Covid-19: Returning to the workplace safely

In four short months, the world of work has changed dramatically thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of us experienced remote working, changed working conditions, altered hours or even layoffs. But now, as the economy slowly reopens according to the Government’s phased roadmap, employers and employees are slowly returning to the workplace, albeit a very “new normal” type of workplace.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on companies in many different ways,” says Karen Hernandez, Senior Executive, People & Management, at Enterprise Ireland. “As a result, the challenges that companies are facing as employees return to the workplace tend to be different, but in general, there are a number of key considerations that companies will need to address to ensure a safe return to work.”

To help companies navigate their way through these considerations, Enterprise Ireland has produced Covid-19: Return to the Workplace Guide, which can be downloaded on the Globalambition.ie website. This is a practical guide that takes employers through four key areas: the health, safety and wellbeing of employees; employee communication and engagement; resource planning; and data privacy and GDPR. The guide also includes some templates that employers can use within their own business, such as a Pre-Return to Work form.

“The first consideration that employers need to address is the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees,” explains Karen. “The Health & Safety Authority (HSA) has issued the Return to Work Safely Protocol, which supports companies put measures in place that will protect the health and wellbeing of their employees as the economy begins to open up. Measures include completing a Risk Assessment, completing or updating your business’s Covid-19 Response Plan, and asking your employees to fill out a Covid-19 Pre-Return to Work Form.”

The HSA Protocol can look daunting at first, but Joyce Rigby Jones, Joint Managing Director at HR consultancy Voltedge, explains that it’s up to an employer to decide what is right for them. “The HSA Protocol provides a list of guidelines and protocols, and it’s up to each company to look at these and decide what is reasonable and appropriate in their case. But at the same time, as employers, we have to make sure we’re providing a good and safe base for our employees.”

Many guidelines include practical measures such as putting processes into place for suspected Covid-19 cases in the workplace, but another major part of ensuring employees’ health and safety is looking after their wellbeing, as Joyce explains. “We’ve all gone through major stress and there’s been such radical change that every employer has to take  onboard how this has affected employees.

Many employers have put into place an Employee Assistance Programme or Occupational Health Service to help employees with any issues they may encounter. But if you don’t have this, there are other things you can do, such as running wellness sessions or spearheading wellbeing initiatives.

There are some really nice resources on the gov.ie website called In This Together. The HSE website also has a mental health section, which is very useful. And of course, the Enterprise Ireland Covid-19 Return to the Workplace Guide offers some useful ideas such as a buddy system, which can be great for those working remotely. Communication is key – not everyone will be able to return to the workplace so talking to each individual and making them a part of the decision-making process will help their wellbeing and make sure any decision is good for them.”

Communicate, communicate and communicate some more!

The second key consideration identified by Enterprise Ireland is communication, which is essential during a time of so much change. “The HSA has provided guidance on a number of practical measures to enhance communication with your staff as they return to work,” says Karen. “Employers should be looking at all the changes in policies and procedures that must be made and ensure that employees know what they are.

A first step includes putting a Covid-19 Response Team in place, who will be responsible for completing and implementing the business’s Covid-19 Response Plan. At least one worker representative should be appointed, who will work with the team to engage with employees regarding any changes that need to be made as part of the Covid-19 Response Plan. All staff must also be trained.”

Enhanced communication will also help your employees’ wellbeing. “Everything about the workplace will change, from where you enter and exit to where you take your breaks,” explains Fredericka Sheppard, Joint Managing Director at Voltedge. “Change is difficult and it’s up to each employer to implement those changes, map it out, communicate with their employees and communicate again – you cannot communicate too much in this instance.

“Collaboration will bear fruit. You want to know if there are risks or if an employee is nervous about the workplace or feels unsafe. You want your staff working in a safe environment; if you are communicating with your staff through surveys, questionnaires etc on a regular basis, you will get greater engagement with your employees – and we know that in an environment where there is greater engagement, there is greater productivity.”

Successful resource planning

Inevitably, some businesses will have to take a hard look at their company and make some changes. Remote working will become a long-term reality for some companies, while sadly for others, redundancies may have to be implemented. Any changes in resources should be made objectively and with the constraints of employment law in mind. “Given current physical distancing guidelines, it’s highly unlikely that any company will be bringing back their full complement of staff initially,” says Karen. “Businesses will have to look at their resources in line with their business plans and their employees’ needs. For instance, some employees might have underlying health conditions and mightn’t come back into the office at first.”

“Some companies may have to look at restructuring or altering their business,” adds Fredericka. “They must pay attention to the legislation in this area. This hasn’t changed and the crisis won’t excuse you if you don’t do it right.

The Enterprise Ireland Return to the Workplace Guide has some useful information regarding this. Of course there’s a financial impact to this, but you must also remember that there’s a psychological impact too. The staff who are staying may be affected by any redundancies too – and this is talent that you have worked hard to get. Evaluate your business and market; you must keep this under constant review.”

On the other hand, this is a great opportunity to look at the skills of your employees and invest in your talent. “Resilience and good people management have never been more important and we need to support and invest in managers in developing these skills. Your marketplace may have changed, you may have to alter the product you offer – invest in your people to adapt to these changes and you’ll reap the rewards in the future.”

Protect sensitive information

A final key consideration is the tricky issue of GDPR and data protection. The HSA Protocol requires employers to collect information and keep records that could contain potentially sensitive information. It’s imperative that employers only collect the information they need, and that it is stored appropriately.

“GDPR and data security are more vital than ever,” says Karen. “The HSA is asking employers to keep contact logs, and there may be a need for some companies to undertake temperature checking too. There will also be health information included in the Pre-Return to Work Form. Companies need to be very mindful of their obligations under GDPR and data security. They must make sure that any information they request is reasonable and that this information is stored securely.”

These points, and more, are explored and expanded in the Covid-19: Return to the Workplace Guide. Enterprise Ireland has also launched a number of supports for businesses, including the Lean Business Continuity Voucher, which provides companies with up to €2,500 to help them put into place any guidelines or strategies needed before opening up the workplace again. More details can be found at https://globalambition.ie/covid-19/

  • Share this article