Key considerations for returning to the workplace

Jun 05, 2020

As public health restrictions begin to ease, how can organisations make their workplace safe for employees? Sonya Boyce outlines the key priorities that organisations must consider before staff return.

Ireland has now entered the next phase of lifting the public health restrictions that were put in place to protect our nation’s health. As many employers begin to make strides towards returning to the workplace, there are a significant number of factors to consider.

Update internal policies

The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and Health Services Executive (HSE) published a Return to Work Safely Protocol (protocol) as the set of guidelines and measures for organisations to follow. Compliance with the protocol is mandatory and it will be enforced by the HSA under existing legislation.

All organisations must update their policies to reflect the changes required for containing and restricting the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. It is important to circulate the updated policies to staff in advance of returning to the workplace to ensure that all employees are familiar with their obligations and the measures put in place to protect them. Having clear, up-to-date policies ensures that there is no ambiguity in your approach to dealing with COVID-19. Updates should be made to policies around holidays, sick leave, absenteeism management, people with caring responsibilities and remote working, amongst others.

The protocol requires employees to fill in a Return to Work form declaring they have not been in contact with anyone affected by the virus. This form should also contain details regarding the purpose of a contact tracing log which the employer is required to put in place.

Another aspect to be considered is the management of external stakeholders and customers who are on the premises, the procedure to be followed during internal and external meetings within the workplace, and the conduct in communal areas such as kitchens, canteens and tea stations. Employing a COVID-19 Compliance Officer to ensure that policy and procedure is adhered to is also an option.

Maintain workplace hygiene

Organisations should prioritise regular cleaning of the workplace. Ensure contact/touch surfaces such as tabletops, work equipment, door handles, and handrails are always visibly clean, and are cleaned at least twice daily along with the washroom facilities and communal spaces. It is the employer’s responsibility to supply employees with essential cleaning materials such as wipes/disinfection products, paper towels and waste bins/bags to keep their workspaces clean. If employees are required to use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), then they must be trained in the proper use, cleaning, storing and disposal of PPE. Employers are required to ensure employees use the PPE provided.

Provide pre-return training

It is the employer’s responsibility to provide training to employees prior to re-entering the organisation. COVID-19 training must be conducted for all workers to ensure they are aware of:

  • their obligations;
  • the organisation’s updated policies;
  • the way the workspace has been re-organised;
  • working practices and guidance on public health;
  • what to do if they develop COVID-19 symptoms; and
  • points of contact and escalation within the organisation.

It is important to tailor training to your organisation’s specific needs and avoid using generic COVID-19 training.

Implement infrastructure changes 

Since the government guidelines for physical distancing of two metres remains in place, office spaces will need to be re-configured to adhere to this. The concept of staggering employees’ return to the office, whereby half of employees attend the workplace for two or three days per week, or on a week in/week out basis, while others continue to work remotely before rotating for the remainder of the week, may be beneficial to your organisation. This system allows all employees to attend the workplace while ensuring that safe physical distancing (e.g. having every second seat free) can be facilitated.

The pandemic has impacted severely on every part of our society and our economy. We are now entering a new phase and the return to the workplace must be carefully considered.

Sonya Boyce is the Director of HR Consulting at Mazars.