Explainer: Returning to the office

Joanne Mangan from Grow Remote answers questions Irish employees and employers have about returning to the office.

This week Irish Government restrictions on working from the office begin to lift.

We take a look at some of the most common questions both employers and employees have about the great ‘return to the office’.

“Employers are now under pressure to finalise their post-lockdown plans – both in the short term as restrictions lift in September and October – and also their longer term arrangements for hybrid or remote working”

What is changing in September and October?

Up to now, the public health guidance was that employees should work from home unless necessary to attend in person. As of last Monday, this has changed, and employees are now allowed to go back to their workplaces. However, this is not a full scale return to the office – according to government guidelines ‘attendance at work for specific business requirements may commence on a phased and staggered attendance basis’ from this date.

From 22 October the majority of remaining Covid restrictions will be lifted, including physical distancing requirements and limits on numbers at indoor events and activities. After this date, the statutory requirement to work from home will be removed, allowing employees to return to their workplaces. This is outlined by the guidelines as being ‘on a phased and cautious basis appropriate to each sector’.

I’m an employer – what do these changes mean for me?

Employers are now under pressure to finalise their post-lockdown plans – both in the short term as restrictions lift in September and October – and also their longer term arrangements for hybrid or remote working. In April this year it was found that three-quarters of employers did not have a plan in place for after the lockdown so it will be interesting to see how far they have progressed since then.

What are employers obligations as offices begin to open up?

Employers must adhere to the guidance outlined in the updated Work Safely Protocol. This document sets out the public health measures required in the workplace to prevent and reduce the spread of Covid-19. This protocol was updated on 16 September 2021 to reflect the upcoming lifting of restrictions and phased return to offices.

What if employees do not want to return to the office due to fears about Covid?

Employers are under obligation to ensure their employees have a safe place to work, including following the guidance outlined in the Work Safely Protocol. Between 20 September and 22 October, employers must continue to consider appropriate attendance levels in the workplace, and use staggered arrangements such as flexible working hours and part time attendance. Once the restrictions have been lifted on 22 October employers will still need to meet their health and safety obligations.

What happens if employers do not meet their obligations?

If employers do not meet their obligations and employees are concerned for their health and safety they can make a complaint to the Health and Safety Authority. If an employer dismisses an employee because they refused to return to work because of safety concerns, and they can prove that the workplace was unsafe, they can take a complaint for unfair dismissal. However, it is always advisable for employees to engage with their employer or trade union (if available) before taking any formal action.

I’m an employee and I’m worried about returning to the office due to medical concerns. What can I do?

If the employer is fully compliant with all public health guidance, then technically there is no legal basis for an employee to refuse to return to the workplace. However, if an employee has a medical concern, the employer is potentially opening themselves up to a legal risk if they refuse to engage with that employee. In this case, it is important that the employer responds reasonably to the employees request and engages with them in a reasonable fashion. The employee should also very clearly articulate the specific issue they have and both parties should aim to come to a reasonable solution.  

What about the Right to Request Remote Work?

There is legislation planned for the right to request remote work which will provide a framework around which requesting, approving or refusing such a request can be based. This will provide legal clarity to employers on their obligations for dealing with such requests. For employees, it will ensure that when an employer denies a request, there are stated reasons for doing so. However, this legislation is still in the planning stages and while it will give employees the right to request remote work, it is very unlikely to place a legal obligation on employers to grant these requests.

Doesn’t the Government have a policy on remote work?

Yes, earlier this year the Government published their National Remote Work Strategy which outlined their commitment to making remote work a permanent part of working life in Ireland after the pandemic. The Government has also published its rural development strategy ‘Our Rural Future’ which pays particular attention to the potential of remote work as a driver of rural and regional development. However, within the latest guidelines on lifting restrictions is also a commitment from the government to pay particular attention to ‘help activity return to city centres’ as workers return to offices.

So, what are employees’ options if their employer is insisting they return to work? 

The first step would be to engage in an open conversation with their employer and there is some good advice out there on how to initiate and manage this discussion. Many employers are open to the idea of remote and hybrid work and are aware of the risks that they will lose their best staff to competitors if they do not make this option available to those who want it.

If the employee has tried everything and the employer is insisting they return to the office, there is always the option of looking elsewhere. They would not be alone – according to research by the Kemmy Business School 40pc of employees agreed or strongly agreed that ‘my future career lies outside of this organisation’. There are 55,000 remote jobs open in Ireland today, this guide outlines how to find them.

Where can I find more information?

Joanne Mangan
Joanne Mangan is Employers Lead at Grow Remote, where she engages with employers at every stage of their remote working journey.