As published in the Business Post, September 13th 2020.

The current situation, where millions of employees are working from home, looks unlikely to change any time soon. So what steps can employers take to plan for this new long-term reality?

What a difference a year makes. This time 12 months ago, employers and employees alike had no idea of the upheaval that was to come.

We are now six months into a dramatically changed working environment that continues to evolve. Much work is going into finding a COVID-19 vaccine, but until one is developed and made widely available, we need to accept that the current situation is unlikely to change.

For that reason, it's interesting to make some educated guesses as to where employers will find themselves in September 2021 and how they should prepare for what lies ahead.

The most obvious consequence of COVID-19 is the dramatic change in how we work. While certain sectors - construction, retail and hospitality, for example - are locked to a particular location, the same is not true for many others.

There is every chance that millions of employees will still be working from home by this time next year, even if a safe vaccine is discovered in the meantime.

The longer home working continues, the more difficult it will be to change. Any employer with an eye on the future should plan accordingly.

Employees are already seeing the benefits in terms of reduced or cancelled commutes, convenience and more time to spend with family.

Employers, in turn, are hopefully seeing a more motivated workforce and greater productivity.

International tech companies based in Ireland have already announced that their employees can work from home for the foreseeable future, and they are by no means outliers.

So what should employers be thinking about, and planning for, now?

1. To begin with, it's worth remembering the employer's obligation to maintain a safe place of work exists, irrespective of whether an employee is working from home or in a physical office.

All Irish employers have a duty to identify hazards and assess risks in the workplace, and to take whatever steps are necessary to reduce or eliminate them.

Obviously, particularly in the case of larger organisations, it is going to be extremely difficult to carry out bespoke health-and-safety inspections in individual employees' homes.

An employer with an eye on 2021 should instead think about practical ways to ensure health and safety.

They could, for example, circulate dedicated remote-working policies providing guidance on safe working.

A prudent employer will, similarly, invest in home office equipment, particularly ergonomic-friendly chairs.

Other practical steps might include checking in regularly with staff, circulating questionnaires and reminding employees of the need to take work breaks. All of these steps will go a long way towards forestalling problems.

2. Employers should place an emphasis on the security of data. The risks of sensitive data being seen by unwelcome eyes is obviously greater in circumstances where employees are working from multiple locations.

Again, simple precautionary steps are key. Employers should ask themselves whether their data security is adequate?

Do employees know that the onus is on them to ensure that devices are kept securely? Are there disaster recovery plans in place?

3. One thing to remember is that, even with the majority of workers at home for the majority of the time, a physical office will likely still be necessary.

Certain client meetings, to take an obvious example, will need to be face to face.

Employers need to ensure that the physical office is COVID-19-compliant. As well as that, moving to a system of hot-desking will take time to implement, so why not start planning now?

4. Employers should also think in more nebulous terms. We moved, practically overnight, from an environment in which staff met colleagues every day to one in which they are working in isolation. If remote working continues to be the norm, this is likely to continue.

The advantages of remote working shouldn't be underestimated, but neither should the disadvantages.

Clinical psychologists worldwide have flagged the risks of isolation and, again, there are simple and practical steps employers can take to alleviate those risks.

These include actively encouraging staff to socialise, even remotely. There's no reason why employers can't regularly schedule Zoom or Teams meetings purely for the purpose of catching up, for example.

Similarly, subject to social-distancing rules, employers should consider regular in-person meetings at their premises.

Replicating the social aspects of the office, while more challenging than in the past, is by no means impossible.

Times of adversity always bring sweeping change with them, and COVID-19 is proving to be no exception. That said, even if we are in a brave new world in September 2021, it doesn't have to be a daunting one.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.