5 minute read 3 Oct 2021
Business meeting

How Irish organisations can navigate the safe return to the physical workplace

Authors
Deirdre Malone

Associate Partner, Head of Employment, EY Law Ireland

Employment lawyer. Strategic thinker. Workplace wellbeing leader. Diversity and inclusion advocate.

Laura Flynn

EY Ireland Head of People Consulting

5 minute read 3 Oct 2021
Related topics Law

As organisations transition employees back to the workplace, priority consideration must be given employee safety and wellbeing. Deirdre Malone, EY Law Ireland and Laura Flynn, Head of People Consulting, examine some of the implications as organisations begin the physical return to the office.

In brief
  • 83% of organisations globally have taken, or have planned to take, action to the post-COVID-19 “new normal”
  • Globally, 43% of organisations are requiring vaccination before employees can return to the office
  • Employers must be aware of legal requirements around vaccination status when asking employees to return to the office

It’s time for employers to move beyond the restrictions of COVID-19 and implement their plans for a reimagined workplace. From 22nd October, physical attendance in the workplace will be permitted for many workers for the first time since March 2020. With that, organisations face a raft of considerations around challenges connected with flexibility, office setup, productivity and importantly, the safety and wellbeing of employees.

As the return to offices and other physical workplaces begins, important legal, strategic and human resources questions must be answered, as well as fundamental considerations around the Future of Work and hybrid working. The Government continues to provide helpful guidance to employers to ensure a safe return to the workplace for all workers, designed to support organisations in their decision-making at this critical time.

EY has recently launched EY Law Ireland, which brings a new bespoke, end-to-end service offering to our clients, helping our clients to seamlessly navigate the legal and regulatory environment both at home and abroad. Our Employment Law team advises on all aspects of the employment relationship connected to people advisory, workforce transformation, risk management and transactions.

Work Reimagined

The new global EY Work Reimagined Employer Survey conducted by EY’s Global People Advisory Services practice canvassed more than 1,000 business leaders globally, examining their views on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the workplace, including their perspectives on the risks and opportunities of hybrid working. The study found that 83% of organisations surveyed have already taken, or have already planned for, action. However, just 40% have actioned and communicated their plan to employees. Managing an effective transition back to the workplace is underpinned by the need for clear communication around what employees can expect in the return to the physical workplace, and what employers are doing to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

The study found that 59% have implemented or are considering health-evidencing procedures to ensure workplace safety and 49% of those surveyed are establishing social distancing by implementing new protocols.

Employee vaccination

Globally, 43% of organisations are requiring vaccination before employees can return to the office. In Ireland, approximately 90% of the adult population is now fully vaccinated. Nonetheless, many employers in Ireland still wish to understand exactly what they can and cannot do when it comes to the vaccination status of their employees. Some of the key considerations that arise are as follows:

1. Employers cannot ask their employees if they are vaccinated

The Data Protection Commission has issued guidance confirming that there is no legal basis for the collection and processing of vaccine status data, except in certain limited circumstances, unless public health guidance changes to make vaccination a necessary workplace measure for the prevention of COVID-19.

2. Employers cannot keep a record of who has been vaccinated

Again, outside of certain very limited circumstances or settings, employers cannot keep a record of who has been vaccinated. Such information falls within the definition of sensitive personal data which brings even greater obligations to protect the information than standard personal information. It is important not to inadvertently obtain a record through the use of payroll systems for example, which might require employees to log a code to receive paid time off to attend at a vaccination appointment.

3. Employers cannot mandate that employees be vaccinated and cannot make it a precondition for return to the workplace

It is up to every individual to decide whether they wish to receive the vaccine. Employers can provide information to employees about the vaccine and can support with paid time off for employees to attend for a vaccine, but they cannot go beyond that aside from in certain very limited workplace settings. 

Updating and creating new policies

The pandemic has forced a fundamental rethink of policies and procedures, both from a legal and operational perspective. In many cases, completely new policies are required that didn’t exist pre-pandemic, such as international working policies that take account of individuals’ preference to work overseas within the boundaries of tax and legal considerations. But changes are needed to existing policies, too. Employers need to reimagine and update their existing policies through a hybrid, post-COVID lens. This could include dress code policies, travel and expense policies, performance management and team management, but all people-related policies should be scrutinised.

Significant change is underway, and employers are optimistic about the future of work. Many have made concerted effort into planning the people, process, technology and legal requirements to make return to office and hybrid working a reality, and employers and employees alike should feel the benefit of this considered approach. 

Helpful resources for transitioning back to the physical workplace:

  • Work Safely Protocol: a Government document that sets out the minimum public health measures required in every workplace to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to facilitate re-opening and the ongoing safe operation.
  • The Data Protection – Work Safely Protocol: a guidance document providing clarification to employers (and their representatives) where the measures set out in the Protocol may result in the processing of personal data.
  • The Health and Safety Authority: A range of checklists and templates to help employers, business owners and managers to get their business up and running again and to inform workers about what they need to do to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Summary

Major change is underway as employers take their first steps forward into the future of work and back to physical offices. Employers need to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their workforce as they flip to hybrid working models as they reimagine the workplace.

About this article

Authors
Deirdre Malone

Associate Partner, Head of Employment, EY Law Ireland

Employment lawyer. Strategic thinker. Workplace wellbeing leader. Diversity and inclusion advocate.

Laura Flynn

EY Ireland Head of People Consulting

Related topics Law