How to create a safe work environment
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The journey to the future of work was always fraught with challenges and disruptions, but the years 2020 and 2021 could prove to be a watershed moment. After a period of abrupt chaos and rapid transitions, organizations are beginning to consider the long-term implications of how we should work.
To build a better, sustainable, and inclusive future of work, we must reassess the needs, risks, requirements, and processes that act as the foundation of the modern workplace (as we have known it) and strive to make it safer for all stakeholders. Let us look at some pressing challenges to building a safe workplace and work environment in today’s world.
Provide safe working conditions
Organizations need to provide a safe and secure workplace for their employees, not just as a matter of legal compliance but also to ensure that they are at their productive best. The protocols of what constitutes a ‘safe and secure’ workplace naturally vary across industries and depend on local laws, location, unions, and even cultural factors. It is essential to recognize that safety in the workplace is not just limited to its physical aspect but also includes intangible concepts like harassment, bullying, extreme pressure, or unrealistic expectations (more on that in the next point).
The term ‘safe workplace’ also took on a whole new meaning during 2020 and 2021, when organizations had to shift to remote working models and keep tabs on their employees, device usage, the number of hours put in, and following the company’s code of conduct digitally. During the pandemic, the developments made in the workplace forced employers and leaders to look at the challenges of discrimination, informal interactions, time management, work-life balance, and employee monitoring with a fresh perspective. They had to be trained to manage digital spaces, ensure virtual engagement and inclusion, and create an environment that employees felt comfortable participating in.
What’s more, as organizations worldwide begin opening their physical workspaces, ensuring employees’ physical safety and well-being will be another challenge for HR and company leaders to navigate. It will take a coordinated effort from health experts, trainers, leaders, and managers to create policies that successfully minimize health risk.
Support mental wellness
As the nature of work that we do in organizations changes, what constitutes safety and wellbeing has evolved to incorporate mental wellbeing. The tenets of ensuring mental wellness include building spaces for employees to be themselves, supporting them in maintaining a work-life balance, reducing stress, and eliminating workplace biases.
Embedding checks and balances that prevent and identify workplace harassment, discrimination, and bullying based on gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or other factors is the natural first step in this direction. Cultivating a culture of mutual respect between employees is also critical to ensure that personal friendships or acquaintances do not overshadow professional ones. Additionally, encoding policies that prevent exploitation of power dynamics in the workplace and having structured programs to address such incidents is essential.
The challenge of ensuring mental wellness for employees was compounded during the pandemic as the boundary between personal and professional lives blurred significantly. Managing hostility in virtual work environments can be even more complicated, and many organizations took steps to tackle online harassment specifically. Helping employees adapt to remote working structures, clarifying remote work policies, helping them manage their time better, allowing more flexibility, setting up new channels for check-in and reporting, and holding training sessions compliant with remote work environments have also seen a substantial increase.
Another critical aspect of the modern workplace that needs to be safeguarded is digital activity and processes. The risks associated with cyberattacks, hacking, data loss, and phishing attacks have been steadily increasing over the past few years and have grown multifold. Insecure cloud networks, lack of digital awareness, unfamiliarity with new applications, and the use of personal internet connections and devices have given rise to sophisticated cyberattacks in recent times.
One of the easiest ways organizations can mitigate these risks is by strengthening their digital security measures and allocating sufficient resources to ensure proactive compliance reviews and enhancements. To reduce the heightened vulnerabilities posed by remote workers, gaps in transparency, communication, network security, and maintaining confidentiality must be filled. A comprehensive and ongoing risk assessment model alongside regularly training and communicating with the workforce is vital. A robust mechanism to monitor, remote, and remedy cyber risk will dramatically decrease cyber-fraud incidents, misuse of company assets, data tampering or leakage, and data breaches.
HR managers and leaders must recognize that communication is the key to rolling out new policies to a remote workforce, and all compliance-related training and certifications must be carried out systematically.
Adhere to robust compliance
The lynchpin of all the factors mentioned above is a robust compliance framework designed using local, national, global, and industrial laws and regulations. Under the purview of experts, ensuring adherence to physical environment, labor, data protection, and industry-specific practices is vital for employee safety and business operations.
The challenge of being compliant with external laws and internal regulations became more complex during the pandemic. For instance, processes like timekeeping and monitoring device usage became all-too critical to ensure that labor laws are adhered to, and data security is maintained, respectively. Similarly, employees using personal networks or devices to access sensitive information must be trained to prevent data loss.
Adopting the approach “You are only as compliant as your least-compliant employee” can help identify threats, challenges, and gaps in existing mechanisms. Organizations must develop internal risk assessments that incorporate compliance from legal, human resources, training/learning/development teams, internal audit, finance and accounting, data analytics, and IT, as applicable. Furthermore, external experts and consultants, aware of industry-wide best practices and government expectations, should regularly review these models and frameworks. Compliance efforts and oversight will require significant ramping up if organizations want to operationalize their physical workplaces.
HR and business leaders have been presented with an opportunity to redefine and redesign the constitution of the term ‘workplace.’ Finding answers to these questions requires us to identify the multi-dimensional nature of our workplaces and work itself. A reasonable starting point would be to consider the changes in the last year, assess their impact, and maintain compliance during these transitions.