Q&A: What are the new guidelines around the phased return to the workplace?

Government’s ‘transitional protocol’ provides guidance for firms and employees

As of January 24th, the requirement to work from home unless you need to attend your workplace came to an end, which means a phased return to the workplace is underway for thousands of organisations and their employees.

The “great return” is proceeding against a backdrop where some of the basic public health measures have been removed, including the requirement that people indoors be two metres apart and wear masks, although masks remain obligatory in certain specified settings.

The Government on Monday published a "transitional protocol" to provide guidance as the return to the workplace gathers apace.

Can I return to my old desk in my office and resume working exactly the way I used to up to March 2020?


No. Although a lot of the restrictive measures introduced for public health reasons have been eased, the overarching message is that workplaces and workers need to continue to take steps to limit the circulation of the virus.

So handwashing, being extra careful when you cough or sneeze, getting rid of used tissues safely and making sure your workplace is adequately ventilated, are all still advised.

Crucially, any worker who develops Covid-19 symptoms should stay away from work, as should anyone who has tested positive for the virus. This applies to everyone, irrespective of whether they are fully vaccinated or not.

What does that mean for employers?

It means that they have to continue to take steps to help ensure that the spread of the virus is contained. Among the measures mentioned in the protocol are the displaying of signs that advise on best practice in relation to Covid-19, ensuring that the facilities are available for good hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene practices, and continuing to provide hand sanitisers at entry and exit points.

Employers are also being advised to keep in place some of the structures they may have already established, such as having a designated “leader worker representative” and Covid response management team in place to deal with the implementation of the organisation’s Covid measures and dealing with potential outbreaks.

What about desks?

It is no longer required that people be two metres apart or that there be pods of six people in indoor gatherings, but the health advice is that adopting physical distance measures is still good practice.

So employers, and employees, are being advised to keep this in mind when returning to desk work in open-plan offices, and likewise when attending meetings or training sessions.

Ventilation, good hand and respiratory hygiene, and regular cleaning of worktops, are all still highly advisable and valuable. Workplaces with hot desks should have adequate cleaning materials on hand for before and after use by each employee.

What about masks?

Everyone is still required to wear a mask on public transport, in healthcare settings, taxis, public offices and shops, as well as when working with food or in places that serve food and drink. In other settings, they are no longer required.

But the public health advice is that it is still good practice to continue to wear face masks in other indoor settings too, particularly in crowded ones, so workers and employers might still consider it a good idea to promote face covering in the workplace.

Employers should continue to support those workers who want to continue using face coverings, the protocol states. Also special measures should be put in place for people who are high risk or especially vulnerable. A fitness to work medical risk assessment may be required in some instances, and these may lead to some workers being advised to wear surgical or FFP2 masks.

What should happen if a worker develops symptoms while at work?

Persons who develop symptoms should be quickly isolated from their colleagues and workplaces should identify a designated isolation area, the route to which should be easily accessible. Medical grade masks should be available for those who develop symptoms while in the workplace, and plans put in place for how such persons are to be managed.

Do organisations still have to keep a log of everyone who enters a workplace?

According to the protocol, the need to maintain a contact log with details of workers and visitors to a workplace has been removed. But it also says employers may need to provide attendance information in the event of the public health authorities having to investigate an outbreak. So strictly no, but if being prudent, yes.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent