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Re-Engaging the Workplace Part 1: Physical Space Considerations
Returning to work and bringing employees back to the office amid the COVID-19 pandemic is likely going to look different for every employer. But long before HR sends any kind of “Welcome Back” email, there are some common elements of the physical workspace that organizational leadership should examine, with an eye toward creating safe experiences.
Why Workspaces Should Be Updated
The longer the coronavirus continues, the more we learn about its effects. By now, we’re all relatively well-versed in the adverse health issues that may accompany COVID-19. In addition to those, there are other ancillary complications likely impacting even your best employees such as stress and anxiety, which can lead to lower productivity.
Our physical environment can help mitigate not only the health risks of COVID-19 but also the mental and emotional ones as well. In fact, professional settings can play a critical role in maintaining and improving physical and mental health and wellbeing. From the obvious, such as maintaining social distancing, to the not-so-obvious, such as HVAC, consider the following a checklist of suggested changes, and leverage them as guideposts for updating your workspace.
Any changes you implement will show employees that you care and will go a long way toward restoring their confidence in re-entering the office. Not to mention the fact that “employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace” per the OSH Act of 1970. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers coronavirus guidance for businesses and employers to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Recommended Workplace Updates
Capacity[body] Look at strategically reducing the total number of employees in your facility at a given time. This can be done by considering the different roles and needs for each employee to continue to be successful. Reducing the number of staff will help minimize exposure and ensure there’s room for appropriate physical distancing. Capacity can be cut by allowing employees to work from home or staggering shifts. When looking at capacity, also be sure to consider any local and state recommendations and/or mandates.
Redirecting the way people move throughout your space can reduce exposure by helping to maintain safe physical distances. The goal is to shift foot traffic where necessary to reduce opportunities for employees to come into close contact. Once you have the paths figured out, employ signage and wayfinding to guide employees along these new routes.
Furniture Arrangement & Setup
One of the key elements of creating a healthy workspace is the arrangement and orientation of workspaces to ensure employees can remain a safe distance from others. Desks and other workstations may need to be spread out in support of physical distancing guidelines, allowing for at least 6 feet between people. This may require breaking up and altering work pods, and adding additional physical barriers, such as dividers or panels. Sneeze guards are also a good solution, especially for reception areas and service points. See our Procurement Quick Reference Guide for these options and others.
Use of Common Areas
Bathrooms, kitchens, lunch areas, conference rooms… these are all common spaces that need to be reviewed and rethought. Simple solutions, such as closing every other bathroom stall, moving the microwave further away from the fridge, and limiting capacity in dining areas may suffice. Or you might have to consider more complex options, such as finding a larger space better suited to meetings to accommodate physical distancing protocols, or setting up a secondary makeshift kitchen. Again, signage can help employees understand how they are or aren’t supposed to engage with these environments in the workplace.
Both the CDC and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) have come out with guidance for HVAC systems as it relates to airflow and ventilation in non-medical settings. The CDC version includes some of the recommendations from ASHRAE. We’ve combed both, and married them with our experience in our HVAC Quick Reference Guide. A few takeaways include maintaining 40%-60% relative humidity, increasing outside air to your building, and upgrading to MERV 13 or MERV 14 filters. Read our guide or the other sources for more details.
From the confined quarters to the touch-required buttons to the limited air circulation, elevators present a unique challenge. Encourage all the same health and safety measures we’ve already discussed, i.e. limited capacity, physical distancing, and handwashing (after every elevator ride) that you do throughout the rest of your building. Also, encourage employees to take the stairs as much as possible. Discourage talking and leaning up against the elevator’s walls or railings. Use signage in and around your elevators to reinforce all the dos and don’ts.
Let Us Help
We understand updating your office in response to COVID-19 is a lot to tackle, especially on top of running a business. That’s why Progressive AE is here to help. Whether you’re interested in layout recommendations, space reconfigurations, signage strategy, HVAC updates, product procurement, or something else, contact us with your needs. We’ll help you and your employees return to work as safely as possible.
This is the first post in our “Re-Engaging the Workplace” series, which looks at strategic ways organizations can safely, responsibly, and supportively bring employees back to the office. Come back at the end of the month to read our next post.