5 tips for planning your return to the workplace

22 Sep 2021 Alex Hastings    Last updated: 22 Sep 2021

Returning to the workplace image

While the NI Executive's recent guidance remains to work from home, it also encouraged employers 'to plan for a return to the workplace'. This article provides guidance on how organisations can prepare for this. 

Latest NI Executive Guidance on coronavirus restrictions and implications for employers

As we see the furlough scheme coming to an end on 30 September 2021, other changes may also be afoot as on 6 September 2021, the NI Executive released their statement outlining some relaxations to the Coronavirus Regulations.  The full guidance document supporting the announcement can be found here on Department of Health website. The statement included the following comment on the stipulation to work from home:

'While the message to work from home where possible and appropriate remains, the Executive would encourage employers to plan for a return to the workplace with consideration of mitigations to control the spread of the virus and engagement with employees and their representatives on the beneficial use of flexible working where appropriate.'

With this in mind, employers who have been able to continue to facilitate home working, may now wish to start planning for a return to premises. We have outlined five key steps to take now in preparation for a change in the guidance and what the return to workplaces might involve. 

1. Are your workplace premises Covid safe?

Over the last year at NICVA we have spent a lot of time carrying out and reviewing Covid risk assessments and developing and revising our protocols to ensure the safety of all those coming into our building. We have included links to our own documentation along with links to other practical resources on our website. In preparation for a return to workplace premises, now is a good time to review these documents, the measures and mitigations in place and to communicate these with your staff, volunteers and visitors. NIbusinessinfo have excellent resources available. 

2. Will you introduce a workplace testing and/or vaccine policy?

NI Direct has information on Covid workforce testing for workplaces of 10 or more employees and it may be that your risk assessment identifies whether or not this is a necessary or helpful mitigation that you wish to have in place. Another factor may be to consider the introduction of a policy on vaccinations. Whether you will or won't adopt such a policy will depend very much on the nature of the work your employees and volunteers carry out. The LRA (Labour Relations Agency) have helpfully developed a Guide to the Covid Vaccination and the Workplace which contains a policy template for employers.

The ICO (Information Commissioner's Office) gives exceptionally clear guidance to inform your decision making on this matter, including answering specific questions about whether or not you can ask employees about their vaccine status, what the lawful basis might be and recording the information which would be considered to be an individual's 'private health information'.

3. Talk to your staff and think about a gradual return

Some organisations will have already asked their staff, via surveys and/or staff meetings what might be important to them when the employer considers implementing a plan for returning to workplace premises. Asking for and receiving this feedback will be helpful to your planning to look at both the organisational requirements and individual circumstances which may be taken into account. Assume nothing, as some may be relishing the idea of a return to premises, while others may enjoy working from home/remotely and are seeking a balance of time in and out of the workplace/other locations. Clearly communicating all Covid safety measures in place during this staff engagement process is also incredibly important. 

As some team members may not have been back to the workplace since the first lockdown, it may be helpful to facilitate access for some to come into the workplace to see all the measures in place and get a feel for the changes. This approach could be incorporated as part of a gradual return. 

4. Full return, agile or hybrid...consider all options

In recent months the media has been full of coverage about what some larger organisations are planning for (PWC, Morgan Stanley, Amazon, Google to name a few), with some opting for a full return to the workplace, some reducing their office space and going fully agile, whilst some might fall somewhere in between. Many plans have changed and therefore flexibility is key. The option of a mix of working both remotely and in the workplace is known as hybrid/blended working and ACAS provides a summary of what hybrid working is and how it might be implemented. Agile working provides emphasis to the activity not the place or time that work is carried out. No one size fits all, so it is important to explore all the options before deciding what approach works best for the nature of the work and service delivery in your organisation. If continuing with some or all home working, the LRA has produced a helpful guide.

5. Be flexible, review and adapt

This may be a new approach for your organisation, and as with many change programmes, it may take time to work out how well it is going. Therefore it may be prudent to implement a pilot or trial of an approach you think might work, rather than developing a finite policy position. Whilst the initial working from home directive happened without any planning, now is the time when employers can take a more proactive step in designing the best ways of working from now on, perhaps incorporating some of the positive and beneficial working practices of the last 18 months into new ways of working.  Using a trial/pilot approach will enable time to review the approach and the ability to adapt it based on how well it is working in practice. 

NICVA's approach and request for other organisations to share theirs

Like many employers, at NICVA we are currently reviewing our own working practices and approach to our potential return to the NICVA building. When we have an agreed approach in place, we will share that on our website. To help share best practice and the variety of approaches being taken by organisations in the sector, we would ask any VCSE organisations who have developed a new way of working such as hybrid or agile, or who will return fully to the workplace, to get in touch with us so we can share your story to help others navigate this new path. You can contact me via email [email protected] or call 028 9087 7777.

alex.hastings@nicva.org's picture
by Alex Hastings

Human Resources Manager

[email protected]

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