Work Health & Safety in the 21st Century

I recently saw a thought-provoking RSA animation clip by Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft that had me wondering, if he is right, what is going to happen to a field such as work or occupational health and safety?

As more and more people move into the “knowledge industry”, just what is work – where do we do it – and where does OHS come in? We now talk about “WORK” health and safety. The focus is on the work people do – the place where they do the work is just one factor to consider. Our concept of work today differs markedly from previous years (when most of our concepts of OHS were developed).

And in the 21st century – with internet clouds and social media – where do people work?

People can work from everywhere or anywhere they can be productive – home, office, library, coffee shop, their car, in a park. It is not necessary for a (knowledge) worker to come in to a central workplace in order to perform the work. Increasingly we have all the tools we need in our pocket or purse! Yet the legal duty remains on the employer, to provide for the health and safety of employees at work.

Industrialisation over the past two centuries demanded standardised processes (& SOPs etc) to make organisations more effective. But are they still necessary in a non-industrial work setting?

Developing, learning and following procedures often means we are too busy being busy. So a major challenge is how we can manage technology, rather than it manage us. This has major implications for how we approach work – including how we deal with issues like health and safety.

As an example, open plan offices were first introduced in the belief – now contradicted – that they would promote collaboration with others and lead to better communication. Studies show the reality is the opposite – people still email a colleague 3 desks away. Open plan workplaces tend to make people feel exposed, so that our ancient, reptilian brain is on alert for ‘predators’ (viz the boss) more and more, increasing anxiety.

Furthermore, whereas extroverts are more comfortable in an open plan environment, studies show clearly that the work performance of those with introverted personalities suffers. Clearly it is not reasonable to require all people to be extroverts in order to fit in.

So we talk about ‘flexible’ working arrangements. However, does this mean necessarily ‘working from home’? Now one has the technology to choose the location where one wants to work and the means to take control over how one wants to work. Flexible working now means being mindful about the tasks one has to accomplish and the best places for one to work in to accomplish those tasks.

Usually the best insights come from impromptu and unstructured face-to-face conversations with people in corridors, car parks and cafes. How many times at a conference do our most productive chats occur at morning and lunch breaks? Indeed in some leading edge organisations (that embrace this re-imagining of work) – Google, Atlassian (an Australian company) and others – this spontaneity is built in to the work schedules.

But in other organisations, it’s still a case of ‘bums on seats’. If we can’t see you, we don’t know you’re working! ¾ of the British workforce believe that remote workers will not work as hard as office-based staff. Other studies even show that workers who do work away from the office seem to have a sense of guilt and suspicion that others may think they’re not working at all – so they compensate by sending more emails and making more telephone calls to prove they are working.

To take advantage of all that ‘the Cloud’ and social media has to offer, organisations (and their managers) have to let go; they need to empower employees – to choose the best places to work, the best times to work, the best tools to use.

The RSA animation by Dave Coplin is at