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Why our perception of lone working has to change

Mark Scott, CEO - Cantium Business Solutions

Since March 2020, the number of employees working from home has skyrocketed. With preferences shifting, this forced change could become a permanent fixture in the working lives of many.

However, for employers there is a duty of care that needs to be met regardless of where staff are working – whether they’re social workers visiting a member of the public’s home, or an administrator working from their spare bedroom at home. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is clear about the specific duty’s employers have to protect people who work alone.

A lone worker is somebody who works by themselves without close or direct supervision and this can sometimes mean they are more at risk. Our perception differs dependent on the services they are delivering. Since the pandemic began, home working has essentially become one and the same with lone working. With that in mind, I believe it’s time for our perception of lone working as a whole to change.

Makeshift solutions versus permanent culture change

Managers need to look past lone working as a temporary hindrance to normal operations, and use the technology on offer to help keep their long workers safe and productive. They can deploy a system, tool or gadget where staff can time in, time out, log where they are and state that they are safe. Otherwise, makeshift solutions will take that place, and they won’t always be fit for purpose.

An example of a makeshift lone working solution is how teams use WhatsApp, creating code and using one letter messages which immediately raise the alarm. This means that within minutes, everybody in the team knows that someone is in trouble and that person’s location (due to WhatsApp’s location sharing feature).

To help bridge the gap between user needs and what makeshift solutions are actually being used, tech suppliers need to step in. We need to look at a full end-to-end solution, that is able to do time recording, submit live GPS data, automatic enrolment and enable effective communication between teams. At the same time, balancing that with a degree of privacy and a degree of trust.

This could be one tool or a suite of tools, one solution or multiple different solutions that work together to achieve the organisation’s goals. With a level of automation, the tech becomes a part of team culture, running in the background without demanding time or attention from employees.

Lone working tools are vital to safety

There’s also a culture piece of work to be done, to ensure that lone workers recognise the importance of using these types of solutions. For instance, social workers are in vulnerable situations fairly often but don’t see the dangers because they’re experienced, they’ve seen it all before. Introducing new safety measures will be a challenge for businesses where people are newly working from home. But it’s important to help workers understand the importance of tracing even if they do not recognise the dangers they face or understand the need for duty of care.

What is the landscape right now?

Lone working has a higher profile now, and the HSE are on top of this more than ever before. Thinking about the world post-pandemic – from 2020 onwards, workers in general will be more alone and excluded than ever before. There will be locations and venues that employers will be unable to put more than one member of staff in due to spacing and social distancing, which is likely to go on longer than many people would expect.

Many organisations, such as housing associations are getting rid of their remote offices to save on money and space. This means that their staff are going to be working from flats, housing and co-working spaces. Therefore, they will have to consider all of the new risks that come with these environments, especially as workers switch between them.

Some insurance companies are also abandoning their premises in favour of entirely remote operations. However, they need to communicate effectively with the staff that are accustomed to working in an office environment. We need to think of a lone work tool as a communication tool –  to see if a staff member has signed in and out and if not, to ensure that the member of staff is okay. The tool also needs to be able to trace staff if needed, allow them to call in with an emergency situation, and it should be a safety net. As we head through the pandemic and beyond, this will become more ‘normal’. Employers will no longer get away with being negligent and unprepared for staff to operate from home. They will also be unable to say they didn’t have the tools and solutions in place to trace their staff and conform with their duty of care.

Without physical contact with others, people feeling isolated and alone is a concern within itself. Therefore, the duty of care expands beyond personal safety and into looking after their wellbeing. People don’t all have families at home. Their mental health may be deteriorating, and managers need to ensure that they have communication with their staff members to keep on top of them and their welfare. This is for the individual, but also for the business – if people aren’t at their best due to poor mental health, it can have an significant impact.

Change is coming

Lone working has changed, and it has become enmeshed with remote working. Lone working will be a part of the way all businesses run in the future. Employers still have a duty of care over their members of staff, and they need to consider the role that technology will play in that.

In conversations I’ve had with Flavio Walker, KCC’s Head of Health and Safety, I know that he understands this. He knows the benefits of a system to help him meet his duty of care for staff that are in risky situations, whilst also looking after those that are lone working at home. He knows that anything could happen to them and problems could go under the radar if they aren’t communicating effectively, having their work movements traced, or if somebody doesn’t notice that they haven’t logged on to work this morning.

Risky situations, with people visiting multiple public locations or peoples’ homes, and an individual locked in their home alone all day: both of them are lone working situations. In both cases, an individual is at risk and may have an emergency situation where they require support. As an employer, you have a duty of care over both situations.

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