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
- 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
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
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
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
Working with laptops for longer periods, it’s
advisable to use a
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
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
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
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.