Home office safety downplayed by employers

It never ceases to amaze Michael Dziak how little thought teleworkers and their employers give to home office safety and security.

Legions of IT staff protect the network from viruses, worms and hack attacks. Teleworkers are armed with the latest firewalls and antivirus software, and taught to practice safe remote computing. But physical safety – protecting the home and home office from break-in, theft and the chaos that often results – just isn’t a priority.

A sign in the yard of Dziak’s Atlanta home office warns of an alarm system. Lush and thorny holly bushes grow outside the locked ground floor windows, and deadbolt locks protect all the doors.

“It’s a lot easier to prevent theft than to try to recover after it’s occurred. The possibility is always there, and everyone should have a contingency plan in place,” says Dziak, president of telework consultancy InteliWorks, and author of Telecommuting Success.

Inside Dziak’s office, the bookcases are balanced to prevent tipping, circuits and outlets aren’t overloaded, and boxes and supplies are kept neat. Dziak won’t even open two file drawers at once, fearing the unit toppling.

And the buck stops…?

Responsibility for securing the corporate teleworker’s home office falls somewhere between employer and employee. Because telework is considered a privilege in most cases, most of the burden of safety and security measures fall to the employee. Moreover, when the Occupational Safety & Health Administration stated publicly last year that telework offices doesn’t fall under federal safety guidelines, many employers assumed they were off the hook.

While some companies expect teleworkers to maintain a home office as safe as the corporate office, all contacted for this article leave home office safety to the teleworker. Many expressed concern that if they snooped around employees’ homes, they’d come off as “Big Brother.”

Gil Weidenfeld, telework coordinator for the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), says, “If we do it for teleworkers, then we should do it for everybody, and that can be intrusive and impossible to police.”

Not so. All MDOT teleworkers sign a Remote Workplace Self-Certification Checklist that ensures their home offices are safe. The list covers ergonomics, lighting, safe use of extension cords, and the presence of fire extinguishers and smoke detectors.

In fact, creating and maintaining a safe home-based workplace should be the joint concern of the teleworker and the employer, adds Elizabeth Lewis, a labor and employment lawyer with the Tysons Corner, Va., office of law firm Greenberg Traurig. Whether it’s a checklist, booklets or ongoing training, implementing a continuum of safety and security measures can keep the worker focused, safe and productive.

If a company has a corporate security regimen, its telework program should as well. Some experts advise making safety and security a mandatory part of teleworker deployment, and the creation, maintenance and photographic proof of a safe workplace just part of the approval process. This can help ensure at-home workers follow the corporate guidelines for safety, address and limit potential safety and security breaches, and foster a healthy work environment.

It also can boost worker peace of mind and productivity – before a robbery or theft forces an at-home worker to react.

“It’s going to take some bad news to motivate people to make security a priority,” Dziak says.