How to Safely Transition Back to the Workplace

 The coronavirus has turned everything upside down. However, our clients are beginning to wonder how they can best bring people back into the office when the crisis subsides. This will be a transition rather than an “all in” move.

We know from several recent studies that a well-designed workplace is still overwhelmingly the place that people want to be. In the Gensler U.S. Workplace Survey 2020, they asked that very question, posing the options between home, the company’s workplace, a coworking space, or coffee shop. Unquestionably, the office was people’s preferred place to work, as long as it’s designed to support their work.

Before we can ask people to return to the office, we’ve got to make sure they feel safe, healthy, and valued in their workplace. So, it’s not too early to start planning for how we can return hundreds of thousands of people to the workplace once the quarantines end. Here are some thoughts on the first steps companies can take in the short term.

Keep your distance: Unless people are wearing face masks, the six-foot social distancing rule should apply in the physical workspace until there is a COVID-19 vaccine and the coronavirus is no longer a health threat to employees. During the interim, employers should remove excess chairs in conference rooms with more than 10 seats and spread out collaborative seating, so people are spaced further apart.

De-densify workstations: This might be a challenge in areas where desk spacing is tight, such as some open benching layouts. In situations where existing desk spacing is less than 6 feet apart, consider using every other desk to create a buffer for each person. It’s ideal to space employees so they don’t face each other. Consider adding partitions for sit/stand desks that are attached to the desktop and move up and down with the desktop. The goal is to block potentially harmful viruses that can be transmitted by talking, coughing, or sneezing. It’s also preferable to avoid situations where one employee is standing while another is seated within the same 6-foot bubble.

Rethink dynamic and unassigned seating: Upon returning to the office, consider assigning what were formerly shared desks to individuals for a full day or a week, and then make sure they are disinfected before a new person uses the work setting.

Limit tech sharing: To avoid disease transmission, it’s best to provide technology and accessories (such as a mouse, keyboard, or headset) to each individual. These devices are touched throughout the day and are best not shared without disinfecting between uses.

Ramp up cleaning protocols: Employee health depends on a safe and clean work environment. Organizations should implement professional cleaning protocols not only for workstations, but for conference rooms, collaborative areas, cafes, reception desks, and other common areas at regular intervals throughout the day. Employers should provide disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers throughout the office and especially in shared areas. If workers maintain a clean and uncluttered desk, the professionals’ job will only be more effective.

Upgrade air filtration systems: The air we breathe is also a shared resource, so invest in air-cleaning systems to protect collaborative environments. Consider installing state-of-the-art air purification and sanitization systems. Many of these systems display real-time air quality measurements on digital screens to keep employees informed, and it will serve as a continuous disinfectant, improving air quality by reducing airborne and surface contaminants like viruses, bacteria, germs, VOCs, smoke, and other allergens.

Practice good hygiene: Reinforce good hygiene practices with well-stocked restrooms that have touchless soap and anti-viral cleaning supplies. Employers should also install plenty of hands-free dispensers with sanitizer that contains at least 60−95% alcohol in lobbies, conference rooms, and lounges. No-touch garbage and recycling receptacles are also preferable. Also, door pulls, badge readers, and shared common areas should be disinfected throughout the day.

Add antimicrobial materials to the mix: Manufacturers are integrating antimicrobial technology in interior design elements including faucets, window shades, paint, and door hardware, applying coatings that work to keep them cleaner from multiplying bacteria. Consider adding these materials, especially in building lobbies, reception desks, and shared common areas.

Empower your people: Consider how employees will feel when they prepare to return to the office. Instead of mandating that everyone come back at once, consider offering the option for people to do it in waves. This may not only provide the necessary social distancing, but it would also allow employees a greater sense of control over their health.

Be open to new ways of working: While working remotely, we will have discovered different ways to collaborate virtually, which will likely continue when we return to the office. Workflows and communication might improve. We should embrace these changes and let them flourish.

All said, the workplace will remain integral to building community, reinforcing an organization’s culture, and strengthening relationships with colleagues.

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