‘Bubble-Wrapping’ the Virtual Workforce

2915059362_14700b5cc3_zBy Peylina Chu

Working as a member of Silicon Valley’s growing virtual workforce, surrounded by the comfort and amenities that are ever-present in a seemingly safe home environment, you never expected that beloved office chair would suddenly and aggressively fail you. Well, it did.

Now here you sit — wrist adorned with a hefty cast, hindering your ability to write the code that puts food on the table.

Creating a culture around virtual worker safety doesn’t begin and end with replacing the broken office chair. There is a web of concerns to address, and it’s easy to get tangled up. With so much complexity, where does a company begin, and what factors should be considered a priority?

Protecting the safety of all employees

Technology companies of all shapes and sizes may not be aware that it is their legal obligation to ensure employee safety and comfort. Regardless of employee location — work-from-home-ers, in-office employees or those commuting on big tech buses — all companies must have policies in place that encompass varying risks, including ergonomics and other work-related injuries. Companies must also keep pace with ever-changing global environmental, health and safety (EHS) regulations that differ from region to region on a global scale.

For years, the technology industry has experienced rapid growth, making it necessary to expand the workforce outside the confines of typical one-building offices. This is evidenced by the highly flexible (or often lacking) work-from-home policies by industry giants like Google, Facebook and HP, as well as startups like Airbnb and Foursquare, and reflect the rapidly growing size of companies and the need for a diverse and spread-out campus.

The costs of failing to preemptively defend against EHS threats can result in companies facing personal-injury lawsuits and regulatory infractions resulting in fees that could cut into the bottom line. Most importantly, it perpetuates a laissez faire culture of ill preparedness and reactivity to risks that should be proactively avoided before growing into widespread HR issues.

On the surface, these costs may appear less serious, as companies assume compensation insurance will protect them – but this is far from the total cost. Administrative expenses, medical costs, wage and productivity losses, uninsured costs, and other impacts on the company total billions of dollars per year on a national level across industries. And fast-growing companies that have yet to cement EHS standards for their virtual workers are hit hard.

To avoid this, it’s important to look at what risks can be planned for, what can be “bubble-wrapped.”

“Bubble-wrapping” the workforce

To begin bubble-wrapping the workforce, it’s important to investigate and document not only the risks and incidents from virtual workers, but also issues plaguing in-office employees. These concerns can stem from poor workstation ergonomics, lack of safety training or improper equipment to complete assigned tasks.

Whether it’s workers’ hands developing stress fractures after using equipment incorrectly for years, or slipping a disc while exiting a tech bus en route to HQ in Mountain View, documenting these risks and issues allows tech companies to step back and look at trends. With a better understanding of issues at hand, companies should prioritize fixes based on the widest-spreading, most damaging concerns plaguing the overall workforce.

Sometimes, these risks can be simple fixes — drafting policies to ensure proper and standardized equipment is installed in all home offices can help prevent ergonomic or soft tissue injury concerns. Requiring safety training for all employees is an integral tool for lessening EHS risks across virtual and in-office teams.

Though policy and training alone are useful methods in protecting virtual workers, a company must achieve awareness at all levels, from virtual workers all the way up to the CEO, to create a culture of safety. Not only does this alleviate risks before they blossom into legal concerns, but it also perpetuates a focus on safety that feeds back into business goals — attracting and retaining top technology talent hoping to make Silicon Valley their home.

Part of creating this culture is having an open dialogue with employees, understanding their needs and staying attuned to concerns as they arise. One way to do this is to have a trusted and experienced partner that’s completely up to date on all regulatory mandates, industry-specific risks. Your partner can lend a hand to a stretched team by making sure all codes are enforced and people are actually able to flourish at work.

Showing awareness and responsiveness to the growing pains that come from an expanding business helps establish a culture of safety and allows companies to discover roots of future problems, avoiding the scariest outcome of all: stagnant growth.

Image credit: Flickr/Olle Svensson

Peylina Chu is a chemical engineer with over 20 years of experience in the EHS, sustainability and management consulting business at Antea Group and is a senior consultant to technology clients. She helps manage the business aspects of EHS for clients to be able to drive sustainable growth for the future.

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