Return to the office: New guidelines urge employers to take cautious approach

Advice stresses need for consultation and support for staff

The Government is urging employers to adopt a cautious approach to the return to workplaces, stressing a gradual process, consultation with worker representatives, permanent hybrid working arrangements where appropriate and supports for employees nervous about the return to the office.

New advice issued on Monday said employers may wish to keep some Covid rules in place for now.

They are not obliged to retain contact details of all office visitors but employers may need to provide attendance information to health officials in the event of a Covid outbreak in the workplace, the protocol states.

The new guidelines issued on Monday by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment contain advice for both workers and employers after the emergency recommendation to work from home was lifted earlier this month.


“The pandemic is not over and the emergence of new variants with increased levels of transmissibility, immune escape and/or virulence remains a risk both nationally and globally,” the document states.

The protocol urges employers to maintain constant contact with unions and employee representatives as the return to the workplace is rolled out.

“The requirements to maintain a two metre physical distance and to adopt pods of six for indoor events have been removed,” it states.

“However, public health advice for the individual and for sectors notes that adopting a physical distance continues to be good practice. Employers may choose to maintain some of the practices or arrangements that were in place based on the Work Safely Protocol for the period of transition back to office working. In meetings, events or training, the continued focus on hand and respiratory etiquette and adequate ventilation are all measures that may continue.”

Covid controls

It also says that maintaining some Covid controls “will also enable workplaces, employers and employees respond quickly should the public health advice change or should Covid-19 levels increase in the future”.

It is advisable to continue to use face masks in many instances, the document continues. Even outside areas such as retail and public transports where masks are still required, it says, “it is still good practice to continue to use face masks/coverings particularly in crowded areas”.

“Workers who use or share work vehicles may also consider using a face mask/covering. Individuals at high or very high risk should also follow public health advice in relation to mask wearing, including wearing a surgical or FFP2 mask when in crowded indoor settings . . . Employers should continue to support and facilitate the use of face masks by workers who may wish to continue to use them.”

It also says that the “rapid self-isolation” of anyone who develops symptoms, even if they are fully vaccinated and boosted, remains a “critical component” of the response to Covid.

Employers should also pay special attention to people who are anxious about the return to the office, it says, adding “employers should consult and address concerns where appropriate”.

The document also stresses that Government policy is to promote remote working where appropriate for employers and workers.

The Labour Party says it plans to publish this week a Private Members’ Bill that would provide workers with “a right to flexible work”.

The party’s spokesperson on workers’ rights, Senator Marie Sherlock, accused the Government of lacking ambition on promoting remote working.

“It is staring an opportunity in the face to breathe new life into our towns and villages, while freeing up space in our cities so young workers are no longer forced out of the communities they grew up in,” she said.

On Saturday, the number of people being treated for Covid-19 in Irish hospitals dropped to its lowest level so far this year, with 649 people then hospitalised for the virus. Daily case figures are no longer released at the weekend by the Department of Health.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times