Having a remote team can pose some unique challenges — especially when it comes to ensuring every team member has a safe and healthy work environment. And a successful work-from-home setup can save money for both parties. The employee doesn’t have to spend money on a commute, and the employer doesn’t have to spend on the overhead of an office space.
But when a remote employee isn’t set up for success, this can have lasting impacts on their output and their relationship with the rest of the team — not to mention the overall performance of the company as a whole.
Being in an office makes it easier for an employer to monitor how healthy the work environment is. One of the most important components in a healthy work environment is good ergonomics.
The term “ergonomic” comes from the Greek words ergon, meaning work, and nomos, meaning natural law. The practice of ergonomics means to design and arrange the tools people use in the safest and most natural way.
“Initially, ergonomics was about increasing production,” says Ronald W. Porter, PT, CEAS III, director of The Back School. “You’re trying to improve the fit between the worker and the activity.”
Today, Porter says, most people view ergonomics as an injury prevention mechanism. Both office and remote workers who spend hours sitting in front of a computer are at risk for injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome or neck and back pain.
These injuries don’t happen right away. They develop over time from bad posture, which puts strain on your body. Practicing good ergonomics and providing the appropriate workstations greatly reduces these risks and increases productivity.
What a good ergonomic setup looks like
According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), an employer is required to keep the workplace “free from recognized serious hazards, including ergonomic hazards.” Their guidelines for best practices vary from industry to industry. But for the average desk worker, a well-arranged ergonomic setup looks like this:
- The computer screen is at eye level.
- The keyboard and mouse are at a lower level so that your wrists are angled down.
- The chair can adjust to support your back when your feet are flat on the floor.
Individual states have their own OSHA laws. Some of these can be stricter than federal laws. Trisha Zulic, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) director, Human Resources-Region I, and SHRM Tech Expertise Panel member, advises adhering to whichever rules (state or federal) that favors the employee more. In California, for example, the state rules are stricter than the federal OSHA rules.
Generally, OSHA doesn’t regulate the home office environment. However, a claim requesting accommodations can be filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act. An injury claim can be filed through workers’ compensation.
Making sure a remote worker has an ergonomic office setup isn’t required. But it’s good business. “When working from home, people can be far more productive or underproductive,” says Zulic. People who work remotely require higher levels of independence and discipline, so it’s best to set them (and the company) up for success.
So how can you help your remote employees learn about and create an ergonomic home office space? Check out these following strategies.
1. Offer workplace setup at onboarding
When someone is hired, or transitions to being a remote employee, make ergonomic education and home office setup part of their onboarding process. Take the time to provide information about workstation setup along with other new hire training.
“The best day to do ergonomics education is their first day on the job,” says Porter. “If you set them up correctly initially, the troubles won’t develop later on.”
This can happen as part of a video call, or you can actually have a certified ergonomics specialist come to their home and provide an evaluation with furniture recommendations.
“It’s a reinvestment in the worker if you have an ergonomics specialist go out,” says Zulic. She encourages employers to consider their cost savings by having a remote team and to use some of those savings to invest in providing a healthy home work environment.
Because people have different frames and heights, an ergonomic setup will need to be tailored to the individual’s needs. Even eyesight plays a role. For this reason, Porter strongly recommends using a trained professional to advise remote employees.
2. Consult your workers’ comp provider
“I recommend that every employer sit down and talk to their workers’ comp provider,” says Zulic. Workers compensation providers want to avoid claims. This means they encourage employers to make sure people are safe in their home.
Some workers’ comp providers may share in the cost to provide education and ergonomic supplies. They may even have their own ergonomics expert to send to an employee’s home. They may also have educational resources you can provide your employees at no extra cost to the company.
3. Provide self-evaluation tools
One way to help people check on the ergonomics of their home office is to offer self-evaluation tools. Porter says there are software programs that ask a series of questions and rate a person’s workstation with red, yellow, or green, depending how ergonomic the area is. The tools also give examples of good ergonomic practices.
OSHA also provides a free reference for office setup. There are other tools you can purchase online.
4. Schedule regular check-ins
Communication is important, regardless of an employee’s location. There are a variety of tools — like chat and video conference software — that allow remote employees to stay connected.
Employees should feel comfortable talking about their work environment, whether its remote or not. Let them know you want to hear about any issues they’re having with their workspace and ergonomics.
“Remote work doesn’t have to be as different from a centralized team as we might think,” says Jane Scudder, a Chicago-based workplace consultant. She recommends regular check-ins during team meetings to ask people how they’re doing. This can include any concerns about their home office arrangement.
5. Appoint an ergo leader
If your organization doesn’t have the funds to hire an ergonomic consultant to advise remote workers, you can also educate someone within the company. A human resources representative can make a good ergo leader. They can take a course on how to set up an ergonomic workstation and help others evaluate their own workspaces.
An ergo leader can help prevent purchasing misleading products. “In the United States, the word ‘ergonomics’ attached to a product means nothing,” says Porter. “All it means is it costs more money, so you could buy an ergonomic office chair and be very uncomfortable.”
Your ergo leader will take on the role of educating employees about ergonomics, helping them select the appropriate products to fit their needs. They can travel to a remote employee’s home or do a video consultation.
6. Have annual ergo reviews
People’s needs can change, whether because of age, weight changes, pregnancy, or a chronic condition. It’s important to revisit the conversation about ergonomics regularly.
“Ergonomics is not a one-shot deal, it’s sort of an ongoing process,” says Porter. Since you don’t see remote workers every day, you won’t know if their needs have changed unless they report them.
“People aren’t going to say anything unless the employer makes the offer,” says Zulic. You can do this as part of a regular annual team conference or ask employees to reuse the workstation-rating software program to assess their workspace.
Providing ergonomic solutions to your employees, remote or in-office, helps them work more comfortably. This will ultimately allow them to be more productive. Apply the tips above to offer a healthier work environment, no matter where your employees are located.