The evenings are starting to take shape again.
Advertisements for “Back to School” products are populating the airwaves.
The All-Ireland finals begin.
September brings familiar traits, but the question many employers and workers face this year is will it bring the familiarity of a return to work?
Much of the workforce continues to work from home, as they have done for the past 18 months since the start of the pandemic.
While many will have had to overcome hiccups, especially at the beginning, the mass and real-life public experience that operated from a distance seems to have been surprisingly positive for many people and businesses.
But with vaccination levels among the adult population now exceeding 90%, swathes of people are tired of staring at the peeling wallpaper in the guest bedroom office or the grimy floor tiles under the floor. desk off the kitchen table and yearn for at least some time back. at the office every week.
Some employers also want to reintegrate their staff into empty buildings on which they continue to pay rent, where they can better interact, promote training, learning and innovation and develop culture.
Those whose businesses depend on the activity of other businesses, such as caterers, office suppliers, cleaners, maintenance technicians, local stores, restaurants and cafes, also want to see the action.
The advice remains the same – for now
Yet, just over a week into early September, the official government advice remains that people should continue to work from home, unless it is necessary for them to travel to the workplace in anybody.
This despite continued hints from ministers and a working hypothesis in government circles that September is still the month when the return to office is likely to begin, as immunization levels soar.
At the end of last month, Transport Minister Eamon Ryan told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland that he expects people to return to the office in a “gradual and safe” manner in September, as it was important for mental health.
Even in June, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar reported that RTO, as it became known, could even start in August – something that most of us know has yet to happen.
It is still unclear whether the NPHET, the Cabinet Committee on Covid-19 and the government as a whole will press the button to get workers back to their desks.
The high levels of vaccination have been accompanied by an increase in the number of cases of the Delta variant of Covid and an increase in the number of people hospitalized and in intensive care with the virus.
Government sources said there was so far no indication that the public health situation had altered September’s measure.
But on Thursday night’s Six One News show, the Taoiseach didn’t reveal much.
He said a comprehensive roadmap, covering all sectors, is being developed which will clarify all areas, including entertainment and business sectors, and will be released after the cabinet meeting on August 31. .
If that widens the door to reopening workplaces in September, it won’t give employers much notice.
Last week, Ibec said the broader business community was disappointed with the continued lack of any timelines to help companies get staff safely back to the workplace.
Some employers have already followed the lead of Facebook and Apple in the United States, which have told staff they won’t be returning to the office until at least January 2022.
However, many more are eagerly awaiting advice from the authorities.
This is because a lot of things need to be considered and implemented before RTO can begin.
The main one is the question of the vaccination status of the employees.
The government has made it clear that just as it is not mandatory to be vaccinated here, it will also not be legally necessary to have had a vaccine to return to work.
It will also create a dilemma for employers.
On the one hand, they have a duty of care to make workplaces safe for all employees – vaccinated or not.
Yet, on the other hand, it is not legally allowed, under equality or data protection rules, for them to insist that workers tell them if they have received the jab (s). ) or not.
This is clearly an issue that exercises business owners. A recent survey by HRLocker of 600 business leaders in Ireland found that 71% of 600 respondents felt that legal restrictions on checking employee vaccination status created significant challenges for them.
Just over half said it would likely delay their plans to reopen their offices, 86% said it resulted in increased costs for legal and health advice and one in three said it had a negative impact on employee relations.
But interestingly, less than 10% said they plan to make vaccinations mandatory for staff and only 15% said they would be willing to fire a member of their staff who refused to be vaccinated.
Some leading international companies, like Google and Qantas for example, have already publicly told their staff that they will not be allowed to return to their offices unless they are vaccinated.
Others here, especially small employers, are likely to be much more cautious for fear of the legal consequences of a mistake.
A clear balance will need to be struck between the obligations of employers and the rights of employees – but achieving this will likely require guidance from the government, which has so far been lacking.
But immunization status isn’t the only hurdle that will need to be overcome before workers can return to the office.
The physical layout of many pre-Covid offices will not be adapted to the global post-pandemic requirements of distancing, ventilation, good hygiene and one-way systems and will require remodeling.
And while a significant number of companies have likely figured out where they and their staff stand in the future remote-to-office debate, others cannot.
It appears from numerous surveys conducted on the subject that the vast majority of employees in most companies want a hybrid working model consisting of a few days at the office and the rest at home.
But some international companies, like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs for example, have already told staff to prepare to return to the office.
Others, especially in the tech realm, like Twitter for example, told employees that it suited the function and location, that they could continue to work remotely forever.
However, most companies are likely to fall somewhere in between these extremes and putting the building blocks in place for a permanent hybrid working model will not be easy.
The government supports the idea in political terms through its national remote work strategy.
However, its implementation will require legislation, funding and other longer-term requirements.
What companies need right now is clarity and a plan, so they can put in place their own policies governing the return of staff to the workplace.
Will this happen in September? Everything should be revealed at the end of the month.