Q&A: Returning to the office – what do we know?

Q&A: Returning to the office – what do we know?

A return to the workplace, on a phased basis, will happen around the time of the lifting of other restrictions,

When are people heading back to the office?

From Monday, January 24, office workers who have been working from home for almost two years have been given the green light to return to the workplace on a phased basis.

What are we supposed to do about all this?

Good question. The Government's Work Safely Protocol – Covid-19 National Protocol for Employers and Workers – is the key document guiding the process.

According to the protocol, updated in January 2022, employees must complete and submit the Pre-Return to Work form before they return to the office.

They must also participate in any induction training provided by the employer on their return to the workplace.

More information can be found here.

What do I do if I develop symptoms of Covid-19 when I go back to work?

If any office employees have symptoms of Covid-19 – regardless of their vaccination status – they should not go to work, should immediately self-isolate and refer to HSE advice on COVID-19 testing

Can my employer make me go back to the office if I don't want to?

It appears the answer to that is yes. As reported in the Irish Examiner in 2021, there is legislation planned to allow employees the right to request flexible working arrangements but it will be up to the employer to grant such a request. It is likely that you would have to outline a strong case to be allowed to continue to work from home if requested to return to the workplace by your employer, for example, on health grounds.

Can you be asked by your employer if you have had a vaccine?

HR expert Louisa Meehan of Woodview HRM told this newspaper that unless an employer has a clear ground for identifying who has been vaccinated, the safest option for them is to not ask the question in the first place and continue to impose all necessary Covid-19 safety precautions.

“However, if after having done a risk assessment, it has been determined that the organisation does need to know who has been vaccinated then they can request this information from all employees," she said. 

"Again it is up to the employee whether they opt to share the information or not.”

What about if an employer knows someone hasn't been vaccinated or is told by the employee they haven't been vaccinated?

Some of this is tied up with GDPR legislation but an employee might decide to try and facilitate that employee in a different role, eg back-office or less customer-facing. But the same laws that existed pre-pandemic to protect workers' rights are still in place.

Can an employer insist you have the vaccine?

The legal view appears to be that employees absolutely cannot be forced to take a vaccine.

Can I ask if my work colleagues have been vaccinated?

Again, the answer appears to be no, with GDPR a factor. In any event, the safety protocol outlines certain scenarios for employers and offers advice on how best to achieve a safe workplace in the context of a return to the office. The advice for workers is to assume that not all your fellow workers are vaccinated and continue working with all the necessary precautions in place to ensure everyone is as protected as possible.

I thought the Government – like a lot of other authorities around the world – were singing the praises of working from home and suggesting it's the future of work?

That's true. Any return to the office will be on a phased basis, and needs to also take into account congestion on public transport networks, etc. The Government would likely prefer a hybrid model going into the future, whereby there is a mix of working from home and trips to the office, with the benefits likely to include fewer commutes and maybe even greater availability of cheaper properties if fewer people have to work in large urban centres.

So what happens now?

Employers are being warned against forcing staff to make a rapid return to office-based work following the lifting of nearly all pandemic restrictions in Ireland.

A range of trade union and industry bodies are warning employers to engage with workers and to offer the option of remote working on a permanent basis or else remove it on a phased basis.

Where can I get more information?

The Safety Protocol is a good place to start. Find it here.

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