Charles Spencer, Ellis Whittam

Creating a new model to match modern working preferences

Interview with Charles Spencer, Principal Health & Safety Consultant at Ellis Whittam

Charles Spencer is the Principal Health & Safety Consultant at Ellis Whittam. He is a Chartered Member of IOSH and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) and has a volunteer role as the CIEH representative for the BSI committee for Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems.

Charles was a panelist on our recent Homeworking webinar and was the ideal person to speak to about the risks facing customer service and contact businesses as they embrace hybrid working models as we ease out of the pandemic.

As we are emerging from the pandemic. What has Covid meant to Health & Safety professionals?

Charles recalls the past year: “Covid was a surprise to most health & safety professionals. The pandemic fell upon us and many people thought that it would be a temporary situation, with working from home as a short-term fix but as the pandemic became a fact of working life, Health & Safety professionals have had to consider some more permanent solutions: can people realistically do their jobs at home? And from the professional standpoint, can they do it safely?”

He continues: “In over a year since the first lockdown, we’ve all become very familiar with the ways that home and hybrid working have been made possible. Most people think of the software solutions like Teams, Zoom and so on, but from a Health & Safety perspective we have to think much more widely.”

Charles concludes: “From a health & safety perspective, working in a home environment is very different to an office.”

So as people have got used to working from home and are now returning to more flexible, hybrid ways of working, what are the big Health & Safety considerations?

Charles explains: “The workplaces we are used to will have had Health & Safety Risk Assessments in place, which recognise hazards and provide ways to mitigate and control the risk. These are generally standardised and can be made available to managers and workers relatively easily and centrally. Workstations in offices, especially contact centre environments, tend to be similar and provide a good level of safety to team members. Allowances can be made for individuals on a case-by-case basis depending on their needs, which can be easily talked about during the working day.”

He states: “It’s completely different when people find themselves relocated to working from home at short notice. We have experienced enormous variations in the suitability of workspaces, equipment and challenges which we had very little time to prepare for or adapt to.”

Charles points out: “Under Health & Safety laws, employers have an obligation to ensure that their staff are kept safe. This applies to wherever the workers are fulfilling their roles.”

He continues: “Bad workplaces can result in serious problems for workers. Lighting, ergonomics and comfort, as well as the immediate physical safety of appliances or tools, are more difficult to control away from the office but are equally important wherever your team members are working and using them.”

How can customer service businesses deal with the new risks?

Charles states: “If you have team members who are spending any time working from home, your obligations as an employer cover both the office and the home workspace, or anywhere your staff regularly work. In practical terms, this means completing a risk assessment for hybrid and homeworkers in their homes. These risk assessments should be used to establish what our workers have in place, versus what they should expect.

He continues: “In short: If your workers’ spaces cannot be made safe, then those workers should not be working from home.”

Charles adds: “There are more detailed requirements too. PAT (Portable Appliance) Testing is a well-known control measure in the workplace. Equipment used elsewhere must be kept safe, one of the more easy-to-understand difficulties with basing people away from any centralised location.”

He concludes: “Businesses can use standardised tests to identify many risks in non-standard workplaces, though. A DSE Workstation Assessment can be completed by employees with minimal easy to understand,  training and support. An electronic assessment sent to the HR department or an independent Health & Safety consultancy can be used to collate a company-wide view of the main risks. This view can be analysed for the organisation as a whole and used to prioritise actions and mitigate risks, as well as demonstrating a commitment to looking after your teams.”

What about individual needs?

Charles starts: “A company’s obligations extend to all employees, not just the workforce as a whole. Where an individual team member has an issue, it’s up to the employer to decide what action should be taken.”

He explains: “Some people find homeworking difficult, so an extra effort should be made to make communication regular and as easy as possible for your teams. One good example of this which we’ve seen clients enjoying during the pandemic is a weekly online social lunch, where teams spend time together, from home, without a business agenda. Events like this can maintain a sense of togetherness during difficult times and might help hybrid workers long into the future.”

Charles says: “Stress is an adverse reaction to pressure. Pressure can improve performance in some people but too much pressure can have a seriously adverse effect on not only results, but the health of your people.”

He continues: “If we think of stress as water, everyone has a different-sized jug for their ability to deal with the flow of it. Employers bear a responsibility to alleviate and manage the pressure, to reduce or control the flow of that water. It’s important to be aware that pressure not only flows from work, but from everywhere else in an individual’s life too.”

Charles states: “Hybrid working is a good example of the flexibility now available to employers. Remember that the same flexibility can be used to offer employees a less stressful way of working, something that suits their own life and challenges more effectively.”

 He explains: “With less organic interaction between your teams, try to encourage more mentorship and informal training to allow your employees to develop their skills as well as their social interactions. Support knowledge-sharing, wherever possible, to replace those conversations which many of us used to have in the office every day. Mentoring can be a vastly underrated and highly effective method of informal training for the whole business.”

 Charles concludes: “It costs around £10,000 on average to replace an employee, so businesses should be aiming to retain their team members, not least for simple economic reasons.”

With many offices now opening, what should businesses be thinking about in terms of Health & Safety?

Charles states: “If there’s one thing to take away, it’s that a person’s workplace is everywhere they work. That means that employers have a duty of care to take account of working conditions in more than just the office. If you can’t do that for everyone, then you might have to enable some of your team members to come back permanently to the office.”

 He concludes: “Outside the legal point of view, forward-thinking employers will also be communicating with their team members much more frequently than they used to. There are more factors at play now than ever before, with the lines blurring between home and working lives, so as employers we need to be more mindful of the health of our teams. We can help to keep the business healthy by working hard to keep our people healthy too.”

If you’d like to discuss how your organisation can be more effective in implementing hybrid working successfully, our expert team can help, this includes providing guidance on how to work with your employees to maximise their health, happiness, and productivity.

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