The hidden workforce

Nick Whiteley discusses how lone workers, while often not seen, still need to be fully integrated and engaged to meet both their needs and an employer’s duty of care

There are over six million lone workers in the UK which represents some 20 per cent of the workforce. Together they make up the ‘hidden’ workforce that are under-represented in an office that they rarely frequent. Lone workers can be found in most, if not all, organisations across industry, performing a varied set of functions for the business. These lone workers present significant challenges that are often underestimated by senior management and misunderstood by managers.

This can manifest itself as a culture where lone workers are seen as a ‘nuisance’ or ‘heavy maintenance’ because systems, processes and procedures are designed around the majority (80 per cent) of office based staff. For example, on-boarding processes and procedures for office based staff are generally well understood; desk, chair, space, landline, laptop, all of which can be allocated and deployed without issue. Mobile or home workers have differing requirements and these can easily be interpreted as staff being ‘awkward’ or a ‘nuisance’ rather than simply having a different set of requirements to office-based workers. This can create resentment from both management and the lone workers themselves.

Maintaining a coherent company culture that is cultivated informally within an office environment (the so-called ‘water cooler’ chats) are weakened through remote and lone workers. More proactive and organised interactions and events are required to ensure company values are shared and embodied equally among staff.

As important is the need to ensure positive relationships across the organisation. Whilst hierarchical structures might appear to be the main mechanism in order to execute strategy, the reality is that at ground level, it is positive relationships which are responsible for getting the job done. Anyone not in the office regularly will have less interaction and therefore the potential for less positive relationships exist and this can negatively affect productivity within and across teams.

The issue of duty of care also becomes more complicated when staff are not office based and must, therefore, be dealt with thoroughly. The law requires employers to consider carefully, and then to address any health and safety risks for people working alone (Health and Safety at Work Act 1974; The management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999).

There is no magic process for this given that lone workers work in a variety of settings and environments, from working in a petrol station, working at home or in a care setting visiting patients. Each scenario is different and requires a detailed analysis of risks along with a mitigation plan.

The very nature of lone working means that neither colleagues or management are ‘by the side’ to help advise, assist, support the lone worker in case of an adverse event. They are at greater risk than office-based workers and need additional support. As many as 150 lone workers are either physically or verbally attacked every day (British Crime Survey). This should provide a stark reminder to those responsible for risk assessment and mitigation that such risks should not be treated as a theoretical tick-box exercise but a reality that needs to be addressed.

Risk assessment and mitigation needs to take account of the environment that the lone worker is subject to, the tasks the lone worker is expected to carry out, the associated risks with both environment and activities as well as compiling a list of potential scenarios and how they could be addressed. This should include procedures training, tools, technology and equipment that either prevent, mitigate or provide for the ability to escape harm and/or rapid response.

Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of areas that organisations should consider:

Conflict management training:
The ability to de-escalate a situation before it becomes physical/violent.

Real-time risk assessment and awareness training:
There are many situations that cannot be foreseen or turned into a process/procedure so the ability for the lone worker to make this assessment and take appropriate action is critical when unable to contact their manager.

The provision of protective equipment and medical kit:
Where appropriate and specific to their task these can be essential.

Technology, mobile tracking and alerting:
There are solutions that enable lone workers to be – by consent – tracked during their working time so that management can exercise their duty of care. Some systems also have a panic button on the mobile device that can alert staff and/or alert staff when they have not received a GPS position after a certain amount of time or indeed haven’t changed position after a set amount of time.

Culture and relationships:
It is important for the organisation to create opportunities to build relationships with both office-based and lone worker staffing groups recognising that this doesn’t happen naturally. Examples of this could be company days, office days, or events held off-site and bring staff together in a neutral environment. This also creates opportunities to reinforce company culture and values within and between teams. Part of this is not just recognising there are different staffing groups but also explaining these differences and communicating the value each bring to the organisation. The value of doing this should not be underestimated or disregarded as a ‘warm and fuzzy’ initiative but key to ensuring that part of your workforce isn’t unseen and undervalued.

In conclusion, whilst lone workers are rarely seen in the office, it is imperative that they do not become your ‘hidden’ workforce. Their voice, their views, their requirements must be heard in equal proportion to the workers you meet every day. Only by ensuring they are fully integrated, engaged and considered will you be able to ensure not just their needs and safety are met but also maintain and improve productivity levels across the whole of the organisation.

Nick Whiteley is CEO of HFX. HFX cloud suite includes Imperago™ Time and Attendance, Access Control, Workforce Design, Annualised Hours and EveryOneCloud Attendance Monitoring/Location Management. HFX Imperago solutions provide seamless integration with major HR and payroll systems. Highly customisable, HFX Imperago solutions can be configured to meet exact requirements and can support unlimited numbers of work patterns.
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