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The Briefing

Return to the office? It’s still a moving target

Return to the office? It’s still a moving target Banner

by Claire Aiken


It’s becoming increasingly clear that the winding down of remote working will not be so instantaneous.

‘Work from home where possible’ continues to be the message from the NI Executive in light of recent relaxations. For the vast majority, the return–to–office RSVP for employees remains unopened, earmarked to be revisited at a later date.

Remote working is indeed the word of advice in other parts of the UK, though Boris Johnson has recommended a ‘gradual’ return to work for the people of England, where almost all Covid restrictions around mask–wearing and social distancing came to an end on 19th July.

For Northern Ireland, the mandatory return to office is still, for now, a moving target. In truth it has been a continuum of ups and downs. At the outset, many people – employers and employees – questioned the feasibility of long–term remote working, but without a clear end to the pandemic in sight, the world largely settled into a new way of work.

Eighteen months later, and with vaccination rates rising in the developed world, so too are the conversations around vaccines and the workplace, which have become intertwined to the point where, in some cases, employees can’t have one without the other. Entry to the latter may soon depend on uptake of the former.

In the US, California and New York City require state employees to be vaccinated or commit to regular testing with New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio going a step further and making it incumbent on customers and workers at indoor restaurants, bars and gyms to present proof of vaccination. And of course, closer to home we have seen the Irish government placing similar restrictions on the hospitality’s licence to operate.

As for the outlook of business itself, many will inevitably look to the the big players and in global terms there is none bigger than the global tech giants Google and Facebook. Both companies have already drafted targeted vaccination policies, stating that, when US offices are fully reopened, everyone working on–site will have to be vaccinated. Neither company has disclosed whether mandatory inoculation will apply to its worldwide workforce at this stage, but Google CEO Sundar Pichai has told employees that the policy will expand to ‘other regions in the coming months’.

It is still too soon though to gauge reaction to compulsory vaccination and its place in the office. One early indication is the initial response to permanent office work, after a survey from US insurer Prudential found that 42% of remote workers would seek a new job entirely if they were asked to return to the office full–time.

While the transition from office to home occurred almost overnight, and the hybrid model is the way forward for many, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the winding down of remote working will not be so instantaneous.

Businesses are now having to grapple with what their future model of work is, seeking buy–in from staff, and addressing that potentially thorny issue of staff vaccination. In England, Covid jabs are set to become mandatory for care home staff from 11th November, though Robin Swann has said there are no such plans here.

It is this differentiation, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, where employers will have to exercise care. Belfast based commercial and employment lawyer Seamus McGranaghan from O’Reilly Stewart has said that there are a range of issues that firms here will need to step through, and not just in relation to vaccines, to ensure they adhere to local COVID guidance and legislation or risk facing legal action from employees.

“Northern Ireland’s guidelines continue to be different than those in England and appropriate steps should be taken in advance of the return to offices, be it a phased return or a hybrid model. While the implications will not be relevant to all sectors, risk assessments will inform company policies around social distancing and mask wearing, with procedures in place in the event of a positive test. On the basis of the recent amended regulations, if an employer risk assesses and requires an employee to stay home, if that employee cannot work from home, the employer may be liable for payment of that employee’s salary whilst they are required to self–isolate.”

There have been a growing number of cases in England, according to Seamus, where only those employees who have been vaccinated are permitted to return to the office. Another caveat to consider is that an employer may also be entitled to ask the employee for proof they have received both doses. Careful consideration is needed, then, around staff inoculations and the equality issues that may arise. This would include pregnant employees, for example, or disability discrimination for someone unable to take a vaccine due to medical reasons, as well as religious or philosophical belief due to contents of vaccines.

Back in March 2020, on that never to be forgotten Monday evening when Boris Johnson gave his COVID state of the nation address, businesses were immediately on the front foot pivoting like never before to implement unprecedented operational change. As we come out the other side of the most harrowing eighteen months of a generation, businesses will need every ounce of that skillset, resilience and focus to re–emerge and settle on a new way of working that protects and reflects the expectations and rights of all their staff.