Remote work has been primarily enabled by advances in digital development that narrowed down distance allowing workers to communicate and perform tasks from nearly anywhere. Several decades ago, working from home looked quite different. The worker’s home was regarded simply as another fixed workplace separated from the main headquarters, where workers tended to be isolated from each other physically but yet connected thanks to the use of information and communication technologies. The main benefit of working from home was back then related to saving commuting time: instead of long commutes to the office, workers could sit at their desks and start their working routine as they would typically do at the office. From this simple idea, the term telecommuting began to be used widely. Work could not be performed from virtually anywhere, but only from the office or the home, through the use of somewhat heavy and bulky equipment, very different from portable laptops. As Hill and colleagues clearly describe, homeworkers were equipped with a homeworking station that could not be easily removed and carried out elsewhere. Employees had to be at the terminal during working hours and use fixed telephone lines to work. Spatial boundaries among spaces for work and spaces for living started becoming blurred, with the resulting encroachment of work into the private life of individuals.
With the introduction of more lightweight, portable information and communication technologies in the workplace, the virtual office work modality could emerge in a quite distinctive way from home-based telecommuting. Virtual workers were provided with virtual office equipment, that is, tools to perform work from potentially anywhere, such as portable laptops, cell phones and pagers. Therefore, they could change their work location according to their personal needs and work at any time. Mobile workers were and still are those who work away from both the workplace and home. It is likely that the introduction of these elements of mobility and flexibility, of working wherever and whenever, made a difference between the working conditions of workers in home offices and those in virtual offices. Indeed, researchers reported some differences in the work-life balance of these two groups of workers, with lightweight ICT tools giving rise to the issues virtual workers still experience now, such as an increased work intensity and feeling of being constantly connected. This progressive detachment of work from place certainly impacts working conditions and is foreseen to keep increasing in the future.
This article will offer a brief overview of the occupational safety and health (OSH) aspects related to working from remote. The first part will try to shed light on the diverse terminology connected to remote work and will clarify the scope of the paper. The second and the third part will provide an overview of the risks associated with working remotely. Indeed, the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC on safety and health at work sets the obligation for employers to prevent occupational risks correlated to the job tasks and the characteristics of the workplace. Along these lines, while the second part will focus on the risks connected to working with ICTs and the challenges and opportunities deriving from the remote management of workers, the third part will look more closely at the risks associated with different remote workplaces. A typology of possible remote workplaces is thus proposed based on the degree of accessibility of employers and predictability of the work environment conditions.
In the last decades, various terms have been advanced in the academic and policy literature to identify forms of digital work considered non-standard in terms of work location and employment relationships. Despite significant scholarly efforts in building taxonomies, there is still some overlap among terms, and some concepts are used as synonyms even if they have slightly different meanings. The different operationalisation of similar concepts such as remote work, telework, and home-based work results in different survey instruments and makes it challenging to derive cross-country comparisons. Figure 1 below shows an attempt to define borders and overlaps among the concepts mentioned above.
Looking at Figure 1, the broadest category is remote work (blue rectangle). As remote work, we refer to an umbrella term indicating work tasks being carried out, at least partly, outside of the default place of work that – at least for dependent employees – corresponds most of the time to the employer’s premises. However, this concept applies to both employees and self-employed workers. Remote work is enabled by ICTs in most cases (red rectangle), but it can also include cases of work carried out without the use of digital technologies (i.e. industrial homeworking1). Telework is a sub-category of ICT-enabled remote work and includes only work that entails a formal relationship between an employer and an employee.
Platform work can be defined as “labour provided through, on or mediated by online platforms, and which features a wide array of standard and non-standard working arrangements/relationships". An essential element of analysis to understand whether platform work can be considered a form of remote work is the distinction between on-location and online platform work2. While the first refers to work conducted at the client’s premises or in vehicles, the second refers to work performed online that could potentially be carried out from anywhere, constituting, therefore, a form of remote work, as we can see reflected in Figure 13.
Other frequently used terms are homeworking and work from home (WFH). This category considers explicitly the place of work rather than a work modality and, for this reason, only partly fits into the ‘remote work’ rectangle. Indeed, home may constitute the habitual place of employment for some workers (represented in the rectangle on the right of the figure). Considering only the part of homeworking falling into remote work, this work modality can be ICT-enabled (in most cases) or not (in the case of industrial homeworking, which is still a relevant phenomenon in the Global South).
Risks deriving from workers’ use of ICTs
A key element for conducting work remotely in the 21st century is the use of ICTs. Telework and ICT-based mobile work (TICTM), a category coined by Eurofound, indicates a group including, besides teleworkers, all those workers who do not have a fixed workplace and use ICT. According to this statistical category, workers use ICTs at work ‘always’ or ‘almost all of the time’.
The use of ICTs at work has been associated with several psychological and physical risks. Naturally, these risks are exacerbated when the exposition to ICTs is prolonged due to long working hours and excessive workload that make it difficult to take breaks. Indeed, results from the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) 2015 show a correlation between ICTs use and long working hours and working in free time, suggesting a negative impact of ICTs on work-life balance. In terms of psychosocial risks, the use of ICTs has been connected to a phenomenon called technostress to indicate a problem of adaptation to constantly evolving technologies, leading to states of anxiety and tiredness. Moreover, ICTs use coupled with other factors such as work overload, and mobbing episodes may lead to a behaviour called technoaddiction, where workers make a compulsive and extreme use of these technologies.
Working with ICTs may also give rise to episodes of virtual presenteeism, which may lead to burnout in the long run. Especially when working from home, workers may tend to get some work done despite being unwell instead of calling out on sick leave. Presenteeism is possibly even more common among those workers, such as some platform workers, who cannot benefit from sick leave given that they are not recognised as employees in most cases.
Potential dangers may also be connected to the use of ICT equipment. Possibly the most common instance is the exposure to screens that has been associated with digital eye strain and headache, also more commonly called computer vision syndrome. The results of the EWCS 2015 showed similar trends, confirming a correlation between ICT use and the symptoms mentioned above. Other physical issues include the development of MSDs, such as pain in the neck, wrist and fingers, due to a possibly wrong setting up of the equipment.
Another type of ICT equipment that is less common but whose use will probably increase in the future is VR (virtual reality) headsets. Quite recently, this technology has been used to allow working and meeting with colleagues virtually to become a more immersive experience and to train workers to carry out specific tasks in dangerous environments. However, VR use may also lead to physiological effects, such as a sense of dizziness and nausea, also called cybersickness. Another technology that may enable one to carry out some tasks remotely is drones, for instance, by enabling the remote monitoring and inspection of dangerous sites. While this may significantly improve workers’ safety, it is not clear yet what are the OSH risks associated with prolonged use of this technology.
Moreover, potential problems in terms of product safety may arise when remote workers rely on their own work equipment, something common among self-employed and online platform workers, but that may also occur for remote employees when telework agreements are not officially in place. Besides, not always the equipment provided by employers for teleworking meets all ergonomic conditions, including fixed keyboards and screens, which can, in turn, lead to the development of MSDs.
Finally, the use of ICTs generates a virtual work environment where geographically dispersed workers interact and collaborate through the use of digital technologies. Specific OSH risks are connected to the embodiment in this virtual sphere, such as being possible victims of cyberbullying or cyber-attacks, especially in the lack of training on the safe use of the internet. Phishing attacks and scams can hurt the mental health of workers, increasing their stress. However, it should be considered that specific risks depend a lot on the nature of the tasks that workers carry out. The case of online content reviewers, usually platform workers working from dispersed locations, is striking in showing the distress caused by repeatedly filtering out violent and offensive content in the virtual environment of social media, something that may cause psychological problems if workers are not trained properly, and their tasks are not differentiated.
Risks deriving from the remote management of workers through ICTs
Another common element of ICT-enabled remote work is that the management of workers takes place remotely through ICT or is, at least partly, automated. In particular, in the case of platform workers, the management is not embodied in a physical person, rather, it assumes an impersonal form. In algorithmic management, aspects of work organisation, such as the allocation of tasks, and working time, are entrusted, to different extents, to a mathematical formula, with a limited possibility of human interaction. Therefore, negotiation – about the type of task assigned, for instance – between workers and platforms is not possible.
Graves and Karabayeva suggest managers should adopt a proactive approach to managing remote employees by ensuring, on the one hand, that demands are not too high and, on the other, that employees are provided with the necessary resources, also in terms of appropriate training and technological equipment, to cope with these demands. Unsuccessful remote management styles may translate into inattentive behaviour, that is, under-considering employees and not supporting them with the challenges they may face, further increasing the potential of social isolation, a very well-recognised risk for those who work remotely, especially from home.
When looking at the bright side, the physical absence of a direct supervisor or a manager may make workers feel more autonomous. This could result in some workers in higher subjective well-being and job satisfaction. In a study conducted by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), researchers pointed out how workers who have frequent contact with clients reported feeling more satisfied with the homeworking modality rather than the standard office one, given the reduced direct control from supervisors, also having positive effects on their perceived productivity.
However, feelings of autonomy may be hindered by an overcontrolling attitude of managers that translates into micro-management where the worker’s performance of tasks is checked closely and too often. This management style may also result in dubious monitoring strategies to track workers’ performance, such as the use of remote monitoring software recording all sorts of information, like the online connection times of call centres or customer service operators. Workers monitoring through this kind of technology may turn into proper digital surveillance, for instance, by capturing random screenshots of workers’ computer screens and using webcam monitoring software. These actions, besides presenting several issues also in terms of compliance with the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GPDR) standards, may lead workers to feel more stressed and exhausted given their reduced level of autonomy, which in turn may also give rise to physical problems such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and cardiovascular diseases in the long run. In the case of use of this software, the best practice from employers and platforms would be to be clear on which data will be collected and how they will be used. This would avoid unnecessary stress for workers, especially when they are required to use their own devices for work.
Other features of algorithmic management that are becoming widespread in contexts other than platform work are represented by review systems, nudging and similar gamification mechanisms. As for reviews, while some platforms allow only clients to rate the service they received, others foresee a reciprocal rating system. In the first case, the balance of power tends explicitly toward clients, while in the second case, theoretically, platforms aim to allow for reciprocal surveillance to build mutual trust among clients and workers, although they end up disfavouring primarily the latter. Moreover, having to deal constantly with public feedback and reviewing has also effects on the psychosocial well-being of workers. The high demand for always maintaining a good rating score, coupled with reduced control over one’s job brought about more generally by algorithmic management, may increase workers’ stress levels. Such mechanisms are common for both platform workers and some remote employees, such as those working in customer service. Service workers, in general, are reported to perform emotional labour, adapting their behaviour to customers’ expectations in exchange - or at least in the hope – for a good rating. Furthermore, the pressure of maintaining a high rating score may also increase the likelihood of working for long hours and at a faster pace to compensate for one bad review or to meet employers’ or clients’ demands, increasing not only the risk of burnout.
To keep workers engaged and active, platforms tend to nudge workers when they are about to log off, with the result of people keeping working also when they are experiencing fatigue with apparent adverse effects on their health and work-life balance. Finally, gamification is a technique used to enhance workers’ performance by making repetitive work tasks less tedious. However, by increasing competitiveness among co-workers, gamification at work may increase the likelihood of adverse behaviour with peer intimidation and pressure occurring as a result and may also contribute to lowering self-esteem when punitive actions are put in place should workers lose the game. Finally, if not appropriately implemented, gamification may also lead to the adverse effect of reduced engagement and performance of employees.
In conclusion, several risks are emerging from working remotely with ICTs. Namely, these are risks connected to possible effects of the equipment on the physical and psychosocial wellbeing of workers, to the remote and algorithmic management of a remote workforce and the resulting mechanisms aimed at monitoring and influencing workers’ behaviour, such as gamification. Nevertheless, the virtualisation of work may also represent opportunities for a successful implementation of OSH prevention measures, for instance, by embedding OSH aspects into algorithmic management.
Typologies of remote work environments and associated risks
Usually, OSH risks assessments are carried out at the employer’s premises. For this reason, conducting a risk assessment outside of these premises, as it would be the case for remote work, despite being an obligation for employers, is more complicated and necessitates workers’ collaboration. Workplace conditions and related OSH risks are indeed more unpredictable and out of direct control of the employer in these instances, and the probability of success in carrying out a risk assessment and therefore designing risk prevention policies is further complicated by the fact that not all sites employees use for work are equally accessible. As for self-employed, the responsibility for OSH is on the worker directly. However, not always the distinction between client and employer is neat. For instance, some self-employed workers are classified as economically dependent when they have only one client or at least a dominant one on whom depends the most significant part of the worker’s income4. Bogus self-employed instead defines an illegal category of workers for which the employment relationship is, in fact, dependent, but it is formally framed as independent and based on collaboration. Platform workers are mostly considered self-employed by the platforms themselves when instead they are to different levels dependent on the platform, and therefore the management of OSH is unfairly left to these workers5. For these reasons, they frequently lack access to training and safety equipment and clothing that are necessary to carry out their tasks safely. All this complexity considered, in this section, we will refer to the legislation on telework and OSH management considering dependent employees only.
Risk assessments for teleworkers are a legal requirement for several countries. However, as EU-OSHA’s research showed, practices in the implementation of safe and healthy teleworking are not at all consistent across the country and the company level, also due to the lack of a common directive on telework at the EU level setting the main standards. In practice, as ILO reported, protection from occupational accidents for remote workers is offered only in some EU countries, and the definition of work-related accidents outside of the company premises is even fuzzier. In some European countries, such as Finland and Germany, accidents, besides taking place within working time, should be directly related to work tasks, and therefore breaks or simple trips from desk to kitchen are not covered. Moreover, in the case of Belgium, telework accidents cover only the usual place of work that, if not indicated in writing, is considered to be the home or another site such as a shared office. According to this definition, less usual workplaces such as public transport and similar are not covered. Moreover, limiting accidents during the working time makes sense only if teleworkers are recognised with the right to disconnect once their contractual working day is over, while the available literature contains examples showing how telework translates into an increase in working hours. Other countries adopted laws that favour workers more, for which accidents occurring during breaks may also be covered, such as France and Austria.
Risk assessment for teleworkers should also consider the level of mobility of workers, that is, the number of locations they work at. Indeed, remote workers are gradually becoming more multi-locational, working on the move while travelling for work or leisure and using less standard workplaces . Mobility is also the key dimension taken into account by Eurofound for the TICTM category mentioned in the previous section. TICTM considers several levels of mobility, ranging from low to high depending on the frequency of use of more than one workplace.
A key element to consider for assessing OSH risks for teleworkers is the nature of the remote workplace, its characteristics and the types of risks they imply. In Figure 2, a non-exhaustive number of examples of remote workplaces is given based on how they may position according to the two axes of accessibility and predictability. By accessibility, we mean how easy it is for the employer to access these remote premises. As for predictability, we refer to the frequency with which the conditions of these workplaces may change without the control of workers and employers.
In figure 2, four main typologies of remote workplaces based on the two axes of accessibility and predictability are displayed:
- Cases where the work environment is both accessible and predictable – the employer’s premises.
- Cases where the work environment is not accessible but predictable – i.e. for teleworkers with one fixed workplace such as their home.
- Cases where the work environment is accessible but not predictable – i.e. work in spaces accessible by the public, such as cafes, hotel halls, public transport means, stations, and airports.
- Cases where the work environment is neither accessible nor predictable – this is possibly the least frequent category to be found in empirical settings, that is, location-independent work carried out in other private premises. It could be working from hotel rooms, or other people’s homes (i.e. the case of coworking in homes)
While the first case is fully met only by the employer’s premises, the last one constitutes a theoretical category than is not observed often in the empirical reality. Moreover, some remote workplaces may cross-cut two categories rather than fall neatly into one. For instance, coworking spaces and shared offices may be more or less accessible based on whether a formal agreement exists between the employer and the space. If no agreement is in place, then the employer’s access will be subjected to the same restrictions applying to any other non-member. In the following paragraphs, several examples of remote workplaces in Figure 2 are reported together with their related risks and benefits.
Private homes are normally not accessible by employers unless they are authorized by employees, but rules vary according to single countries even in the EU . Although the predictability of the conditions of the home environment is not under the control of employers, they are, at least partly, under the control of workers. For this reason, active collaboration of the workers should be ensured also by providing them with the necessary training and equipment to keep their work environment at home safe and healthy.
There is rich literature focusing on the risks and benefits connected to working from home. The first most obvious advantage is the absence of commuting6 that - as seen above - reduces the instances of commuting accidents. The risk of developing various forms of MSDs is very common in home settings given the probable lack of ergonomic equipment at home and the increased sedentarism connected to homeworking. Moreover, poor lighting conditions may give rise to eyestrain and other adverse effects. In terms of psychosocial risks, working from home may bring several problems depending on the characteristics of the home environment. Home-based telework can have very different effects on workers with in-house care responsibilities – often female workers – who, depending on the personal situation, may see either an improvement or a worsening in work-life conflicts; while workers living alone may be more prone to suffer from social isolation. However, research also shows that a hybrid modality encompassing both working from home and the office has fewer negative effects on workers in terms of work-life balance and stress.
Any public space could be potentially used as a place of work such as parks, public transport, airports, stations, libraries, and so on. Moreover, traditional places where the local community come together such as cafes, bars, and restaurants – the so-called third places – are being used also as workplaces. In some European countries – especially Scandinavian countries – public libraries are also equipped with facilities that are expressly designed to accommodate workers. Moreover, hotels and other accommodation facility managers, such as Airbnb hosts, are converting rooms to offices or are installing proper offices in their facilities, to attract those in workcation, a new term coined by the fusion of the words “work" and “vacation" that indicates working while on a holiday site, implying an increased integration and therefore a more blurred distinction between work and leisure time and spaces.
Although these spaces are accessible, they are to different extents unpredictable since their conditions do not depend on workers or employers. Depending on the place of work, the number of physical risks may vary. For example, working from an open-air space may have implications for exposure to UV light widely recognized as a cancer risk factor, or to have negative consequences on the eyes given the inappropriate lighting conditions to work with laptops and smartphones. Moreover, long and frequent work from a train or an airplane may lead to greater exposure to noise and vibration. In any case, as with any other type of workplace, the degree of danger of the exposure to a certain risk is closely connected to the frequency and duration.
Collaborative workspaces: coworking spaces, shared and flex offices
The first coworking spaces were opened in the early 2000s and their diffusion is still on the rise. They can be defined as spaces where unaffiliated professionals work for a fee, and this delineates the difference between coworking spaces, and the detached offices set up by private companies hosting only internal employees. In this second case, workers are still working from the employer’s premises and therefore the work environment is still fully accessible and predictable for the employer7. Users of coworking spaces are for the majority self-employed individuals working in the knowledge and creative industries, or start-ups and micro-enterprises that rent desks or private offices for their staff. Recent evidence showed also the interest of public authorities in using co-working spaces as workplaces for their employees in times of pandemic, such as in the case of the Milan municipality8.
Being these spaces designed as offices, the risks are comparable. German studies reported that ergonomic stations in coworking spaces are set up correctly, but that these work environments could be characterized by a higher risk of noise compared to standard office environments. Moreover, working in these spaces may have the potential to reduce the risk of social isolation, given that workers have several possibilities of interacting with each other, and compared to homeworking, they may favour a more net distinction between work and private life. Some spaces are indeed specifically designed to enable knowledge exchange and collaboration among users with an active role of the manager of the space, with some studies showing also a commonality of social support practices in coworking spaces. At the same time, risks of harassment and bullying can be less directly controlled by employers in these spaces, and therefore employers should check the policies put in place by the managers of the shared space and instruct their employees accordingly to protect workers. Finally, research evidenced how the presence of these spaces in more peripheral areas allows workers living in these areas to work closer to home with the same advantages of an office, avoiding long commutes, and therefore the possibility of commuting accidents.
This article provided a short overview of remote work and the possible types of remote workplaces discussing the possible implications for OSH. In the first part, the article attempted to better define remote work by drawing comparisons with the other terms frequently used in academic and grey literature to talk about work conducted outside the employers’ premises. Although much policy and scholarly attention has been devoted to telework specifically, which foresees a standard work relationship between an employer and an employee, online platform work can be considered to fall under the category of remote work since it occurs in dispersed locations. Online platform work may entail a diverse typology of less standard employment relationships, with many workers being treated as self-employed workers. While some workers have indeed a high degree of independence, others, especially those working for micro-task platforms, are in fact economically dependent on the platform9. Thus, in these cases, social protection and health and safety responsibilities are unfairly outsourced from employers to workers. It is therefore important for future research to consider more in-depth the implications of remote work for workers other than teleworkers, including a wider range of workers with different employment statuses.
One common element that ICT-enabled remote workers have in common, despite their employment status, is that their work is enabled by ICTs. Several OSH risks are emerging from how workers and employers (for monitoring workers and assigning work tasks) use ICTs. The use of ICTs, from laptops to VR headsets, may indeed carry different risks to the physical well-being of workers, with symptoms ranging from eye strain and dizziness to MSDs. At the same time, the psychosocial well-being of workers may be hindered by several risk factors, such as an incorrect management style, or management through algorithms, together with similar mechanisms aimed at monitoring and influencing workers’ behaviour, such as nudging and gamification. To assess these types of risks, employers and labour inspectors should become more aware of the risks associated with the use of ICTs for monitoring workers, and with related issues such as large data management. Moreover, more evidence should be collected on the company and platforms policies and practices concerning workers’ management through ICTs. Indeed, besides carrying some threats, the use of these technologies, if implemented properly, may also represent opportunities for a successful implementation of OSH prevention measures, for instance by embedding OSH aspects into algorithmic management.
The second element characterising remote workers is their potential to work from any location. However, work, even if carried out outside standard workplaces, is still being carried out somewhere, in a physical and built environment carrying specific implications for OSH. The third section of this article proposed a typology of possible remote workplaces based on their accessibility and predictability, and provided some specific examples, namely private homes, public spaces, and coworking spaces. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and especially with the first lockdown and related workplace closures, much has been written on working from home, and its disadvantages that were being further exacerbated by the situation of forced telework and isolation. For this reason, it may be relevant for future research to look also at other types of less common remote workplaces that may become more used in the future. Indeed, a possible consequence of this dispersion of the workforce may be that workplaces will increasingly become more diversified and less standardised, making it difficult for employers and workers to predict and prevent potential hazards. The increasing detachment of work from specific places should not mean discarding the importance of physical workplaces; rather analysing the risks and opportunities for OSH emerging from the diverse range of existing remote workplaces should become a central theme for future research on remote work.
1 Industrial home-based work includes manufacturing activities performed for an employer at home rather than on-site. This particular form of work became less common in European countries following the outsourcing of manufacturing activities to lower-income countries in Europe and abroad. According to ILO, this work form implies very peculiar OSH risks related to the manufacturing process, including the possible lack of adaptation of the home environment and possibly the lack of proper training and monitoring in workers’ handling of chemicals or tools.
2 Another categorisation concerning platform work differentiates between micro-task platforms and macro-task platforms that are both performed away from the premises of the employer/client or the intermediary (platform). In the first case, workers are not able to set a price, they take up a job based on a certain rate and have lower degrees of autonomy. In the second case – usually highly qualified – workers can bid for what looks like a call for tender and the price can be set together with the client.
3 Yet, it is worth noting that location-dependent platform work shares some key features with ICT-enabled remote work, namely a non-standard form of management and monitoring of workers’ performance either occurring at a distance or becoming partly or fully automatised; the likelihood to work isolated, therefore becoming exposed to similar lone-working related risks; a more challenging management of OSH challenges, especially with regards to risk prevention strategies and occupational accidents that require to consider not only non-standard and less predictable workplaces but also to carefully evaluate the risks associated with the virtual work environment.
4Another element for the description of this category is whether the client has a say on the working time, something that testifies the worker is dependent on the client as they cannot organise freely their working time.
5 For a more detailed discussion on OSH management issues and platform work, please refer to EU-OSHA.
6 On the other hand, for some workers, commuting savings translate anyway in a longer working time.
7 The Irish government set up coworking hubs for employees in several parts of the country. Although the term “coworking" is used, these are detached offices, differing from co-working spaces since they are still managed by the employer.
8 Since the use of these spaces implies most of the times the payment of a fee, employers should make sure to pay directly or reimburse these expenses to their employees, especially when working from the employer’s premises is not an option. Indeed, although these spaces may provide more advantages than working from home, a decent work environment should remain a right and not a privilege of those who can afford it.
9 Besides economic dependency from the platform, Florisson and Mandl also pointed out how dependence from a specific platform is increased by the difficulty/impossibility in transferring rates and reviews to another platform offering similar services.
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