By Katherine Schwartz
Demand Generation Specialist

Walk into various workplaces during the coronavirus pandemic and you’ll find companies dealing with social distancing in a variety of different ways. Taped-off workstations. Desk clumps pulled apart into individual workstations. Red Xs on the floor. Regardless of how they’re accomplishing it, companies see the relationship between physical distancing and space planning. How well they’ve approached it is where the execution differs.

As businesses peer into the unknown, the need for a long-term social distancing plan is evident. Who knows when COVID-19 will pass and what workplace standards will linger after it does. Right now, it’s best to assume that workplace policies focused on employee health and wellness will stick around. It’s smart to treat social distancing as one of them, which means getting serious about space planning.

Distancing is the new norm

If social distancing becomes a standard for workplace design, how will your current floor plan hold up? Chances are, it’ll need changes. As room occupancy levels fall and distancing is introduced, the parameters of the workplace change. Your benching concept might not fit anymore, or the number of breakout spaces you have may go down. Space has always been a precious commodity, and it’s starting to look like it might be worth more and more.

Companies that take distance seriously now will learn to capitalize on the new parameters of space before they’re forced to. If (or when) organizations like IFMA or BOMA issue guidelines for social distancing floor plans and policies, companies with foresight won’t find them as jarring or disruptive.

To create distance, manufacture space

How can space planning help with physical distancing? By manufacturing distance and reducing workplace touchpoints. Consider these very simple examples:

  • Reduce bench seating from 12 to six, to put distance between employees
  • Reduce room occupancy from 10 to four, to allow for distancing
  • Create one-way traffic in the workplace, to stop employees from passing
  • Decouple desk pods and turn them into distanced hot desks or hotel desks
  • Put up partitions in open environments to create pseudo workspaces

The idea of manufacturing space is to take real estate that already exists and repurpose it effectively. Think of the workplace as a slide puzzle. There’s always empty space—facility managers need to recognize it and manipulate it in the context of the greater workplace. Every slide moves the empty space around until it’s where you need it to be to unlock the next part of the puzzle. When you’re done, the empty space coexists with the clear picture of a solved puzzle.

As companies introduce space to their workplace, social distancing becomes inherent. Employees will automatically stay six feet apart if their desks maintain that distance for them. They won’t congregate if occupancy rules prohibit large groups from gathering. Each introduction of space is a precursor for distance.

Tips for space planning during the pandemic and beyond

While there’s a clear relationship between a floor plan and workplace physical distancing, it’s more than a passing correlation. Facility managers can’t expect to pull desks apart at random and maintain an efficient workplace. Consider a new floor plan with a measured approach—one that considers new desking concepts, space occupancy levels, and socially distant considerations.

Here are a few tips for effective space planning as social distancing becomes a driving factor behind workplace design:

  • Recalculate occupancy levels with distancing protocols in mind
  • Apply distancing principles to crowded areas first, then work outward
  • Provide distant alternatives to specific types of work (ex. video conferencing)
  • Prepare to adapt floor plans incrementally, to ensure changes take root
  • Implement policies that enforce distance, to make it habitual
  • Consider desk booking and room reservation policies to reduce exposure

Distance-based floor plans will likely be an adjustment for employees—especially a transition from denser workplace concepts like benching. Identify where space is an issue and introduce it, then expound upon that action. If the addition of space displaces a desk, where can that seat go? If you need to eliminate desks, how does that affect workplace metrics like cost per head or occupancy efficiency?

Don’t just move desks to create space. Do a full recalibration of your workplace, from the floor plan to the metrics that govern it.

Rely on space planning software to spot opportunities

As is the case for most workplace management challenges, technology holds the answers. Space planning software for physical distancing is a facility manager’s best opportunity to look at the workplace with a bird’s eye view. This can help identify areas where change needs to occur, as well as spaces where risk of transmission is high. And, of course, it’s where stakeholders can collaborate on new floor plans that enable productivity.

Pre-pandemic, many companies dedicated tremendous resources to workplace optimization. Today, businesses need to show that same level of investment to promote employee safety in socially distant workplaces. The possibility that these workplaces are the new norm is only further reason to recognize an opportunity now, to shape the workplace of the future.

Keep reading: How Does a Workplace Physical Distancing App Work?

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