Things to consider when returning to the office amid COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies around the world to navigate a quick and strategic shift to remote working and posed new and significant challenges for millions of workers around the globe.
As we move forward, corporations are forced to grapple with how they can transition millions of employees back into the workplace, with restrictions in place to maintain the health of both employees and the company. This begets the question of how can we begin planning the transition back into the office when the time comes?
While there may not be a be-all and end-all solution to this conundrum, there are useful guidelines that may help organisations circumvent these unprecedented challenges.
Project: Celanese Singapore (Images courtesy of OSCA)
Angled desks are becoming popular again and can help minimize face-to-face contact; while longer rectangular desks with panels in front and between workers help control distance and avoid contact.
Rethink office spaces for physical distancing purposes
Despite the opening of regular workplaces, businesses need to remain proactive in reconfiguring the physical workplace to observe social distancing regulations. A 1.5 metres distance between employees affects individual seating arrangements and shared spaces such as the office pantry. The largely vacant workspace is being reconfigured to accommodate physical distancing in preparation for employees heading back to work. Individuals can be assigned to specific seats in accordance with the latest safe physical distancing guidelines, while still retaining the existing layout of desks and furniture in the office. More organisational return planning strategies can be introduced as companies begin to phase in more employees.
Project: FCM Travel Singapore (Images courtesy of OSCA)
Above: Existing small meeting rooms and Phone Booths that are at times under-utilized can be repurposed as dedicated work areas or isolation rooms.
Designate isolation rooms
An employee may begin to exhibit symptoms of the virus anywhere in the workplace including building lobbies, shared areas or office spaces and has to be immediately isolated to reduce their exposure to public. Designating and articulating spaces so that every manager and employee is aware of their location and purpose is crucial in ensuring the wellbeing of staff. An isolation space should come in the form of an enclosed space with special ventilation or reduced air pressure to prevent others in the vicinity from being exposed to the virus.
Project: RGF Singapore (Images courtesy of OSCA)
Large breakout spaces can be utilized as activity-based work areas and flexible work spaces to help spread people around the office.
Implement assigned seating
A flexible workplace with employees scattered across the office and temporarily sitting at a desk assigned to someone else is no longer feasible given the current COVID-19 climate. Instead, indicating the respective desks and clear communication regarding how spaces such as lounge rooms and bathrooms are used can provide transparency for involved parties. Knowing where specific employees are seated and their footprint throughout the day can promote a focused cleaning response if an employee starts to display symptoms. Employees assigned to the same vicinity can also be traced easily.
Project: TEMENOS Singapore (Images courtesy of OSCA)
Office administrators need to implement a clean desk policy to reduce elements on the desks that come into contact with pathogens.
Maintain stringent cleaning regimens.
With employees returning to work, cleanliness is top of the priority list for organisations to safeguard workplace wellbeing. There is hence a need to plan, communicate and enforce strict cleaning procedures. Again, being able to identify which spaces are allocated to employees can help cleaning services to determine the order of their work. Some essential cleaning regimens would be to consistently wipe down all soft surfaces like couches and chairs with water and a clean towel, and thoroughly disinfect solid surfaces such as computers, shelves and door handles among others. Shared resources and amenities including coffee, couches and stationery should be removed to mitigate touchpoints and employee interactions. Consider leaving room doors open whenever possible so that others can enter without using the door handles. It is also useful to install acrylic shields in the reception area and in between individual workstations.
Malaysia Project (Image and drawing courtesy of OSCA)
Above: A return to the workplace post-COVID 19 is a combined client and designer effort. Client can divide their staff into teams and implement staggered weekly attendance to the office. The designer can plan the space with future expansion in mind and using these empty expansion spaces to implement safe-distancing.
Plan staggered returns to the workplace.
Having an alternating group of employees work from the office every few days can limit the spreading of viruses. These groups may be created based on role criteria to meet the needs and goals of each organisation and ensure employee distancing is enforced. This restrictive approach allows for more employees to work on a shift basis, where they can operate from clearly assigned desks and maintain physical distancing from those on the same shift. It is wise for organisations to retain some form of remote working until the pandemic blows over.