Braving a safe return to work for Ireland’s office workers
Covid-19 gave us the longest OOO notification in history. Ibec is helping businesses get ready to return with smart strategies and helpful advice
“Office working is good for collaboration and for the creativity that social interaction sparks. Each organisation needs to find the right balance,” says Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec. Photograph: Getty Images
All over Ireland employers who closed their offices for the pandemic are starting to think about reopening them. When they do, it won’t mark a return to business as usual. Covid-19 will permanently change attitudes to the way we work.
We know this because that’s precisely what happened in the last pandemic, explains Michael Gillen of Ibec, the employers’ organisation.
As Ibec’s senior occupational health and safety policy executive, Gillen contributed to the Ibec submission into the Government’s national Return to Work Safely Protocol, which is designed to help employers put measures in place to prevent the spread of the virus.
“One result of the last major global pandemic, in 1918, was the introduction of the five-day working week. There was a realisation that people need time off for their health, something that simply hadn’t been considered before,” he says.
Ibec has surveyed its members throughout the current crisis.
“During the emergency phase the advice was that if you can work from home, do so. Now there is a realisation that we will be doing this for some time to come and that we need to work safely in our new environments,” Gillen says. “This is a very big transition period and it is causing us to question whether we all need to be in the one building, all of the time.”
The answer is, it will depend.
While some people, and organisations, are thriving, others are struggling. “People with young children may be finding it hard to juggle. Single colleagues may find it hard because they miss the social element of work,” he says.
The fact is, when it comes to work, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Neither is it a “binary decision between home and office,” Gillen adds.
There is, however, one growing realisation: “There is no need to bring everyone to a centralised location to work, all the time,” he says.
Greater flexibility opens up enormous benefits, from reduced childcare costs to lower carbon emissions. It also means less traffic congestion.
What Ibec is hearing from its members, “is that, yes, it has been really challenging, but when you can find solutions, there are upsides,” Gillen confirms.
The move towards greater flexibility began in Ibec’s Smarter World, Smarter Work campaign. Launched two years ago, it called for a range of reforms to prepare Ireland for a new era of work prompted by globalisation, rapid digitalisation and changing lifestyles. The pandemic has accelerated its predictions at warp speed.
“We never envisaged a global pandemic but it has given us a sense of what can be done,” says Gillen.
“As a result of Covid-19 we are seeing sustainable solutions being developed. Employers sense that maybe they need to challenge the idea of doing things a certain way simply because that’s the way things have always been done,” he points out.
Ibec’s recent campaign, Reboot and Reimagine, lays out an ambitious Covid-19 national recovery plan, based on insights from hundreds of chief executives.
A centralised office will continue to play a central role for organisations, suggests Gillen. “Many need it for collaborative work and for brainstorming. I know some of my own best ideas come from talking to someone, often in the canteen, outside of the teams I normally work with, so the social benefits of the office shouldn’t be lost,” he says.
Equally, the duties and responsibilities of employers to staff who work from home remain in place under existing health and safety legislation. Staff will need to be trained up to do their own equipment risk and ergonomic assessments.
Working with business owners and HR executives across all sectors allows Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec, to take Ireland’s business pulse on a continual basis.
“Right now there is anticipation as employers and employees alike are quite keen to get back to having some sort of normality in their working lives. Even if there is a different structure to it, people are starting to feel ready,” she says.
[To find out more about how Ibec’s expertise can help your business request a membership quote at ibec.ie]
For employers this phase brings new issues of responsibility. “They have questions around how to manage the return safely, what do we need to know before bringing people back to the office, how to do we sustain compliance, what protocols do we need to put in place so that people feel safe,” she says.
The biggest risk now is complacency. “We need to be able to live with this virus by consistently maintaining our standards,” she says.
Remote working has proved its worth as a business continuity tool, but the pandemic has also raised consciousness of the additional benefits it brings, such as wider access to talent, reduced absenteeism, and greater opportunities for diversity and inclusion.
It also helps in recruitment and retention situations where someone’s partner is reluctant to move for a job, or where, “a person loves where they live, but wants a job in a place they don’t,” she says.
Remember, the pandemic has given people an unnatural experience of remote working. “What we have yet to learn is how to work remotely in normal circumstances. When the children are gone, the house is empty and the neighbours on the road are all back at work, it might feel different,” McElwee points out.
The virus has had a devastating impact on human health and taken an enormous toll on business. It has also prompted some positive lessons about how we work.
“We have seen that the organisations with the strongest cultures work best as teams, that some people who were really worried about technology have learned that what is coming is not scary after all, and that, in fact, we have coped really well,” she says.
“Amidst all the angst and the challenge,” she says, “there are positives we can take from this.”
5 steps to a safe return to the office
1. Consult the national Return to Work Safely Protocol
Available at gov.ie, “it applies across all sectors and industries and, while every organisation will need to develop their own detail, it’s a great place to start,” says Maeve McElwee, director of employer relations at Ibec.
2. Provide induction
For people who have been working remotely and out of circulation for some time, induction training will be important to build confidence, she says. It supports the primary protocols of hand washing, respiratory etiquette and social distancing, and ensures people understand what to do if they feel unwell.
3. Customise your plan
“Every organisation will layer their own detail on top of the protocol, perhaps by introducing a one way system where people enter via one door and leave via another, or introducing staggered opening hours or shift changes,” she says.
4. Small is mighty
Where possible, “ensure people work in pods, reducing the number of people they interact with each day to reduce the risk of transmission,” she suggests.
5. Crank up the canteen
If you have a canteen, consider opening it. “This can help prevent congestion in public spaces outside and reduce flows of people through the main entrances and exits at peak times of the day. We know that it is easier to manage those challenges within a building,” says McElwee.
To find out more about how Ibec’s expertise can help your business, request a membership quote at ibec.ie.