By Reagan Nickl
Director of Professional Services

The COVID-19 crisis has radically altered the modern workplace. We’ve yet to see the full extent of changes, but one thing is for sure: there’s no going back to normal.

Social distancing is forcing workplace professionals to find innovative ways to redesign their offices for employee safety. It’s a daunting task, but there are questions to ask and answer that will help maximize existing space to create safe working environments.

Who should come back to the office?

The first thing to decide is which employees need to return to the physical office. Note: the answer isn’t “everyone,” at least right now. When COVID-19 hit, companies discovered that certain roles can be productively done from home. Leaders are now considering whether those jobs should be remote for an extended period or permanently.

According to a Gartner survey from March 2020, 74% of CFOs will “move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19.” At the same time, there’s a percentage of employees who are more productive at the office. This has everything to do from fewer distractions than at home and access to ergonomic furniture to the social atmosphere of being around coworkers.

There’s no single solution for every organization. Company leaders need to work closely with managers to determine which team members can stay at home and which should return based on job type, productivity needs, cost, and employee wellness.

How does social distancing affect your floor plan?

Anyone who thinks social distancing is going away is kidding themselves. The six-foot separation is expected to last well into the foreseeable future. But how do you do that in a standard workplace? Facility professionals need to suspend the idea of cubicle buddies and side-by-side desks crammed into any available open space. Your floor plan will look significantly different once employees are spaced six feet apart.

Calculate this radius around each seat and see how many circles overlap. For example, a benching station for four people will now only seat one person. The reality is that your occupancy will drop dramatically—plan on a 50% to 60% reduction.

You will also need to implement measures to enforce distancing. Don’t rely on policies alone. You can physically block workstations that should be unoccupied. You can even remove chairs to avoid confusion about which desks are available.

How will you handle traffic patterns around the office?

Chances are you have some narrow hallways or paths that are within six feet of where people sit. Take a page from grocery stores and add directional arrows and two-way lanes where needed. Traffic control lets employees know how to travel safely about the office.

Think about common routes to the restrooms, conference rooms, and the kitchen. Remember to map out the main entrance to all workstations—employees are guaranteed to travel that route twice a day. It may be necessary to block off certain corridors or rearrange desks so they are pushed back from the main paths.

Don’t forget your lobby either, recommends Cushman & Wakefield’s report Recovery Readiness: A How-To Guide For Reopening Your Workplace. For example, you may need to install a plexiglass partition around a reception desk or disable touchscreen directories.

What will you do with conference rooms?

Your space planning needs to include conference rooms. If you have a conference room that seats 10 people, the capacity for social distancing will likely go down to only two people. Will you ask employees to eliminate in-person meetings and hold only virtual meetings, even if the other people on the video call are in the same building? Will you convert some conference rooms into temporary offices? Will you close off small huddle rooms or tell employees they are only for single occupancy?

Whatever you decide, every room’s capacity should be updated in calendar programs and/or your conference room reservation system. That way, employees have a digital reminder for the new occupancy restrictions; door signage will also help during this transition.

Can you move to hoteling?

Sanitization is harder when you don’t know where people have been sitting. If you previously used hot desks, switch to hoteling instead. This structure allows employees to reserve a desk every day so they know exactly where to go—no wandering around searching for an empty workstation. Hoteling is also helpful if your company is adopting A/B days (which OSHA recommends in its latest COVID-19 guide), where departments alternate which days or weeks they come into the office.

What cleaning protocols will you use?

Assigned or reservable seating allows your janitorial staff to do prescriptive and targeted disinfection. They need clear guidance on which desks, workstations, and conference rooms need to be sanitized every day.

If you use a cleaning company, review your contract and request additional deep cleaning. The basic pass the crew had been doing in normal times is no longer sufficient. Make sure your revised agreement includes disinfecting commonly touched surfaces: door knobs, kitchen handles, keyboards, elevator buttons, and tables.

Can you switch to all hard furniture?

Soft seating used to be great for collaboration, but these furnishings pose a challenge right now. First of all, they invite people to sit close together, which is no longer feasible. Second, both upholstery and leather can be hard to disinfect or may not be compatible with bleach. Check the EPA’s List N to see which disinfectants can be used on soft materials.

It might be wiser to eliminate or section off soft seating. On the bright side, moving aside lounge furniture creates another opportunity for someone to safely work at the office. You might be able to add a desk to areas where you removed a couch or a group of ottomans because it’s spaced away from other workstations.

Be patient and consistent

We know there’s a lot to process here. And by the time this article is live, the CDC may have new guidance about how to handle reopening a workplace. But it’s important for businesses to focus on the wins in the midst of so much negativity. Employees have already been asked to make extraordinary sacrifices as they pivoted to remote work. Those who can return to the office deserve to know their company has taken every precaution to safeguard their health and wellbeing.
Note: We’d like to offer a special thanks to Carly Tortorelli, Senior Vice President of Workplace Technology at Impec Group for her collaboration and insights into managing workplaces during the COVID-19 crisis.

Keep Reading: The Latest COVID-19 Workplace Resources

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