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Smart Working, Wellbeing and Risk

Dealing wih the fear

Smart Working – is it good for you?

There are 3 areas of concern about personal wellbeing and risk that are often raised when Smart Working programmes are first introduced:

  • Ergonomics in new office working environments
  • Health and safety in the home and other remote working locations
  • Remote working and isolation.

It is natural that people have concerns when stepping into new ways of working. However, it is also true that sometimes issues are raised as cover for deeper objections to changing working practices. With so many organisations now embracing Smart Working, the important thing to remember is that none of the issues are show-stoppers.

Where there are risks, they need to be identified – but remembering that there is a range of good practice and there are solutions. And when properly implemented, Smart Working has benefits that can enhance personal wellbeing as well as deliver business benefits.

Ergonomics in new office working environments

Smart Working environments are based on sharing resources, and working in a range of activity-based settings. You work in the setting most suited to the task in hand.

This can raise a number of concerns, including that without a fixed desk one will be working at workstations that are not ergonomically optimised for the individual.

There’s an assumption here that in traditional office working with assigned desks everyone is working at a properly adjusted workstations. The evidence tends to the contrary, with surveys finding some 80% of people not knowing how to adjust their chair. Or working with the screen at the right height. Possibly their monitor is not sufficiently adjustable for the best ergonomic experience. In general, most people don’t think of the ergonomics of traditional working until they have a problem.

For many, Smart Working is a first opportunity to work the ergonomic issues through on a coherent basis.

In desk-sharing environments, best practice is to have a good quality fully adjustable chair. Bad backs tend to multiply before moves to desk-sharing, but it’s important to resist campaigns by people to keep their ‘own’ chair. This is often a play for keeping personalised territory. The number of cases where a special chair is actually needed will be few when a fully adjustable and ergonomically sound chair is provided as standard. reasonable adjustment should focus on maximum adjustability for the many, rather one-off adjustments the few.

Beyond that, what is required is training, so people know how to work in the best positions and best posture, wherever they work.

And there needs to be good practice about when to vary working position. Apart from working in different settings, options include ‘sit/stand desks’. Varying work position also means taking a break, not only to comply with visual display unit regulations but also to combat tiredness by shifting focus.

A concern sometimes raised about shared desks is hygiene. The simple answer is having hygienic wipes available. However, in terms of sharing computer equipment and telephones on desks, this will be less common in the future of work as people increasingly use their own portable devices. Many desks now only provide a screen and places to plug in and connect. However, one should not neglect cleaning one's own devices. Just because it is one's own dirt and germs, doesn't mean that it's a hygienic environment.

Working with laptops for longer periods, it’s advisable to use a laptop riser (laptop stand) adjust to the right height and separate keyboard, and/or with the laptop connected to a separate screen. Screens should be easily adjustable, and adjustable to cater for people of different heights.

Health & Safety in the home and other remote locations

When working at home, exactly the same considerations apply about ergonomics as in the office. A good set up is vital. And the training to know what is good practice.

However, looking to the future it seems that conversations about ergonomics often focus excessively on desks. People now work with a wider range of portable devices, and can work in a wider range of work settings. In many ways, these pose more ergonomic challenges than keyboard/screen combinations where best practice is quite clear, as people work on these same devices outside work for leisure purposes.

This creates issues for people presenting with musculo-skeletal issues that might result from poor or excessive use of tablets and smart phones, as the problems may not entirely derive from how they are used for work.

A key part of this is having the right tools for the job. Use of tablets or smartphones for long periods is not good practice. It may be a question of using an alternative tool - .e.g using a more ‘traditional’ tablet (where the screen can flip to be either a touch-screen or work with an integrated keyboard) rather than an iPad or similar. Or it may be a case of connecting an external keyboard and screen, or using a headset. It depends what the device is being used for and whether they are being used for extended periods. At the moment, neither modern tablets nor smartphones are particularly good for long periods of inputting data. Again, awareness and training are important – after which applying common sense should be standard.

Concerns may be raised about other health and safety issues when working from home, to do with lifting and carrying, tripping and electrical safety. This conjures up scenes like the unfortunate demise of Kristen Cloke in Final Destination – lacerated with shards of exploding computer and rained on with kitchen knives, before her house finally explodes. Theoretically, it could happen. But one would be surprised if it’s common.

People regularly working from home should undertake a homeworking health & safety assessment. This is usually done by self-assessment, and usually online.    This is to reinforce good practice and for employers to demonstrate that they are taking the appropriate steps. But it has to be emphasised that the risks are small if one works in a normal way and applies common sense.

It is always worth remembering that the most dangerous things most people do for work every day – unless they are a soldier, police officer, firefighter, miner or construction worker – is travel. Travel to and from work, and travel for work. Anything that reduces travel reduces risk, and that should be factored into the equation.

Remote working, isolation and atomisation

A commonly expressed fear is that working remotely can lead to isolation. And that in turn can lead to depression, stress and poor performance. That is probably a valid concern, if indeed remote working does cause isolation.

Because of its unfamiliarity for most office workers, discussions of remote working are often framed in ‘all or nothing’ terms. In fact, for the vast majority of people involved in Smart Working, working at home is something that happens one or two days a week, and for mobile workers it’s an extension of how they work already, and is about building capacity to work more effectively.  

And it’s also worth noting that large numbers of people – mainly freelancers and people running home-based businesses – choose home as their base and for the most part enjoy the experience.

There is a ‘glass half full, glass half empty’ aspect to such concerns. One can either emphasise losing a connection with the office, or one can take a positive view on having more choice about the place of work and about who one connects to: for enhancing one’s connection with family and community, or being able to spend more time in the field with clients and customers. And there are good techniques now for enhancing connectivity for virtual teamworking.

The most positive aspect connecting to wellbeing is increased choice and autonomy. Numerous studies have highlighted the connection between working flexibly and reduced stress and improved health. Having more choice about where and when to work is a key factor in that.

As with all forms of human activity, there may be risks. But the awareness of risk does not mean building barriers – it means managing risk to achieve the best results. Introducing Smart Working should be the occasion to improve the working environment, wherever one works, and introducing more choice about where best to work. 


Dangerous laptop and table

November 2013


Further information

In this article Andy Lake takes a look at some of the fears around possible negative ergonomic and wellbeing impacts of Smart Working.

Certainly new forms of working do raise some challenges for ergonomics, as a wider variety of work locations and tools are introduced.

Andy is currently taking part in a touring  'roadshow' on ergonomics and Smart Working organised by Osmond Ergonomics*. This has been stimulating much interest and new thinking which will be folowed up in future articles.

There is further consdieration of these issues in his book Smart Flexibility, particualry in the chapters 'Home alone, disconnected and tripping over wires' and 'Working in the Anywhere Anytime Team'.

* If you are interested in attendomg te next seminar in London on November 28th, you can view and download the updated brochure here or go straight to the booking page here.















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