Mobile technology has allowed telework, which is defined as working regularly from a place other than the office, to flourish in Australia. According to statistics released by the ABS last year, more than a third of micro businesses – businesses with up to four employees – are allowing people to work from home.
A survey conducted by MYOB of 1022 Australian SME operators found 27 per cent of SMEs have staff who work partly from home and partly from the business premises. The results, released last November to coincide with National Telework Week, found another 37 per cent have staff that work mainly from a location that isn’t the office.
With the rollout of the National Broadband Network under way, the Australian government is keen to see an increase of telework as part of its National Digital Economy Strategy. The strategy aims to see Australia’s level of telework increase from today’s six per cent to 12 per cent by 2020.
While this may sound beneficial for employers and employees, there are issues that must be considered if an organisation decides to enter into an agreement in which employees regularly work remotely.
Under the new harmonised work health and safety laws, which have been adopted by all Australian states except Victoria and Western Australia, the definition of a workplace has changed. It has been broadened to include any place where a worker goes or is likely to go while at work, which also covers private homes where a worker ‘teleworks’.
Harmers Workplace Lawyers senior associate Sophie Redmond says the broadened definition reflects the changing nature of work arrangements. “It recognises that work is carried out in places that do not conform to traditional workplaces,” she says.
“The definition of a ‘workplace’ is concerned with where the person is when he or she is working. It is not concerned as to whether that is a traditional workplace such as the company’s head office, or not.”
While telework offers a raft of benefits including increased productivity and wellbeing, flexibility and savings to the business, according to a Melbourne University’s white paper released in 2012, there are also risks.
The harmonised OH&S laws have done away with the concept of an employer and replaced it with a PCBU: persons conducting a business or undertaking.
“We’ve moved to the concept of a PCBU, which can be an organisation or an individual, and the obligations apply in respect of a worker or another person in the workplace,” says Redmond.
PCBUs that have arrangements in place for employees to work from home still have work health and safety obligations to provide a safe working environment, says Australian Business Consulting & Solutions work health and safety specialist, NSW Natasha White, however this is not always easy.
“One of the difficulties of this arrangement is for a PCBU to provide a safe working environment in an area where they have limited control, such as the private home of the worker,” she says.
A working-from-home policy should be developed, outlining the roles and responsibilities of the key people involved in the arrangement. The policy should also outline steps the PCBU can take to minimise any work health and safety risks to the business.
“Other issues that should be considered for inclusion in this policy are: the worker’s obligations, including cooperating with reasonable instructions for managing risks, procedures for communicating with the worker, clearly defining the hours of work and purchasing or providing any equipment that may be required to minimise a risk by the PCBU,” she says.
Isolation can also be a big risk factor for teleworkers. Redmond says to mitigate this risk contact should always be regular and structured. “You should be having regular check-ins with the worker, which should happen at least every week, if not every day, depending on the extent of time of the remote working arrangements,” she says.
“I would suggest that PCBUs and their officers should be keeping notes about when they’re specifically asking questions about the working environment, whether the remote working arrangement is working for all and whether they’re encountering any obstacles or difficulty.”
White says there are plenty of benefits in providing a flexible working arrangement like working from home. “These can include reduced operating costs, reduced absenteeism, retention of skilled workers, reduced travel time and a possible increase in productivity,” she says.