It is eighteen months since the Government required employers to implement working from home, where possible, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In that time employers and employees have, for the most part, successfully adapted to the abrupt change in their workplace environment. However, as a result of a successful vaccine programme the Government has announced that the return to the workplace can now commence on a phased basis. There are two key dates for employers to bear in mind:
Businesses can begin a phased and staggered return to workplaces for specific business requirements taking into account the guidance contained in the Work Safely Protocol on appropriate attendance levels, the use of staggered arrangements and flexible working hours from the 20 September 2021. Employers should also note the specific advice contained in the Returning Safely to the Workplace from 20 September 2021 Guidance Note.
Public health guidance such as the requirement for physical distancing, wearing of masks and ventilation will remain in place after this date There is an ongoing requirement for self-isolation and restricted movements for those with symptoms, those with positive test results and close contacts of confirmed cases unless fully vaccinated with no symptoms
Post 22 October 2021
The Government will remove the majority of restrictions from 22 October, including the limits on numbers at indoor and outdoor events. However the most significant of the restrictions to be removed will be the removal of the requirement to work from home, allowing a return to physical attendance in workplaces on a "phased and cautious" basis. Ahead of this date, further consultation will take place between the Government and stakeholders in relation to guidance required for employers, taking into account the latest public health guidance.
Communication, engagement and consultation between employers and employees form key components of both these guidance documents.
In its guidance the Government has reaffirmed its commitment to promoting its National Remote Work Strategy which will ensure that remote working is a permanent feature of the workplace in Ireland. Legislation regarding a right to request remote working is expected to be introduced in the autumn, however in the meantime many employers have already developed their plans for remote working and engaged in communication and consultation with employees on their intentions for remote working on a permanent or hybrid basis.
Comprehensive guidance on implementing a safe return to work is contained in the "Work Safely Protocol" which was initially put in place in May 2020 and has been updated at regular intervals in the interim. The Protocol provides guidance on infection control and other measures such as ventilation that should be put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. In addition the Health and Safety Authority has developed a series of checklists and guidance notes for employers and employees on topics such as dealing with a suspected case of COVID-19, returning to the office and Rapid Antigen Tests to help employers with the process of returning to the workplace.
There will be challenges and queries as employers begin to engage with their employees on a return to the workplace. Indeed, we are already advising clients on issues such as medically vulnerable employees, vaccine related issues and employees who worked from abroad during the pandemic and who want to make those arrangements permanent.