Considerations for returning to the workplace

With the successful rollout of Ireland’s vaccination programme against Covid-19, many Irish employers and workers are now preparing to return to their physical workplace after a considerable period of working from home.

To ensure that the return to work aligns with current Public Health advice and measures to keep workplaces safe, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment have published an updated Work Safely Protocol to ensure that employers and workers continue to contain and prevent the spread of Covid-19.

This is the fourth iteration of the Protocol following revisions to reflect revisions to Public Health guidelines in November 2020, December 2020 and May 2021. The current iteration of the Protocol, published on 17 September 2021, contains updates that reflect current guidance and measures to assist both businesses and workers returning to the physical workplace.

Throughout the past 18 months, the Irish government has reiterated that working from home has played a considerable part in containing the spread of Covid-19. As Public Health restrictions are gradually reduced and removed in the coming weeks, it is critical that employers successfully navigate the return to work, either through continued remote working, physical attendance in the workplace, or a hybrid model encompassing both. 

While many retail and hospitality sectors returned to work in May 2021 in line with government advice at the time, a phased return to the office and workplaces for those currently working from home will now take place from 22 October 2021, when the requirement to work from home will be removed. This will allow employees to return to physical attendance in the workplace on a phased and cautious basis appropriate to each sector.

The return to the work plan will vary by sector and by company. Under the Protocol, there is a non-exhaustive list of industries where specific Public Health advice has been created which employers and workers are required to adhere to. This non-exhaustive list includes the following sectors:

Healthcare

Childcare

Social care

Education

Retail

Bars

Meat processing

Restaurants

Food processing

Funeral Directors

Construction

 

Further information on the specific guidelines for these sectors is available from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre website hpsc.ie

Lead worker representative

A key component for ensuring adherence to the Protocol is the role of the Lead Worker Representative (LWR) in the workplace. Employers are required to appoint at least one LWR, who will work with the employer to assist in the implementation of and monitor adherence to the Protocol to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace. LWR’s should be trained appropriately by their employer and be the conduit between workers and the employer for any concerns about the implementation of the Protocol.

Guidelines within the Work Safely Protocol

The Work Safely Protocol sets out a comprehensive set of steps for employers and workers to reduce the risk of exposure to Covid-19 in the workplace, including:

  • Updating the Covid-19 Response Plan;
  • Implementing and maintaining policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of workers who may have symptoms of COVID-19;
  • Developing, updating, consulting, communicating and implementing workplace changes or policies; and
  • Implementing Covid-19 Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) measures;

The Protocol also provides key guidance on workplace and community settings, occupational health and safety measures, as well as a library of resources for employers and workers.

Considerations for employers

Through many workplace surveys carried out in the past year, it is evident that many office-based employees wish to be able to avail of some form of remote work in the future and many companies are also indicating that they wish to adapt and accommodate the wishes of their employees and continue to offer a degree of flexibility. A recent survey from CIPD Ireland outlined that one in two businesses in Ireland plans to adopt remote working in some form permanently in the future. 

Some companies are already setting out their approach to what their working week will look like in the future. Employers such as AIB have already outlined that they plan to move employees to a hybrid working model that will allow many to work from home three days a week. Within their outlined plan, some AIB employees, who were based in the office full-time previously, may move towards working two days per week in an office, combined with remote working for the remainder of the week, depending on local requirements and availability of collaborative workspaces. Similarly, Liberty Insurance announced that it would require its 400 employees to work "primarily remotely in future", providing the option of working up to two days per week in the office and the mobile banking app Revolut are enabling their 50 Irish employees to choose how and when they would like to work from home or visit the workplace.

When organisations consider their working arrangements, any decisions made must be based on several factors, such as business objectives, employees' wishes, potential office space adaptations and associated costs. These key considerations are outlined in further detail below:

  1. Health and safety requirements
    Before any employee returns to their workplace, the work environment must be safe and compliant with all relevant Government and HSE guidelines and in line with the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act requirements. Companies are advised to create and/or update policies that reflect the environment, health and safety and emergency protocols to align with HSE guidance. It is also essential that the organisation establishes clear protocols for returning to the building, provides the requisite training on accessing shared workspaces and equipment and the measures in place if an employee displays symptoms of Covid-19 while in the workplace.
  2. The price of returning to work
    Before returning to the workplace, an organisation must evaluate and understand the costs of bringing people back to the office. There will likely be costs such as reconfiguring office space and seating, increased cleaning costs and potential PPE costs.
  3. Types of work and phasing the return to work Before the return to the workplace, each role and the team should be reviewed strategically to identify which roles need to be on-site and which roles use technology or machinery. When identifying which teams should be prioritised, an organisation will plan a phased return that will ensure maximum productivity.
  4. The voice of the employee
    The difficulties that employees have faced over the past year while remote working cannot be understated. Therefore, before employees return to the workplace, they must assess and understand their employees' needs, personal situations, welfare, and mental health. Where possible, it is vital that businesses understand such concerns of the employee while ensuring productivity is continued.
  5. Tax
    Hybrid working is the future, and while employers can provide certain benefits to staff tax-free (e.g., specific office equipment, mobile phone), these are limited. Employers need to be conscious of published Revenue guidance on what expenses and benefits the employer can provide tax-free to remote working employees. If the employer inadvertently provides benefits that are not addressed in Revenue guidance, the benefit would be considered a taxable benefit, resulting in a payroll exposure for both the employer and employee. Employers should look for any potential new measures that may be announced in Budget 2022, which is scheduled to be announced in October.

Employers must be proactive in their approach to the return to the workplace. As restrictions lift and the vaccination rollout continues, planning and preparation are required to ensure a seamless return.

Our expert team of Consultants at Mazars can assist you in devising your return to the workplace, supporting you in developing detailed policies and procedures in line with government and HSE guidelines and developing a return to workplace model that ensures that the needs of the employer and employee are accommodated effectively.

Our other services include the following but are not limited to:

  • Development and review of employee handbooks
  • Recruitment and Selection
  • Outsourced HR solutions
  • HR Compliance and Audits (including Diversity and Inclusion audits)
  • Gender Pay Gap reporting
  • Organisational design and restructuring
  • Change management

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