Remember the office? It’s a bit of a distant memory for us now, 6 months into the coronavirus pandemic.
Remember making tea and coffee rounds for big groups of people? Remember welcoming clients and guests at the reception, rather than clicking “admit” in an online meeting room? Remember collaborating side-by-side, face-to-face?
Well, some of that is making a comeback.
We’ll once again be able to meet in-person with our colleagues and enjoy the “Hey, can I just pick your brains on this...?” chat that we’ve all missed. But — and it’s a big but — things are going to have to be different.
Returning to work: what will it look like?
The offices we use today and in the future will have all-new priorities, with an intense focus on public health, sanitation awareness, and social distancing.
And of that list, social distancing at work might well be the most tricky to manage.
New sanitary measures will become second nature remarkably quickly, but keeping your distance from your colleagues will feel odd for some time. True, it saves you from getting stuck in the lift with someone you don’t know, but it will also make the most cherished of office cliches — the ‘water cooler moment’ — far more formal indeed.
Learning how to manage social distancing at work may be tricky, so we thought we’d take a look at what it really means, and how best to manage it as “the new normal” becomes a regular feature of our day-to-day lives.
The challenges of social distancing at work
Staying at least 2 metres from commuters, colleagues and everyone who shares your building is a pretty big ask all by itself, but there are a whole load of additional considerations to take into account as well.
How will big meetings work? Will everything need to be carried out by video conference (still)?
How will social distancing at work affect collaboration? Is it possible for teams to get together, while still staying 2m apart? What do you need to do to make more space, with the same footprint as before?!
And how do you organise for bathrooms, desks, kitchens and other shared spaces to be cleaned as regularly as they need to be? Social distancing plays a major role in workplace sanitation — so how do you begin clearing people out in time for a deep clean each day?
There’s going to be a lot to plan for. Building managers, bosses, support teams and, well, everyone who is sharing an office space, is going to have to develop a more comprehensive understanding of risk management and public health principles.
So to make that task a little easier, here’s what you need to know.
People planning — who can be where, when?
Just opening the office and telling people to keep their distance is a recipe for disaster.
In order to enable proper social distancing at work, most businesses will have to put together attendance rotas and ‘crowd control’. Bosses and building managers will need to analyse how many people can fit in the office safely at any one time, and attendance will almost certainly need to be staggered.
Working out and monitoring who gets to be where, and when, may well be tricky. Input from managers will be key, setting out which team members are required at any one time.
But maintaining a reasonable, and predictable, flow of personnel through the building makes it far easier to stay on top of cleaning and sanitation efforts. Imagine trying to deep clean meeting rooms, while people are still jumping on and off of calls — even the best professional cleaners would struggle with that.
Instead, make sure you set a capacity that’s comfortable even when cleaning is taking place. If you have multiple bathrooms, make sure you could cope if one was off-limits during a deep clean. And try to close down the office either an hour early, or open an hour late, to allow for cleaning time.
Sounds like a logistical nightmare, right? Not if you have the right tools. Rather than tasking HR teams or support staff with manually arranging attendance and monitoring staff numbers, desk booking tools like ToggleDesk are a useful way of empowering teams to sort it out for themselves.
- Label meeting rooms clearly with maximum capacity.
- Mark chairs where people can safely sit, and remove extras to maximise real estate.
- Invest in the tools that make booking a desk for the day much easier.
Entrance and exit
External doors are a real pressure point — everyone is going to need to use them, making social distancing difficult. But a high level of footfall also makes front and back doors a great spot for temperature testing, if you’re doing that.
Where possible, try to establish a one-way system for entering and exiting the office. And if there’s a bit of a queue at 8.45am, while temperature checks are being done, politely remind staff to keep 2m between them and the person in front.
You’ll also want to invest in hand sanitiser dispensers — placing them at entrances, exits, some internal doors and dotted around the building, too.
- Be prepared for personal preferences when it comes to screening, and ensure you have workarounds.
- Be prepared to send people home, and establish proper protocols in the event of staff presenting symptoms.
- Make processes as smooth as possible to allow for entry and exit taking longer than usual.
Make COVID security part of your culture
Social distancing at work will be unusual for everyone, so it’s incredibly important that staff feel comfortable about the altered environment they’re in, and what they are being asked to do.
Some employees will be very on it, while others may be more laissez-faire. Making sure that different attitudes don’t cause problems will be a key part of creating a successful return to work.
Communication is key. Before reopening, it’s worth surveying your workforce to scope out how everyone’s feeling — are there any particular concerns you need to cater for? Keeping channels of communication open at all times will help, too. Everyone needs to understand why things are being done the way they are, and when changes need to be made.
Lastly, leaders play a vital role. Sanitise your hands, keep 2m distance, and don’t be seen (or heard!) to undermine what’s been put in place.
- Be open and honest with staff — they’ll appreciate that you’re doing your best, given the circumstances!
- Make sure managers model good social distancing behaviour, as others will follow suit.