Preparing to Return to Work in COVID 19 World

As it appears we are entering the next stage of the COVID-19 virus, governments at all levels are starting to discuss opening our cities once again. This will, at some point, involve opening offices and allowing employees to return to work, although this is likely going to come with some restrictions around maintaining social distancing. At the same time, many of our clients are asking what they can do so that their employees feel safe returning to the office.

Now is the time to plan how to safely have employees go back to work. Our own research has indicated that many employees will push back returning to the office until they feel it is safe to do so. Below are some thoughts on what companies can do in the short term to prepare for a return to the office.

Develop a physical distancing plan for workstations. Existing floor plans need to be evaluated to determine how 6’ physical distancing standards can be maintained. Part of developing the plan includes considering how employees get to and from their workstations and how that may impact the physical distancing plan. Once the plan has been developed, you will then understand your revised capacity, which will allow you to plan for how many employees should be coming to the office at one time. Companies will then have to develop a strategy around who comes to the office and when. Some organizations may opt to have employees remain at home while others are allowed to return to work. Others may look at implementing some form of shifts that allow everyone to come into the office at some point in time. In any event, those workstations that are to be unoccupied should be clearly marked to ensure compliance. Signage should be posted to ensure employees understand where they can travel within the office without impacting physical distancing. In addition, a clean desk policy should be considered that would include removing all personal items from workstations to allow a deep cleaning of all surfaces. Signage should be posted throughout the office to ensure employees understanding physical distancing guidelines and encourage employees to follow these guidelines at all times.

Develop a physical distancing plan for meeting rooms. In addition to evaluating workstations, meeting rooms should be evaluated to determine new, revised maximum capacity in order to comply with physical distancing requirements. New capacities should be posted outside meeting rooms with seats to be occupied clearly
identified within the meeting room. It may also be necessary to determine the sequence in which seats are occupied to maintain physical distancing. Removing surplus chairs should be considered to encourage participants not to exceed the maximum capacity. Wipes should be placed in each meeting room to encourage users to clean after
using each shared area.

Evaluate meeting room technologies. In the short term at least, many organizations are going to have a combination of employees in the office while some continue to work from home. While employees have been working remotely, many have become used to using video conferencing technologies to communicate with others. Organizations, if they haven’t already, need to consider how these technologies are deployed in meeting rooms to allow employees to continue to use this interface.
Temperature monitoring. Companies may consider installing temperature scanners at entry points to easily identify if someone is showing symptoms prior to allowing them to enter the office.

Practice good hygiene. Companies should set up sanitization stations throughout the office that are visible from all areas of the floor and provide both hand sanitizer as well as wipes for employees to clean their areas themselves. In addition, signage should be posted throughout encouraging proper hand sanitization and employee participation in keeping a clean and safe office environment. No-touch centralized garbage and recycling receptacles. Where possible, companies should consider centralized, no-touch garbage and recycling receptacles to allow for more frequent emptying.

Arrange for regular cleaning. Employers should arrange for regular, deep cleaning. It is important that this should be completed during the day in addition to regular, after-hours cleaning so that it is visible to employees making them aware of the effort the organization is taking to keep them safe.
Evaluate ancillary areas such as cafes and soft seating. The spacing and amount of seating should be evaluated for its ability to meet social distancing guidelines. This might involve rearranging or removing seating and tables in the short term. Signage should be used throughout to inform employees of spacing requirements as well as traffic flow to ensure employees understand how space is to be used.

Communicate frequently with employees. Communication will be key. As mentioned earlier, many employees are fearful of having to return to work. Constantly communicating the steps you are taking to ensure the safety of your employees will help alleviate these fears and allow employees to successfully and productively return to work. In addition to communicating in advance of employees returning to the office, signage should be posted throughout, reinforcing the steps you are taking, including reminding employees about physical distancing, hygiene and the role employees have in keeping each other safe.

While it is too early to tell the long-term impact that COVID-19 will have on the office environment, what we do know is that the office still matters. Humans long for social interaction and the office is part of that experience. What is important now, is determining how to provide an office environment that allows employees to feel safe and empowering them to return.