Keeping Employees Safe and Secure in the Remote World

Three years after the start of the pandemic, it’s clear the remote workplace isn’t going anywhere. But do you know if your employees’ remote workplaces are safe and secure?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home was a bit of an anomaly. For most, it wasn’t an option; for those whose workplaces allowed it, there were often strict rules, including computer monitoring and required documentation of childcare to ensure you were completely focused and actively working forty hours a week. Even with these checks in place, most organizations doubted remote workers could be as productive as those sitting in offices under the watchful eyes of their supervisors.

Of course, the pandemic changed everything, and stay-at-home orders forced most organizations to allow remote work (and relaxed guidelines, with children staying at home as well rather than going to school or daycares).

Between 2019 and 2021, the number of people primarily working from home tripled from 5.7 percent (roughly 9 million people) to 17.9 percent (27.6 million people), according to the US Census Bureau. And while organizations braced for drastic dips in productivity, something remarkable happened: when working from home, many employees accomplished even more than they did in the office. It turns out that even screaming children aren’t quite as distracting as that coworker chatting you up every time you take a trip to the water cooler.

- Sponsors -

When the pandemic started to ease and stay‑at‑home orders relaxed, some workplaces rushed to get employees back in the office. Meanwhile, others realized productive remote work environments were a viable possibility. As of 2023, 12.7 percent of full-time employees work from home, while 28.2 percent work a hybrid model. According to Upwork, this number will continue to grow, with the company projecting an estimated 32.6 million Americans will be working remotely by 2025.

Casey Chosewood

“The move to remote work was happening before COVID-19, but the pandemic increased the pace and saturation of remote work across many industries and occupations,” said L. Casey Chosewood, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Office for Total Worker Health. “This has advantages and risks when it comes to worker safety, health, and well-being, and some workers will benefit more than others. While some see increased flexibility and a healthier commute, others feel isolated and may see an unhealthy blending of work and home responsibilities. Many studies report workers have longer hours when working remotely. Other emerging studies show mental health declines in folks who work remotely full-time, compared to those who work remotely only part of their schedule.”

The Risks of Remote Work

With 98 percent of employees wanting to work remotely at least part of the time, it seems the pros outweigh the cons for most. Some of the most cited benefits include flexible hours and a better work-life balance. Still, that doesn’t mean the arrangement lacks challenges.

According to Forbes Advisor, 69 percent of remote workers report increased burnout from digital communication tools. In addition, 53 percent of remote workers say it’s harder to feel connected to their coworkers due to the lack of face-to-face interaction.

Seeing these stats, it’s easy to worry about what working remotely long-term could do to employees’ mental health.

“Mental health conditions are a leading cause of disability, and are costly for many employers,” said Heidi Hudson, coordinator for research development and collaboration at the NIOSH Office for Total Worker Health. “As the pace of change in our society, economy, and workplace quickens—and as new demands on workers rapidly emerge—it is widely predicted that the mental health of workers will face challenges. Physical and mental fatigue; isolation due to remote work; sleep impairment; gender, race, and socioeconomic disparities; and chronic diseases all impact mental health. A renewed focus on better understanding the common pathways of worker stress, its origins, its prevention, its connection to mental health disorders, and its antidotes will be even more critical in the decade ahead.”

Unfortunately, it only becomes more difficult for employers to recognize workers’ mental health struggles remotely.

Dave Thompson

For example, Wicklander-Zulawski and Associates utilized remote work and home offices for years before the pandemic. When the shutdown hit, they were familiar with managing remotely but also began to utilize a hybrid model for their office support staff. This presented new challenges. “Coworkers and supervisors may not notice an employee struggling with mental illness, especially if there is limited engagement with the staff,” said Dave Thompson, CFI, president of W-Z.

Other remote workplace risks Thompson points to include an unsafe home environment outside of working conditions such as domestic violence; makeshift office spaces that make it easy for employees to trip and fall; and personal information such as home addresses and phone numbers becoming visible to customers, vendors, or staff. Workplace violence or even sexual harassment can happen outside of the traditional workspace.

“Most remote jobs are sedentary, with workers in front of a screen or device all day,” Chosewood said. “So the traditional risks like musculoskeletal strain are still challenges that must be addressed. They may be more likely when workstations are nonstandard or makeshift. But what we know less about is the psychosocial risks that may be present with remote work. Employee Assistant Program (EAP) providers are reporting increased loneliness among workers. How do you build a culture when workers rarely see each other or interact on a personal level? The social connections people make at work are tremendously important aspects of fulfilling, meaningful work for many of us. Also evolving in the remote work space are increasing levels of monitoring of workers. The full impacts of this type of stress and potential loss of autonomy are not known.”

Employers’ Responsibility

In 1970, long before this seismic shift to remote work seemed possible, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, establishing employers’ responsibilities in keeping their workers safe and secure.

Any LP professional is likely more than familiar with this obligation, but when hearing they also were responsible for the safety and security of employees working out of home offices, some were surprised.

However, the original act has always applied to work performed by an employee in any workplace in the United States—including a workplace located in the employee’s home.

“Even when the workplace is in a designated area in an employee’s home, the employer retains some degree of control over the conditions of the work‑at-home agreement,” OSHA writes on its website. “An important factor in the development of these arrangements is to ensure that employees are not exposed to reasonably foreseeable hazards created by their at-home employment. Employers should exercise diligence to identify in advance the possible hazards associated with particular at-home work assignments, and should provide the necessary protection through training, personal protective equipment, or other controls appropriate to reduce or eliminate the hazard.”

According to OSHA, some circumstances may even necessitate an on-site examination of the working environment by the employer. Companies are not responsible for compliance with the home itself, though.

“An employer is responsible for ensuring that its employees have a safe and healthful workplace, not a safe and healthful home,” the OSHA website states. “The employer is responsible only for preventing or correcting hazards to which employees may be exposed in the course of their work. For example, if work is performed in the basement space of a residence and the stairs leading to the space are unsafe, the employer could be liable if the employer knows or reasonably should have known of the dangerous condition.”

This may have been hard to ensure in the thick of the pandemic, but now is a good time for employers to consider re-examining the safety of their remote employees if they haven’t already.

Chia Chia Chang

“The safety of workers at home is just as important as their safety at the company site,” said Chia‑Chia Chang, coordinator for collaboration and new opportunity development at the NIOSH Office for Total Worker Health. “Injuries that happen at home would affect a worker’s absence, health, and well‑being; use of health care services; and productivity. As work flexibilities become increasingly popular, it is more important than ever that policies, programs, and practices address the changing work environment and the issues that may arise from remote work.”

LP’s Role

So what does all of this mean for LP professionals?

“Safety of employees is a high priority for LP professionals and they should take an active role in how that applies in the remote setting,” Thompson said. “Partnering with human resources to provide support, to employees who are in an unsafe home environment is important to the well-being of staff and the culture of the organization. LP may also be able to provide resources to employee assistance programs, contact law enforcement, or provide other support as needed. This may also apply to situations where employees’ personal addresses are known to customers, vendors, or other staff. Ensuring the staff is reachable, yet also protecting their confidentiality, is important to their safety.”

Talking about mental health in an effort to destigmatize the issue while providing resources could also make a huge difference for those employees who are struggling, Thompson added. In addition, creating a culture of engagement and open communication with the staff is crucial. “Be intentional about scheduling touch-bases and creating opportunities for employees to share concerns.”

LP professionals can also train managers, supervisors, and staff to provide social support for one another and recognize signs of when coworkers may be in distress.

Jeannie Nigam

“Support can be instrumental, which would include reducing ambiguity, providing necessary resources to perform the job remotely, help with completing assignments, eliminating unnecessary tasks, and training to maintain or advance skills—especially when new technology is implemented,” said Jeannie A. S. Nigam, research psychologist, division of science integration, and co-coordinator of the Healthy Work Design and Wellbeing Program at NIOSH. “Emotional support—listening to staff concerns, validating their feelings, providing a psychologically safe and supportive workplace—is equally important and can foster workers’ feelings of being valued. Even though workers may not be in the same physical location, taking a few minutes to discuss how everyone is doing during regularly scheduled meetings and periodic check-ins by phone or video can help them feel connected.”

Resources, education, and guidance, Chang reiterated, are vital to ensuring employee safety and security at home.

“Much of the information shared with workers is applicable regardless of location,” Chang said. “For example, best practices for preventing slips, trips, and falls can be implemented at home as well as in the office. Employers could offer virtual consultations with company ergonomics experts to assist with making recommendations for home working spaces, then follow up by providing equipment recommended by the safety consultants.

“Employers could also create and sustain cultures that support health so that workers feel they have the autonomy and flexibility to take breaks or rest as needed. Similarly, by having a health-supportive culture, employers can help ensure that workers feel comfortable discussing their concerns related to stress, workload, or other safety issues.”

Looking to the Future

According to Forbes Advisor, 57 percent of workers would consider leaving their current job if their employer stopped allowing remote work. With plenty of stats and research reflecting similar sentiments, it’s clear remote work isn’t going anywhere.

“Remote work is here to stay,” Chosewood said. “Never will we return to the traditional, pre-pandemic workplace.”

Chosewood expects meeting and collaboration technologies will improve to more warmly connect people across digital divides. But there will be divides, nonetheless.

“It will be imperative for leading organizations to realize the downsides and the upsides of remote work, find ways to supervise and team-build more intimately than was necessary in the past, deepen the connections between workers across distances, and keep the work challenging but manageable and engaging,” Chosewood continued. “Our Total Worker Health approach to participatory decision-making—where workers have a strong say in how they complete their work and tackle challenges, modern healthier supervision, and strategies for making work more meaningful—will all be essential.”

To learn more about the Total Worker Health approach and how it can help with the safety and security of your employees, can serve as a wealth of knowledge.

“The design of work will continue to evolve and employers can think holistically and long-term about worker safety, health, and well-being,” Chang said. “Protecting the safety and advancing the well-being of remote workers can help ensure that employers and workers benefit from the flexibility of remote work and minimize the downsides. Employers can be better prepared for the future of worker safety and health by committing now to optimizing working conditions of all workers.”

Stay Updated

Get critical information for loss prevention professionals, security and retail management delivered right to your inbox.