A foreseeable risk: agile working isn’t all rosy

laptopRather than “setting you free”, agile working as it is currently being managed is causing problems for staff, with over 80% suffering health problems as a result. Here is feedback from staff trialling agile working at Caversham Road, gathered by Camden Unison.

As we get closer to the move to B3 the Council is rolling out “agile working” in different areas. According to management, “agile working means your office can be almost anywhere; on the go via a handheld device, at home on a laptop or in a touchdown area between meetings. Working flexibly sets you free to work in new ways.”

While we have no objection to agile working in principle, serious concerns have been raised by staff trialling the new system.

When CSF staff in Family Services and Social Work moved from West End Lane to the refurbished 42 Caversham Road they were told they would be trying out agile working.

So instead of fixed desks and desktop PCs there are hot desks and laptops.

Staff have reported some benefits of the new system, including the laptops being fast and quite light, and enjoying the flexibility to be able to work outside the office.

However, there also serious problems, principally around health and safety: the main issue being that laptops are not suitable to be worked on for extended periods of time due to the fact that they can cause musculoskeletal disorders like back pain and repetitive strain injury (RSI). And external keyboards and monitors are not being made available on all workstations.

Unison conducted a survey of staff in the building and has carried out numerous shop meetings, site visits and walk rounds, gathering the views of the majority of staff including administrators, social workers, senior practitioners and managers.

The most worrying finding we made was that of the workers surveyed who have used the laptops without external monitors and keyboards, 86% have suffered either back pain, neck pain, headaches, eyestrain or pain in arms/hands as a result. 55% have suffered two or more of these symptoms (NB this figure does not include the workers surveyed who experienced these symptoms but stated they have pre-existing conditions and so they could not attribute them purely to the laptop use). What makes this even more concerning is that these workers had only been using the laptops for a maximum of a few weeks – some of had only used the laptops for one week by this point.

Unison raised concerns repeatedly, and senior management and HR eventually agreed to provide five additional keyboards and risers, to elevate laptops to eye level. However this has proved to be still insufficient, as staff are still being forced to work for prolonged periods of time on laptops with no external keyboards and monitors. And the laptop risers do not solve the problem of the laptop screen being uncomfortably small for many.

Feedback later gathered by local management echoed that gathered by Unison.

So far, however, management have not agreed to increase numbers of external monitors and keyboards further. In meetings with Unison reps they have stated that staff should not be at their computers for long periods of time and that they should be working in “new ways” and that instead of typing things and sending e-mails workers should have “chats” in “breakout areas” (probably over a “frappucino”!).

However, this group of workers are mostly child protection social workers: where there are strict statutory requirements on recording, so not typing everything up is not an option. And there is a real reluctance from senior management to recognise this.

Following feedback from Unison, management agreed to provide backpacks in addition to laptop bags for workers to carry the computers in. However for some workers and they are still too heavy and so we have requested additional power cables for those workers to have at home to reduce the weight they need to carry.

Unison is continuing to take forward staff concerns on this issue, and we are urging management to take heed of the views of those trialling agile working before it is rolled out to everyone. As the potential risks to workers’ health is now clearly foreseeable.

As we publish this article we have learned that the rolling out of agile working elsewhere has now been paused for senior management to debate questions around external monitors and keyboards.

Download Unison’s health and safety guidelines on laptops here

One response to “A foreseeable risk: agile working isn’t all rosy

  1. Pingback: Unison guidance on agile working | Camden UNISON

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