3 tips for SMEs managing a successful return to the office

Here we go again! It’s (finally) time to get back to the office. Employment law expert Deirdre Malone from EY gives advice for SMEs aiming for a successful return

After what may seem like many false starts, we can start the return journey to the office again.

While many organisations have created and re-created well prepared plans for this moment, it is still a challenge for employers to manage the return process with ever-changing rules.

“The market for talent is buoyant and people are moving at pace, so listening to them and accommodating their requests for blended working arrangements will be critical to talent retention”

From risk assessments and training necessities, to understanding the desires and requirements of employees in this new post-Covid world, there are many considerations to take into account. For now, the key question is how to achieve a seamless return to the office, without losing productivity and keeping everyone happy. 

The Work Safely Protocol was first published in May 2020. Its latest edition contains the most recent public health advice and continues to apply.

Hand in hand with the Protocol, employers must now comply with the “Transitional Protocol”, a new guidance tool for employers on best practice to support workers in the journey back to the office. It answers many of the questions posed by employers over the last few days in response to the immediate lifting on many restrictions earlier this month. 

To ensure that SMEs are on track for a successful return, we have compiled a list of our top three tips below.

1. Communication is key

Regardless of the size of your business, the importance of communication and engagement remain the key factors to a successful return. Employers must actively engage with employees and/or nominated Lead Worker Representatives (LWRs) to ensure that everyone knows the plan for returning to the office, how it works, and what’s expected of people coming into the office. Employees must be given a way to share their concerns. This will take time, and no one size fits all. The Transitional Protocol focuses on individual risk assessments and recognises that many workers are concerned about an immediate return.

Be open, honest and clear with the workforce about your short-term plan. Explain that it will evolve as the business beings to understand everyone’s personal circumstances and starts to work with people to accommodate concerns and requests. Although no longer needed, some employers are keeping practices such as physical distancing and mask wearing requirements in the office for February 2022. Other steps include preparing a phased timetable for the next few weeks so that workers can make arrangements and have certainty about when they need to attend in person.

2. Health & Safety

The Transitional Protocol helpfully confirms that a strong focus on infection prevention measures remains. It can be daunting for employers in SMEs to assimilate the deluge of information published, but in summary, the critical components of a Covid response plan still apply with some minor tweaks.

By way of example, employers do not need to have a contact tracing log but may need to produce attendance information in the event of a breakout. The role of LWR continues to be an important means of engaging with workers. Employers are advised to update their risk assessments and safety statements and should continue to maintain measures to deal with a suspected case on site.  There is no obligation to abandon the Work Safely Protocol. If it helps workers (following engagement) to alleviate concerns, it may be worthwhile continuing some of the previous measures while people settle back.

3. New ways of working

The market for talent is buoyant and people are moving at pace, so listening to them and accommodating their requests for blended working arrangements will be critical to talent retention.

SMEs are likely to receive lots of questions regarding remote working opportunities. The government has published the draft scheme for legislation to govern remote working requests. It is not law, but it gives a flavour of the structure that will be used for remote working applications. Indications from government suggest that the final legislation will not be as pro-employer, so it is important to keep up to date with the latest information on this.

The majority of contracts of employment expressly state that the “workplace” is at the employer’s premises. However, it is a new world, with the Transitional Protocol emphasising to employers to work on their long-term plan for blended or ‘hybrid’ working life.

Last year, the Government published a code of practice on the right to disconnect. The remote working legislation is weeks away. Further legislation on work/life balance and flexibility must be implemented in Ireland by August 2022. Sensible employers are recognising the need to bring all of this together and provide employees with flexibility to achieve a sustainable workforce. The time has come to build hybrid working policies that work, keeping the legislative landscape in mind.

So, it’s finally here – get ready to spend some time engaging with individual requests and circumstances. Keep an open mind and embrace the long-awaited “new” normal.

Deirdre Malone
Deirdre Malone is Associate Partner and Head of Employment Law at EY Law Ireland