Working from home brings charity employer
The global outbreak of Covid-19 has changed the way charities operate, with staff and volunteers quickly adapting to working from home [WFH] where necessary. WFH throws up challenges to charities, however, even where staff [paid and volunteers] seem to have settled into what is for many a new way of working. A prime challenge is meeting duty of care obligations.
Duty of care? Duty of care is, in general, about workers’ wellbeing and welfare and, related, compliance and good practice by the employer. All employers have a moral and a legal obligation to ensure that all their workers are fully protected from personal physical and/or emotional harm, either on or away from the employer’s premises. But charities in particular have an ethical responsibility if only because of the ethos of being a charity.
Measures will already be in place to reduce and manage risks to staff and volunteers in a charity’s office environment. However, with WFH, the risks increase because charities no longer have easy and visual control over the working environment. Thus charities still need to protect and support their workers.
Rethinking work procedures
It’s no surprise that in such challenging times they have had to quickly rethink their working procedures and practices. Have some overlooked aspects of duty of care?
Safety of workers encompasses both their physical and mental health. As far as physical health is concerned, thought should be given to ensuring workers have the correct equipment at home, if they don’t already. Included can be the simplest of things such as an appropriate chair - set to the correct settings, if the chair has settings - to reduce the likelihood of physical strains.
In relation to supporting workers with their mental health, charities should ideally ensure they have regular contact with them in order to check their wellbeing and reduce the risk of any employee feeling isolated and perhaps suffering the consequences. Monitoring could be through scheduling regular phone calls or by video chats or other method via an app.
External risks – risks outside the home or office – are brought into focus where a lone worker visits an individual they don’t know, as part of their work, or when they visit hospitals or other buildings - again, as part of their work. Ways to help lone workers would include an app that has a check-in/check-out function which alerts a charity’s admin to the worker entering a property they don’t know and/or meeting someone they don’t know or don’t know very well; or simply meeting an individual they feel uneasy about.
Such a function could include a time limit – e.g. 30 minutes - set for a meeting. If the worker doesn’t check-out via the app on their smartphone after 30 minutes, the charity’s admin would be alerted automatically and set in motion steps to help the worker. In tandem with the function, or not, a panic button on the app could be activated by the worker if they are, or feel, in danger.
In addition, this kind of app can show the location of lone workers who are working outside the office or home -when they are working in or near at-risk areas. “Geo fences” could be set up by a charity’s admin to let the worker know when they have entered and left such an area.
Giving exact locations of individuals as they do, GPS-based apps on phones can be very useful in at-risk and extremely at-risk situations and can be used for the same purpose. Duty of care covers people working abroad as well as in the UK.
Although estate agency worker Suzy Lamplugh was not an employee of a charity, her case – she went missing, presumed murdered, after agreeing to show someone around a house - has echoed down the years.
While it has become the “new norm” for many employees to work from home, in order to meet government regulations and help stop the virus from spreading, Covid-19 still does, as we know, spring up expectedly or unexpectedly in cities, towns, villages and regions - as do other emergencies.
In cases of local outbreaks of Covid-19, severe weather or industrial accident, charities will need to quickly contact their workers in the affected locality. App-based solutions can help to by sending alerts, via a mass notification feature where appropriate, containing critical information to those at risk, whether they are at home, in an office, or elsewhere, including travelling between places.
Some charity workers have to deal with highly stressful situations and face very challenging situations on a daily basis. Examples include dealing with emotionally charged conversations on their phone or, virtually, via tablet or computer, all the time up against deadlines and projects to be started or completed. WFH, as in working in the office, can get stressful and lead to health problems – physical as well as mental.
If they don’t already, charity team leaders or managers need to understand issues like these which workers can face when WFH and try to resolve problems. To help both manager and worker, app-based solutions allow discreet two-way dialogues, starting with the affected worker raising an issue or query with the appropriate team leader or manager.
An approach like this enables the worker to feel more confident and less embarrassed or stressed about discussing problems, and seek help if necessary. It’s useful for the team leader or manager because it’s a quick route to knowing issues they may not have been aware of.
WFH brings benefits to our personal lives. Many workers experience an improved work-life balance, which can be highly influenced by less commuting stress. This can significantly increase a worker’s spare time in which they would otherwise be commuting; and saves them money. However, some can feel lonely, isolated and less motivated, even as they appreciate some aspects of WFH.
Although employees can have an increased sense of wellbeing when working from home – and be able to manage their time more effectively while enjoying a sense of freedom - they will need to be monitored one way or another, if “only” for reasons of their mental health.
In terms of a charity’s perspective on home working, the main priority should be the duty of care to the employees. With staff remotely working, it is difficult for managers to keep track of an employee’s workload and daily tasks, and perhaps understand workloads in the new WFH world that many people inhabit. One way to overcome these issues would be, again, via an app, whereby the employee quickly updates tasks that are ongoing or completed.
As stated earlier, charity workers can be dealing with highly emotional and stressful situations on the phone - or through other means, including face-to-face. As ever, they will want to feel protected or understood. Many charity helplines are now being handled from home, which can be mentally and emotionally challenging for workers. Even with virtual support from a charity’s HR people, dealing with the situations on a daily basis can significantly impact workers’ wellbeing.
A plus for charities is that WFH can impact their financial situation positively. Many are struggling for funding while relying on events or donations for income. However, as we know, the pandemic has put nearly all events on hold and making other fundraising more difficult. WFH can reduce the need for office space and reduce operating costs, hopefully freeing money up to help manage day-to-day expenses.
More flexible approach
In the long run, many charities may decide not to bring employees back into the workplace full or even part time, because of cost savings and the increased efficiencies of WFH. Another work solution for charities to consider – but some have been doing it for years - is a more flexible approach to working environments to incorporate a mix of working in an office environment and home working.
Ensuring charity workers are supported and protected is key to a happy and productive workforce. Implementing a solution that monitors employee wellbeing, sends alerts if required and has the ability to send mass notifications in case of an emergency could be vital in protecting employees and meeting duty of care obligations.