Last week, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar announced the recommendation to work from home in Ireland, where possible, will remain in place until Spring 2022.
Employers and workers alike were previously expecting a full return to the office from 22nd October, following restrictions being partially lifted in September.
While the delay to a full return will grant businesses more time to prepare to bring the whole workforce back to the office, employers still face numerous challenges in keeping the workplace safe for any employees who do need to attend the workplace. In September, 30% of over 200 HR professionals surveyed said their company wasn’t prepared for the return to the workplace.
Now, businesses across Ireland should be investing whatever time, budget and resources are necessary to protect employees from the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Here’s what you need to consider to keep your workforce safe over the next few months.
Who Can Go to the Office?
Although the recommendation to work from home will remain in place longer than expected, that doesn’t necessarily mean the office is off-limits.
In fact, thousands of workers already started returning to the office from 20th September, when restrictions were partially lifted. However, the government has emphasised that workplace attendance must be for a specific business reason, such as to attend a meeting or undertake training.
So while entire workforces cannot yet be welcomed back to the office, employees can attend the office on a phased and staggered basis.
While this provides an opportunity for workers to meet in person and escape their home offices, it also creates an administrative challenge for HR teams. Not only do employers need to comply with a plethora of health and safety requirements, but you also need to a establish a process for recording who is attending the office, and when, to keep numbers at a safe level and enable contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.
To avoid the huge administrative burden of manually recording workplace attendance, businesses should now be investing in the right tools to make the return to work as easy as possible for both employees and their HR departments.
How Can I Keep Employees Safe?
The government has outlined a number of steps employers must take to protect their workforces from COVID-19 in the Work Safely Protocol.
Complying with the Work Safely Protocol won’t be quick or easy. Here are just a few of the measures your business must introduce to minimise the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace:
- Update business and safety plans, implement workplace changes and communicate them to employees.
- Deliver COVID-19 induction training for staff.
- Appoint a lead worker representative to ensure safety measures are both in place and being followed, as well as a dedicated manager to deal with suspected cases.
- Promote hand washing, mask wearing and physical distancing of 2 metres through displaying posters and other communication methods.
- Ensure the office is ventilated and cleaned regularly, and provide PPE where appropriate.
- Consider staggering start, finish and break times; adapting contact-free sign in/out processes; and placing teams in ‘pods’ to minimise mixing between employees.
A full breakdown of both employers’ and employees’ COVID-safety responsibilities can be found here.
It’s crucial you get the correct measures in place before welcoming any employees back to the workplace. Bodies such as the Workplace Relations Commission have so far conducted over 43,000 inspections to ensure compliance with the Work Safely Protocol – so if you already have employees returning to the office, and have not yet met all safety requirements, ensuring COVID-safety should now be a top priority for your business.
What Role Should Testing and Vaccine Statuses Play?
While employers can introduce workplace testing and vaccination programmes, both must be on a strictly voluntary basis.
Should you choose to implement a testing scheme for your employees, you must establish a process for any employees who do not wish to take a test.
Although employers can offer staff a vaccination, vaccines cannot be made mandatory and employees have no obligation to declare their vaccination status. If your staff decline to have the vaccine or declare their status, you must review their risk assessment to establish whether they can carry out their work without a vaccination – which can result in redeployment where necessary and agreed with a medical practitioner.
One process you could establish across the board as an additional safety measure is symptom self-screening. Self-screening applications, such as Screenin.me, enable employers to define their own questions to screen employees for potential symptoms and close contact with a positive COVID-19 case. Employees simply log in on their mobile or desktop, answer a few simple questions, and receive a clear, instant result to indicate whether they are safe to attend the workplace.
While your ability to enforce testing and vaccination is limited, daily self-screening for symptoms can help keep those potentially carrying the virus away from the workplace – reducing the risk of a workplace outbreak.
If you’d like to learn more about self-screening, get in touch with our team using the form below.
What If Employees Don’t Want to Return?
While some employees will be eager to get back to the office after over 18 months of working from home, others will be understandably anxious about the risk of returning to work amid rising COVID-19 cases.
Having comprehensive safety policies and processes in place may help ease workers’ anxiety about attending the office to some extent, however 2 in 3 companies still believe some employees will refuse to return to the workplace at this stage.
Any concerns must be met with empathy and understanding. Many people may be vulnerable or have vulnerable loved ones. They may be worried about the risk of commuting, or be hesitant to mix with those who have not yet been vaccinated. Or their mental health may have been impacted to the extent that they simply don’t feel ready to return.
It’s crucial to consult with your employees to understand how they’re feeling, and changes to workplace safety measures should be communicated clearly to both ensure workforce compliance and help ease concerns.
By undertaking a consultation with employees, and understanding their concerns and preferences, businesses can better define a Return to Work policy that meets the needs of their unique workforce – helping to make the transition back to the workplace as smooth, safe and stress-free as possible.
How Can Technology Help with the Return to Work?
The HR tech industry has seen huge developments and innovation over the past 18 months, and businesses should now be considering what technology is available to help reduce the time and resource of HR admin and make the implementation of your Return to Work policy easier for employees.
With Eppione’s HR & Employee Benefits platform, you can:
- Stagger start, finish and break times – using our clock in/out feature on mobile or desktop to accurately record working hours and enable flexibility.
- Communicate policy updates by uploading important documents directly into the platform. You can even track read-receipts and send automated reminders to ensure everyone has accessed the updated policies before attending the workplace.
- Set training tasks and track completion, so you can check employees have completed the necessary health and safety training before returning to the office.
- Send emergency messages if a positive COVID-19 case is identified in the workplace, such as to recommend close contacts take a test or work from home, or if the office needs to close down completely for cleaning.
- Distribute Return to Work forms and upload completed documents into employees’ profiles for record-keeping purposes.
- Promote employee wellbeing by providing continuous access to employee benefits information and enabling staff to select the right benefits for their unique needs.
Ultimately, there are numerous different approaches you can take to achieve compliance with the Work Safely Protocol and make the return to work as safe and easy as possible. Depending on the size and needs of your organisation, technology may need to play a key role to help reduce the administrative burden of managing new and changing health and safety protocols.
With thousands of workers already returning to the workplace on a phased and staggered basis, and with COVID cases continuing to rise in Ireland, you can’t afford to wait to implement COVID-safety measures. Whichever processes, policies and tools your choose for your business, you must start getting these in place sooner, rather than later, to help protect your workforce from COVID-19.
To find out how Eppione’s HR & Employee Benefits platform can help you manage your return to the office, get in touch with our team using the form below.