By Dave Clifton
Content Strategy Specialist

How to implement social distancing in offices is an obstacle almost every traditional employer faces right now. The need to keep people apart while encouraging them to do their best work is no small challenge. It takes a sweeping approach and attention to detail to do social distancing right in the workplace. Employers need a framework to understand, execute, communicate, and uphold distancing protocols.

Companies can benefit from a phase-by-phase rollout plan for social distancing. Not only does this connect the dots between theory and action for employees, it creates a framework for cooperation. When employees understand the changes in their workplace, they’re more likely to abide by them.

Here’s a look at an effective five-phase rollout plan that can help any business bring social distancing policies to its workplace—one important step at a time.

Phase I: Develop clear expectations

If you don’t set expectations, it’s not reasonable to expect change in your workplace. Before you roll out any social distancing policies or workplace alterations, get leadership together to develop core goals. Reflect on what it means to keep your employees safe.

  • What are CDC, WHO, and OSHA guidelines for workplace distancing?
  • What challenges do you face in your specific workplace?
  • What policies changes or physical modifications do you need to make?
  • Who’s affected by these changes and who needs to change their habits?

Leadership should walk away with a clear set of expectations every employee needs to follow, beyond just “practice social distancing.” Be specific. Set thresholds for occupancy, develop procedures for common-use areas, and provide alternative suggestions for workplace interaction. If you want employees to abide by expectations, set them.

Phase II: Communicate expectations

Take your clear set of expectations for social distancing at work and communicate them broadly and consistently across your workforce. There shouldn’t be any confusion or misunderstanding.

  • Email expectations and social distancing guidelines to all employees
  • Have department heads host one-on-one chats or group meetings
  • Post signage and rules in areas where changes are in effect
  • Provider reminders and suggestions for employees

It’s going to take time for employees to break old habits and adopt new social distancing guidelines. The best way to expedite that process and remove tension and friction is to clearly and frequently communicate new expectations. Be consistent with your communications and take a positive tone to encourage compliance. It’s an adjustment for everyone—make sure employees see your efforts as helpful, not strictly consequential.

Phase III: Reconfigure the workplace

Show employees your commitment to new social distancing expectations through physical examples of change in the workplace. As the physical workplace around them changes, employees will change with it.

  • Develop an office seating chart using social distancing best practices
  • Rearrange furniture and amenities to promote distance in common areas
  • Create one-way traffic in the workplace and eliminate bottlenecks
  • Implement new occupancy thresholds and utilization requirements

Change in the workplace adds a level of realness to new social distancing guidelines. For example, if the break room’s occupancy is limited to five instead of 10, it encourages employees to think twice about proximity in other areas of the workplace. Physical change can be a catalyst for changes in habit, which puts employees on-track to better compliance with new social distancing guidelines.

Phase IV: Create distancing protocols

Employees might not naturally adapt to physical workplace changes, which makes it important to develop new protocols that complement them. Alongside new expectations and a new workplace layout, new protocols govern how employees can achieve social distancing in the workplace.

  • Best practices for using communal and shared workspaces
  • Alternative opportunities for collaboration in a socially distant workplace
  • Technology solutions that displace in-person interactions
  • Ways to interact with the workplace while staying mindful of distance

Every new protocol needs education to accompany it. Here’s what we used to do, here’s what we’re doing now, and here’s why. Connect the dots between old standards and new expectations. Some changes will come more naturally than others, and some employees will adapt more quickly than their peers. Reinforce new protocols across the board to expedite the time it takes to turn your workplace into a safer, more socially distant one.

Phase V: Promote accountability

The final piece of the puzzle is accountability. While it’s unlikely employees will openly rebel against new policies enacted for their health, reluctance to adapt is real. Guide employees through the changes and create consequences where needed. Be mindful that the intent isn’t to punish employees for non-compliance—it’s to reinforce the importance of new policies and encourage them to adopt them.

Workplace distancing isn’t only about staying six feet apart—it’s about knowing how and why to keep that distance. Employers need to provide both the means to distance (new floor plans, policies and utilization of workplace social distancing software) and the incentive to do so (communication and accountability). The key to success is the slow indoctrination of distancing and socially distant habits into workplace culture. When it’s part of the culture, it becomes second-nature to employees.

Use this road map to bring social distancing to your workplace. Each phase is more important than the last and together, they culminate in a plan that’s habit-forming, frictionless, and vital to the continued safety of the workplace.

Keep reading: How to Create an Office Seating Chart Amidst COVID-19

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