The pandemic has accelerated the attraction to healthy workplaces on every level. In corporations worldwide, webinars, seminars and forums are running thick and fast on how to manage returning employees’ return to their physical place of work. Myriad ideas are swirling around exactly how to keep everyone safe. From removing desks to managing the way people move around an office floor, the task of keeping people together while sufficiently apart at the same time – and foster prosperity in the process - has corporate leaders transfixed. Also at the forefront of the issue are architects, designers and workplace wellness experts.

Domino Risch, principal of Hassell Studio, one of Australia’s largest design firms, said the topic of workplace safety is consuming organisations at present, the conversation focussed on short, medium and long term impacts of making a range of necessary changes.  

“People are seeking perspective and trying to understand what’s going to happen next,” Ms Risch said.

“Main concerns we’re seeing are what will happen next month, and how minor adjustments can be made to workplaces work in the next three years - and there are some really interesting challenges out there right now.

“We’re already seeing an increase in our existing tenants whose workplaces we’ve designed asking what they can do to adapt when people return to work. Some of these are quite easy such as taking a number of chairs out of conference rooms, and then there is talk around thinning out the number of people in spaces and implementing one-way circulation paths and finding ways to indicate 2.5 metre-wide ‘exclusion zones’ around desks. Having everyone walking in the same direction (so as to avoid face to face contact) would be less convenient but it is definitely being discussed.

Capacity for quiet rooms could be reduced to just one or two people and meetings still held via video conferencing but with workers in various small rooms.

The way people are seated also comes into play. In recent virus outbreaks through Asian call centres, it was the employees facing each other, more so than those seated side by side, who were suspected of spreading the virus.

 Fresh challenges

Well before employees set foot in the office however, the issue looms of getting people into a building in the first place. Large numbers of workers accessing multi-storey office towers will require careful management given safe distancing now comes into play.

“One of the biggest conversations is on how to get, say, 4000 people into an office tower safely,” Ms Risch said.

“We might see building landlords and managers monitoring how many people are allowed to use a lift at one time, and there may be people stationed at the call buttons, providing a concierge type facility to minimise people touching buttons, but even then, more than one person in most lifts will compromise social distancing guidelines, even if only for a few minutes.

One solution would be companies activating user-deliverable apps or enabling ‘swipe card’ technology for operating various items such as building security, lifts, even photocopiers to avoid pressing buttons by hand. As far as main door access is concerned, mandating staggered start and finish times is a solution that would help tame numbers flowing in and out of commercial buildings.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, ideas being discussed in the US include a phased return to work and managing workplace numbers by splitting employees into groups with one working in the office and the other at home on alternate days.

Other ideas for modifying offices include placing crosses on chairs and desks not to be used in order to separate people sufficiently, creating outdoor conference rooms, and painting squares on the elevator floors for one person to stand in at a time to ensure safe distancing.

Turn and face the change

Not everyone will need to make huge changes in short term though. Those who have resisted moves towards hot desking and activity-based working, Ms Risch said, including law firms, may find themselves needing to make less adjustments. “Especially in those legal firms Hassell has designed, lawyers often have larger desks which are their own, and those desks are typically well spaced out with lots of supporting quiet and meeting rooms close by. For one firm we designed planter boxes between the desks and the plants have grown to the point where they now act as screens. In some ways, the legal model is the perfect model for the scenario we’re facing.”

 Either way, change will be fluid. Right now, any approaches by companies to the pace and type of changes they will inevitably make are tentative. “This is a not a symmetrical event where everyone goes back to the way things were before,” Ms Risch said. “This will definitely change people’s thought and perceptions of how and why we go to work. People are realising more and more that work is less about where you go, and more about what you do, and why. This situation really brings into sharp focus the essential value of a well-designed workplace as a tool for enhancing cultural and social engagement.”

Nevertheless, back to work we will go. People are social creatures and need face to face contact – even at a physical distance. “It’s hard to feel part of a team, part of a greater purpose and fully engaged when you’re 100% working from home,” Ms Risch said. “The question is how companies can create authentic experiences representing their brand and culture in their (modified) workplace.”

Mental health is key

Maintaining mental health during and after the return-to-work phase is another factor being considered. Psychologist and founder of Workplace Wellness Susan Long said it is imperative employers recognise people will be impacted by walking into a new way of operating. “Workplaces need flexibility and openness to find ways of merging the benefits of old processes with the insights and improved processes gained during the period of COVID-19 social and workplace distancing,” Ms Long said.

‘Am I safe?’ will be at the forefront of people’s minds. Feeling unsafe affects the ability to concentrate and simply operate effectively. For this reason, Ms Long said employers need to listen, learn, acknowledge successes while working from home and when returning to work, and update employees regularly on changes and safety measures. 

“Communicating in a supportive and compassionate approach is as important as providing information on the processes that keep the workplace physically safe,” Ms Long said. “It is not easy managing a business and human resources during such unprecedented times.

“Support networks, sleep, exercise, rest, downtime and moments of fun are all essential. Maintaining boundaries between work and home are necessary to ensure there is enough fuel in the emotional tank – as this will be a marathon not a sprint.”

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