3 minute read 26 May 2020
people waiting for tenpertaure check

Returning to work and reimagining the workplace

By Jackie Gilmore

EY Ireland Partner People Advisory Services

Commercially driven, motivated leader. Dedicated mentor.

3 minute read 26 May 2020
Related topics COVID-19 Workforce

As Ireland’s Government began Phase 1 of re-opening the country last week, we at EY, along with our clients, are planning how we can safely get our people physically back to the workplace and asking what that workplace will look like.

At EY, we are using our Now, Next, and Beyond framework to help clients with their response planning. We recognise that all organisations are at different stages of this process and here is how we envision it:

  • Now – the first imperative has been to protect our people, move to remote working where possible (including rapid re-skilling) and keep business functioning in some form where possible. This is the crisis management stage.
  • Next – we must plan for some degree of physical workplace return, albeit with lots of complex restrictions. This stage is all about ongoing planning.
  • Beyond – using the lessons learned and shaping a perhaps very different future for your organisation. This is about forward thinking and long-term strategic planning.

As the weeks go by, we are seeing more and more clients bringing their longer-term planning forward as the Government’s plans are gradually revealed and the periods of remote working extend. Those that show agile leadership by considering both what’s imminent and what follows together and operating in two gears simultaneously will set themselves apart in the phases to come.

We held a webinar on this topic last Tuesday and we polled our attendees, asking them what stage their current planning is mostly focused on. More than half (51%) said they were ‘planning a physical return whilst also making long term longer-term plans.’

As the poll shows, not surprisingly, a major focus for many organisations right now is planning a safe return to a ‘new look’ physical workplace. This is a complex workplace health and safety and workforce planning challenge, where the variables are changing daily. It calls for a strong focus on flexibility in planning, use of data, and being incredibly well connected to your workforce.

Workforce planning challenges

Your organisation needs to ask three questions as it plans for which of its employees should return to physical work environments, when, and at what risk?

1.     What is critical?

This is about need. Which cohorts of your employees would you need to prioritise in terms of their physical return? For example, which roles needed to fulfil regulatory and compliance requirements? Are there roles that cannot be undertaken remotely or employees who do not have access to enabling remote technology?

2.     What is possible?

This is about constraints. Consider all the restrictions such as Government advice; social distancing; public transport availability; immigration and travel restrictions; and your building’s health and safety planning for entrances/exits, communal areas, lifts, cleaning, signage, etc. How many employees in total can be accommodated in physical locations? Most of our clients are planning scenarios around 30% to 50% occupancy in their buildings.

3.     What is safe, feasible and preferred?

This is about employee safety. Which of your employees should or should not physically return, regardless of what is possible or critical? Who is available, healthy and safe to come to work will change frequently, maybe daily, not to mention those who don’t feel comfortable returning – this will require a constantly agile response. Factoring in all these considerations, we have clients where 20-35% of workforce is not able to physically come to work on any given day, depending on school openings.

Between the practical workplace challenges, the complex human-centred workforce challenges and the fact that everything evolves daily, the return to the physical workplace will continue to really challenge organisations’ planning abilities for some time yet.

What’s ‘beyond’ for organisations?

With some clients simultaneously planning for the next phase of activity, while also thinking about the longer term, many believe this is a real point of reflection, where they can take the lessons of the recent past and use them to reimagine their organisation.

As a workforce adapting to a global pandemic, we have learned a great deal in the past 10 weeks:

  • There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for organisations
  • We can implement change very rapidly
  • We can be remote and productive
  • More people are becoming comfortable with remote working, according to an Irish Times survey
  • We need agility in critical skillsets when you can’t depend on key people being always available
  • There’s a shift in personal priorities in how people connect with society at a very local level
  • New roles and work groups have emerged as seen by the rise of the Future of Work taskforce with leading organisations

Considering these learnings, here are some of the factors to consider as you build your long-term strategy looking beyond the most imminent phase:

  • Response to changes in customer behaviours and expectations – if your customers aren’t accepting physical visitors, what does that mean for the future of your salesforce?
  • Opportunities for technology / automation – is now the time to invest in those automation projects that have been on the back burner?
  • The structure of organisations, roles and teams and whether they are fit for a changing world
  • What updates are needed to your HR, H&S, Tax, remuneration policies?
  • Workforce capabilities, skills, flexibility – what needs a refresh?
  • Reconsider the function of the physical workplace to be a centre for collaboration, innovation, meeting – rather than a place with rows of desks and computers.
  • Leadership capabilities and qualities – this is a time for great leaders to lead, inspire and make a difference on so many levels.

We recognise this next phase is not going to be binary for organisations. It’s fraught with complexity with many organisations planning for partial-returns or flexi-returns in the short term. There is also a big element of trust at play here. We know from the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Ireland that 72% of employees in Ireland trust their employers. Your employees are leaning heavily on you to make the right decisions for them and for the future of your organisation during and beyond this pandemic.


For many organisations right now a major focus is planning a safe return to a ‘new look’ physical workplace. It calls for a strong focus on flexibility in planning, use of data, and being incredibly well connected to your workforce. To learn more about actions organisations can take to prepare for the ‘new look’ in the workplace, watch on-demand Business Leaders webinar on workplace return and work reimagined.

About this article

By Jackie Gilmore

EY Ireland Partner People Advisory Services

Commercially driven, motivated leader. Dedicated mentor.

Related topics COVID-19 Workforce