June 20, 2020

The Return to Office Space During COVID-19

Josh Gentine

As we begin to make moves toward the new normal, businesses will need to plan and reconfigure spaces that accommodate their employees’ new social practices and ways of working. This shift may include simple every day practices, but may also include redesigning work spaces and adopting design practices that are common in healthcare facilities.

A key factor as we move back into the physical workspace is flexibility. Many offices are designed to maximize seating capacity. We are safer if we practice social distancing – a minimum of six feet between one person and the next. That, of course, is only an estimate – there is no proven hard and fast rule in terms of a safe distance. Desks will need to be placed farther apart, and flexible options provided for employees to opt in to where they feel safest and most effective.

We now know that working virtually is a stronger and more productive option than previously thought. Some employees might prefer to work from home more consistently, while others will function better back in the office. Continuing to let people work from home will also make it easier to maintain a safe social distance for those who are working in the office.

Having a split workplace requires extremely reliable technology, which means a significant investment in the software itself as well as those who can troubleshoot it if something goes awry. Aside from the technological requirements, having virtual meetings inside the office also means that there are new acoustic and lighting needs. Common open floorplans are great for many things, but the large empty space swallows up sound. Ensure that there are smaller rooms available where a team member can step out to jump into a meeting. Nobody wants to spend an entire videoconference unable to hear or with an inconsistent connection. Consider also providing ring lights for clipping onto a desk or computer to ensure that everyone in a meeting is lit well enough to be seen.

Infection control will obviously need a great deal of consideration. Replace standard faucets, soap dispensers, and trashcans with touch-free models. This reduces the chance of spreading infection through multiple people touching surfaces. Certain materials, such as silver or copper, have anti-microbial properties that have the capacity to kill any microbes that are transmitted to the surface by human contact. You can choose new furniture and surfaces that are designed with these properties to reduce the risk of infection. Invest in something that will fight with you, not against you.

More stringent and regular cleaning is also an absolute necessity as we return to the physical workspace. Provide disinfectant products to employees, such as antibacterial hand gels and wipes so that they are empowered to clean their own personal workspace. These small, practical adjustments will help everyone on your team feel more confident going into work. They’ll know that they can be seen, heard, and will be as safe as possible.

Returning to offices will present challenges that we cannot necessarily foresee in this moment. We are all eager to arrive at a new normal, but we must be careful to take the safest route to get there.

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