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Replanning the Return to Work Amidst COVID-19

As many countries around the world are slowly lifting restrictions, many workplaces and businesses are excited to be returning to some semblance of normality. However, there are many guidelines that need to be in place to ensure re-opening and returning to regular working arrangements can be done in a safe manner. Here are some back to work considerations for returning to the workplace during the pandemic’s downturn.

Who Can Return to Work?

Science-based, data-driven resources need to be used to develop solutions for the new workplace. Who needs to come back based on demand and who simply has the desire to come back to the office? On the flip side, there are those who don’t want to come back, or are not able to: many parents won’t have access to their regular childcare, and many are living or caring for those who are vulnerable. Reintroducing the workforce in a staggered manner or slow progression can help reduce density and iron out any issues in the beginning, while accommodating those with less flexible circumstances.

Supporting Those Working from Home

  • Many people have become very successful in adopting remote working tools and have developed new skills as a result. People continuing to work from home will be a part of our future solution.
  • Concerns surrounding low productivity or poor communication can be addressed through strong oversight, improved communications and the right tools for the job. This includes adequate IT support.

The Future of Work

Other organizations are analyzing whether the return to work necessitates returning to the workplace that existed exactly as it had prior to the global pandemic. For example, Steelcase hosted a webinar ‘Cutting Through the Noise – the Post-COVID Workplace’, organizing their thoughts about returning to work across time horizons such as: Now, Near and Far.

As the first wave of workers return to the workplace, new measures will need to be made to keep workers safe and reduce health risks through workplace modifications and retrofitting.

Safety First

Businesses will want to regain productivity and competitiveness; however, this cannot come at the cost of health and safety – people need to not only be safe but feel safe. Jobs that reside in open plan offices are expected to be the last to fully return. Many industries find that employees and staff are able to work remotely – ensuring they have more time to optimally prepare for their return to the office.

Maintaining Physical Distancing

  • In many provinces across Canada, local governments are introducing their own regulations around workplace requirements. However, 6 feet as a minimum distance is recommended.
  • Meetings can be held in open concept areas to avoid enclosed spaces, or team meetings can be held virtually, making in-person meetings a fixture of the past. Restricting outside clients to virtual meetings will also decrease health risks to those returning to the office. This doesn’t mean space goes to waste: smaller conference rooms can be converted into video chat spaces.
  • Alternatively, standing meetings can be held, allowing individuals more control of their space. An added benefit is that creativity is boosted significantly while standing.

Using Signage

  • Signage creates additional visual reminders for new regulations. They can be placed outside areas such as meeting rooms announcing maximum occupancy levels, reminders to queue before entering lobbies, cleaning practices in break areas or required distancing when approaching reception. This can be used for other enclosed spaces, such as elevators and stairs.

Staggered Schedules to Reduce Density

  • In an office environment, staggering lunches or other breaks allows all staff to use break rooms or kitchens. Staggering work hours also reduces the number of people in the workplace in general. This can be an additional benefit to many: people who take transit may be able to avoid rush-hour, those with young children can be with family at different times of the day or it can accommodate schedules for those with partners doing shiftwork.

New Office Habits

  • The way offices are designed, or the way furniture is laid out will be vastly different from the pre-COVID era. Re-orienting furniture to prevent occupants from sitting face to face, or keeping desks separated will be necessary. Will the trend of arranging pods or open space planning revert back to the days of cubicles?
  • If space is limited, fixed barriers or moveable screens can be implemented to create physical barriers where social distancing isn’t possible.
  • New cleaning habits will be developed as offices re-open. New hand sanitizing stations and disinfectants need to be made available throughout the office where sinks are not immediately available. But adding hand sanitizer is not the complete solution – a cleaning plan will need to be developed, including the scheduling of regular deep cleans in high-traffic areas. Remember: there is a difference between cleaning and disinfecting.

Looking to the Future

Reinventing the workplace will take time and will require a collective shift towards evidence-based solutions. The future workplace will need to be adaptable, fluid and resilient as circumstances can change rapidly, as the current global pandemic has demonstrated. This will not only have impacts on workplace design but the future of residential design as designated work environments in homes will become part of the status quo.

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