By Reagan Nickl
Director of Partner and Customer Success
SpaceIQ

The benefits of open offices are widely proven—it’s why they’re a favorite of innovative companies like Google, Microsoft, JP Morgan Chase, and myriad others. But in the current pandemic climate, the benefits of an open office become its biggest risks. COVID-19 and open office spaces don’t play well together.

Consider what an open-office space is and how it’s meant to function. Open environments foster free-flowing movement from space to space, collaboration between peers, and optimal space. Unfortunately, it’s these things employers need to tamp down during the coronavirus pandemic. The result is a bit of a paradox. How do you keep employees distant and safe in a workplace designed to bring them together?

Social distancing in an open workplace

You can’t isolate in separate cubicles or close the door on a private office space in an open environment. What few, closed-off spaces there are generally represent large conference rooms or group meeting areas. Everything outside of that is open-air collaborative space. Keeping people apart is difficult—but not impossible.

Social distancing guidelines mandate six feet of space between people. Consider your open office space’s layout to determine easy ways to implement distancing. For example, if you use a benching concept, delineate six-foot increments with a strip of tape. For hot desks and independent workstations, move them six feet apart. Look for easy ways to put six feet between people without rearranging too much or deviating too far from your original workplace concept.

In some cases, there’s no escaping a floor plan shakeup. Rather than cordon off entire sections of the workplace, rearrange them in ways that add space without sacrificing utility. Some examples include:

  • Move furniture in breakout spaces to create a six-by-six square
  • Remove seats from dense work areas to decrease capacity and increase space
  • Break up pods or neighborhoods into collaborative spaces with distance built-in

If you’re worried about rearranging the workplace only to soon be changing it back again, remember that the future is uncertain. There’s no telling when employees will return to work in a full capacity or if there will be new workplace safety guidelines when they do. Make changes from a proactive mindset.

Emphasize cleanliness and hygiene 

One of the biggest knocks against the open office has always been hygiene and germ spread. Thankfully, this problem has a simple solution: emphasis on cleanliness and personal hygiene. For most employees, this means no change at all—they already practice these things.

Provide face masks for employees and teach proper fit and use of personal protective equipment (PPE). For those who can’t wear a face mask all day, emphasize respiratory etiquette—coughing and sneezing into the crook of the elbow. Encourage clean workspaces and ask employees to tidy up after themselves throughout the day and before they leave. Advocate frequent hand washing—especially after visits to the bathroom or kitchen.

On the employer side, maintain a clean baseline for your workplace. If you don’t already, schedule frequent janitorial services—weekly, at a minimum. Ensure bathrooms and kitchens always have soap and paper towels, and that these areas receive routine cleaning. In the general workplace, provide hand sanitizer and the means to clean individual workspaces.

Open offices encourage movement. Make sure the space employees arrive at is clean and sanitary, and encourage them to leave it that way for the person who arrives after them.

Recognize congregation areas

With movement comes natural congregation. It’s not just conference rooms and large breakout spaces—thoroughfares and busy junctions in the office tend to naturally amass employees. There are three ways employers can prevent congregation and comply with distancing guidelines:

  • Create more thoroughfares to prevent employees from bumping into each other
  • Create one-way traffic patterns to prevent cross traffic in the workplace
  • Place signage in common areas reminding employees not to linger

The goal isn’t to stop collaboration; it’s to encourage distance. Emphasize the other ways to communicate in the office—phone, messaging apps, video chats, and collaborative documents. Keep an eye on natural convergence areas to ensure employees are mindful of social distancing, and make adjustments to prevent bottlenecks and congregation.

Go against the open-office theme 

The temporary workplace measures COVID-19 warrants are tough to execute in an open-office space—but not impossible. Employers need to create simple rules and provisions that keep people apart, without destabilizing the workplace. Create thoroughfares to control workplace traffic. Emphasize hygiene and cleanliness. Encourage common-sense behavior. The adjustments are simple, and can be effective in complying with CDC guidelines on social distancing and workplace safety.

The coronavirus pandemic is a test for the open-office floor plan. Like any true test, it’ll show us what works and what needs improvement, so we can continue to refine the workplace into the best version of itself.

Keep Reading: The latest COVID-19 workplace resources