
With a more clearly defined duty of care, employers have started to think more consistently about homeworker provision. However, there is often no contingency budget and individual requirements may be defined as much by domestic accommodation as by the employee’s needs. Some dynamic employers have defined a ‘standard homeworker chair’ (or family of chairs) with other options such as laptop kits or sit-stand adaptors. Most organisations are recognising the need to clarify their communication channels so that they can identify those in need and provide for them. Musculoskeletal issues are growing, even amongst those with no previously reported history.
As we have seen widely reported, mental wellbeing is a very significant issue and corporate wellbeing programmes are being thoroughly tested. It is fortuitous that mental health issues have been gaining so much publicity recently so that there is (generally) a much more open and accommodating attitude to those who need support. Our relationship with Champion Health to meet this need has developed quickly since the lockdown and I would strongly recommend their online mental health training. The free use period has just been extended to support those struggling during the pandemic.
The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) has also provided a useful home working infographic that covers both physical and mental needs and, of course, we have our own wide selection of downloadable resources.
Phase 3: Command & Control
This is where it gets complicated! With employers now making plans to reoccupy buildings, demands on facilities, health & safety, occupational health and other professionals have increased by an order of magnitude. It is now necessary to plan the reoccupation whilst continuing to provide for homeworkers.
The needs of homeworkers may still look much like Phase 2. However, the numbers of staff who can no longer cope with a dining chair or the sofa (or even less desirable alternatives) are now showing significant signs of growth. There will obviously be those who had previously been provided with adaptations in the office but the real increase seems to be amongst those with newly-reported back, neck and shoulder pain because ‘an extra cushion on the kitchen chair’ is just not enough anymore. We can also confirm that using the ironing board to stand for a while simply does not work if you have an extra monitor!
The reoccupation issue may be made simpler by talk of reducing social distancing from 2m but many employers have spent the last few years reducing desk density and making them smaller. If you already had a ratio of 6:10 (desks:people) and these desks are 1400mm x 700mm, the number of usable desks in your building will need very careful planning! Viable occupation is often around 1/3 of employees so the homeworking issue will persist.
Many organisations are exploring the use of protective screens but I would caution a knee-jerk response (let’s not go back to Rabbit in the Headlights!). We offer these products in response to customer enquiries but I see that many designs seem to have gaps of up to 20mm at various connecting points. Surely, these gaps must defeat the object? I also wonder why so many of them are 600mm high. Is there science behind this dimension or is it, perhaps, something to do with sheet sizes of 1220mm?
Our view is that protective screens definitely have their place (particularly in reception areas) but should be part of a much more holistic plan rather than a fortuitous quick-fix. If they are part of the plan, think also about the environmental issues. Many designs lack any potential for recyclability so we particularly like the circular designs from Bakker Elkhuizen.
Regarding the broader approach to reoccupying the workplace, we have all seen the various government publications to explain and support the provisions needed, but the recent Creating a safe workplace during COVID-19, also from the CIEHF, provides an excellent systems approach to the process.
My own webinar developing this theme is available here.