As a Founder and the CEO of Vari, my mission is to help companies create workspaces that elevate people.
It’s been about a year since the pandemic upended life in the U.S. and around the world. Our daily lives changed seemingly overnight, and for companies with office-based employees, working from home full-time was suddenly the new reality. Only 14% of employees were working remotely before the pandemic, according to a Forbes article, so there was very little opportunity to prepare for the sudden shift ahead of time by helping employees set up home workspaces and figure out all the logistical and technological kinks.
There are some who enjoyed working at home and the benefits of no suits, commutes or structured hours. But, after almost a year of this impromptu experiment in remote work, we’re starting to see a dark side emerge.
Prolonged remote work is taking a toll on our physical, mental and social well-being, and it’s not just employees who are paying the price. Companies are at risk of seeing their productivity plummet and their workers’ comp claims rise.
An Ergonomic Price
A staggering 72% of remote workers don’t have a dedicated office space, and 40% aren’t even working from a dedicated desk. So where are they working? On couches, countertops, patio furniture and other less-than-ideal places. Picture the curved spine of someone typing at a coffee table, the neck strain of hours of Zoom calls taken from the bedroom or the lack of back support from a kitchen stool, and you’ll understand how this situation leads to back pain and other physical issues.
According to OSHA, insufficient ergonomic protection accounts for nearly one-third of workers’ compensation claims, and employers face the same exposure to these claims whether employees are working on company premises or at home.
Most businesses aren’t taking steps to help their teams create a safe work environment at home that protects their health — and protects their business from future claims. Mercer found that approximately 14% of U.S. companies are paying for ergonomic office furniture for at-home workers. That leaves 86% of companies vulnerable to injury claims.
The Devastating Disconnect
In addition to its physical effects, remote work is taking a mental and emotional toll. While some are feeling disconnected and experiencing a sense of isolation, others feel inescapably overwhelmed with the stress of having kids and partners at home all the time, and the lines between professional and personal time are often blurred.
In fact, according to the Forbes article, only 24% of employees felt like their stress levels improved working from home, while 42% reported increased stress levels. That may be why a recent survey of office workers by the commercial real estate firm JLL found that 74% of workers (registration required) still want to be able to return to an office.
Some believe that the lack of social interaction among employees is also causing productivity to suffer. It’s no coincidence that Steve Jobs considered face-to-face conversations and spontaneous social interaction to be critical to the creativity and innovation of the team that created the iPhone. We are social creatures, and videoconferencing is proving to be a pale substitute for in-person collaboration. Stressed out, isolated, unhappy employees can not only be less productive, but they can also affect an organization’s culture and morale.
Creating Simple Solutions
Allowing for some flexibility, providing efficient technology and helping your remote employees create a more ergonomically supportive workspace with a dedicated desk, proper seating and other solutions are smart investments to ensure the health of your team and protect your business from future claims. Remember, each person will have different needs according to their space, workstyle and family situation.
The secret to getting it right? Ask your teams what they want and need. Sending an employee survey and opening a dialogue with your at-home team can help you find the right approach that works for everyone.
With vaccine distribution in progress and CDC guidelines in place, many companies are ready to start bringing at least a portion of their employees back into the office. Some are starting with a blended workspace model where in-office and remote teams rotate their schedules to reduce the number of people in the office while testing out the new workspace safety enhancements.
By incorporating the recommended precautions — like socially distanced workstations, increased sanitization and mask-wearing policies — you can create a safer workspace where employees can once again benefit from culture, collaboration and communication.