November 2013

At home away from home

Study finds increased communications and privacy important to remote workers

By Dave Kaufman

A recently released Australian study has pegged privacy and access to communications as two of the most important factors in the long-term happiness of remote mine workers.

Philipp Kirsch, one of the contributors to the University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining study, said this data sheds light on how to improve the experience for fly-in, fly-out employees. “The really key take-home message is that people want to be able to be in communication,” said Kirsch. “When they’re not at work they want to be able to communicate with their friends and families whenever they feel like it.”

Kirsch stressed the importance of what he calls “the 4 Ps”: privacy, personal space, permanent communication and peace. “You can have your personal space in a shared room, but these people really don’t want to share a room,” he said.

The idea for the study came about when an Australian mining company wanted to know if there was any relationship between the quality of its accommodations and its employees’ commitment to stay at their jobs. Long-distance commuting employees, Kirsch explained, are non-resident workers who travel some distance to work and sleep in temporary accommodations during their rotation.

The majority of the nearly 300 fly-in, fly-out workers surveyed said that, overall, they were happy with the remote working lifestyle, and 75 per cent reported they felt they were at a good or very good level of mental and physical health. But 60 per cent said their work lifestyle has a negative effect on their home and family life.

One of the findings that surprised Kirsch most was that 44 per cent of respondents planned to change jobs in the next 12 months, with a “desire for better pay, greater work-life balance, and career advancement.”

“These people are well paid, they essentially are quite satisfied in their jobs, but some of them still intend to try to find something else,” said Kirsch.

To improve the living experience at Glencore’s Raglan nickel mine in northern Quebec, Marc Lucas, the operation’s HR manager, said the mine has made a point of seeking feedback from workers about camp life rather than waiting for it.

“We have had suggestion boxes in the past but now actively encourage an open dialogue with HR or through the supervisory chain of command,” he said, adding a joint health and safety committee tackles problems before they become significant risks or irritants. He explained that management now holds formal and informal meetings with both staff and unionized employees to hear from site workers. It has also formed staff and union committees, respectively called ‘comité bonne entente’ and ‘comité organization du travail,’ that each meet eight times per year to discuss issues that come up at the mine.

The mine’s living facilities have been the focus of many initiatives to ensure the happiness of Raglan’s fly-in, fly-out staff. For instance, the only people who share rooms at their living facilities are couples. “We have the capacity to house 800 people,” said Lucas. “We don’t force anyone to share rooms.”

Raglan has a full-sized gym for volleyball, basketball, floor hockey and other sports, as well as training facilities with aerobic machines, treadmills and full sets of weights. He added that it was very important to “have Wi-Fi throughout the complex, so people can stay connected with families down south.” Once a month, Raglan will even fly in a comedian, humorist, or band to give workers a sense of normalcy while they are so far from their homes.

Designing improvements into camps and accommodations that enhance work­ers’ personal space, communication channels and privacy are important, found the authors of the Australian study. Mine management could also be more active in raising awareness of potential problems associated with the long-distance commuting lifestyle. The study suggests management develop a physical and mental health baseline in initial fitness assessments of remote workers against which ongoing physical and mental health can be measured as well.

The team is conducting a similar survey in Canada.

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