What are the main employment law challenges in the next 12 to 18 months?
Unfortunately, managing redundancy situations will be a key challenge for employers as businesses across the board will have to adapt to change as the economy goes into recession and Government supports expire. Employees who are made redundant will find it more difficult to secure new employment given the weak economy. Employees who successfully challenge their redundancy as an unfair dismissal will receive higher compensation awards as a result. Employers will have to extra take care that their redundancy process including fair selection is robust and properly carried out.
There will also be an increase in other claims especially protected disclosures/ whistleblowing claims where an employee could be awarded compensation up to five years pay if dismissed for making a protected disclosure. A protected disclosure includes wrongdoings in relation to health and safety and would include mismanagement of the COVID-19 Protocols in the workplace.
Employers will also likely face an increased risk of High Court Injunction proceedings if they attempt to exit expensive senior executives without following due process.
Many professional services organisations that have introduced pay cuts and/or cancelled bonuses may see key employees leaving and working in competition, bringing the enforceability of non-compete clauses into sharp focus.
Clearly, managing COVID-19 will be a practical challenge for employers. As lockdown measures have eased, employers in Ireland have grappled with the logistics of returning their staff to the workplace. Protecting the health and safety of the workforce presents a significant challenge as risk assessments are carried out to ensure the workplace is COVID- secure.
Business continuity is a top priority for employers as local lockdowns and the potential for a second wave present further challenges for employers as additional restrictions are implemented.
There may also be an increase in COVID related claims, including claims for breach of contract, unfair dismissal, unlawful deductions from wages and an avalanche of requests from employees to continue working from home especially employees with young children. Employers may also see an increase in discrimination claims. Clinically vulnerable individuals are at greater risk of the virus, including pregnant women, older workers and workers with certain disabilities. Employers may be challenged over what steps have been taken to protect these groups during the pandemic.
Mental health is also likely to be a priority for employers in Ireland and support should be offered to the workforce to help protect their mental well-being.
Many businesses have had to adapt rapidly to working from home during the pandemic. Do you think flexible/home working will increase in the future?
Certainly, there will be an increase in flexible and home working with many employees interested in a hybrid solution where they may work from home for part of the week but also be able to work in the office to better connect with colleagues and do tasks which are more suitable to an office environment.
The pandemic has forced employers and employees to embrace flexible/home working. The current situation has provided an unprecedented trial period for a new way of working. Technology has undoubtedly played its part in facilitating successful arrangements, with virtual meetings becoming the new norm. Employers may well be questioning the necessity to keep large-scale city centre premises when the agile arrangements have worked well.
Employers will need to strike a balance. The benefits of agile working need to be weighed against the benefits of an office based environment. Many employees have struggled with isolation and virtual conferencing fatigue when working at home and crave the social interaction which accompanies an office environment. As identified above, mental health is a major concern for employers and can be difficult to monitor when the workforce is home based. Employers should ensure risk assessments are conducted to check on employees' health and safety when working from home.
What opportunities do you see for the future arising out of the pandemic?
Many employers in Ireland are taking the opportunity to diversify their business and re-skill and re-train their workforce. Adapting to the new challenges in an innovative and dynamic way can present employers with new business opportunities.
There will be cost savings for employers if their requirement for expensive office space is reduced due to increased home working.
Employee loyalty, moral and productivity will improve in many organisations where employees are given more flexibility to work from home. A foundation of trust has been built in many work environments, together with a sense of collaboration where employers and employees have worked together to keep the business viable and to keep everyone safe. This loyalty should help employers move forward in a flexible and dynamic way.