The Small Firms Association has called for the Return to Work Safely Protocol to be updated to ensure the transition back to the workplace happens safely.

Sue O'Neill told the News at One that it will be great to see a phased return to offices from next month.

The return to offices will get people back into towns, cities and business parks, Ms O'Neill said.

Ms O'Neill said that there is a need to ensure this is done in a safe way and while a lot of companies have invested in safety measures, the Protocol should be updated as it was first issued in May.

"We want to make sure that everyone is following the same protocol so there is no confusion," she stated.

Ms O'Neill said that the pandemic has hastened the move to a "new era of remote or blended working" which has really positive elements, including for talent retention and diversity.

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However she said there are also challenges for employers in relation to equipment and resources, insurance and compliance with data protection laws.

She said the issue of vaccination status is "a tricky issue" for employers as data protection laws prevent them from seeking to know their employees status.

The Small Firms Association has really been encouraging staff to have vaccinations and for everyone to take a positive approach to ensure that everyone is safe going back into work.

Ms O'Neill said it is essential to have full public transport system in place as people return to work, but it may take time for people to feel confident on busy buses or trains.

Meanwhile, the Forsa trade union said the proposed phased return to workplaces must be safe, and should build on the positive pandemic experience of remote or 'blended' working.

The union today said remote working had largely sustained or increased productivity throughout the pandemic, while bringing wider benefits to employers, workers and society.

Fórsa's head of communications, Bernard Harbor, called on the Government and employer representatives to maintain consultation with unions about a safe return to workplaces based on the health and safety measures set out in a Return to Work Safely Protocol published last summer.

"The protocol has worked well and it should continue to ensure that all working environments are safe and compliant with measures necessary to contain the virus and keep workers and others safe," Mr Harbor said.

"Its requirement that employers consult with worker representatives will continue to be an important safeguard as individual employments plan a phased and safe return to the workplace," he added.

Mr Harbor also said the benefits of remote or blended working should not be abandoned.

"State employers should show a lead on remote working, which can bring significant benefits to staff, employers and society while sustaining service quality and productivity," he said.

"We want to see a consistent approach across the civil and public service, with transparency and fairness over access to remote working. We are also seeking adequate protections on working conditions, privacy and data protection, a right to disconnect, and health and safety including mental health," he added.