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Reinventing the workplace for employee safety post-COVID

Written by Alicia Michael on Friday, 03 July 2020. Posted in HR, People

As lockdown eases and restrictions begin to be lifted, many businesses will be considering how best to bring employees back into the physical office.

Reinventing the workplace for employee safety post-COVID

As lockdown eases and restrictions begin to be lifted, many businesses will be considering how best to bring employees back into the physical office. Not only are there logistical concerns to deal with, such as providing enough space between desks for social distancing, but employers will also be tasked with empowering individuals with the confidence to return to the workplace, despite increased health risks. While many may be tempted to institute longer-term remote working policies, there are some limitations to this approach. Virtual connections cannot fully replicate face-to-face collaboration, for some, work-life balance has taken a hit as employees work longer hours, and a lack of access to appropriate tools has damaged physical wellbeing. In tandem with remote working, the physical workplace is essential – but how can businesses make it safe for employees?

Workplace experts at Steelcase have compiled research from their network to answer this exact question. In doing so, they established three key stages of reinventing the post-COVID workplace: retrofitting, reconfiguring, and reinventing – all of which will help to balance employees’ renewed need for socialisation and collaboration with an increased focus on health and safety. By implementing changes now, and in the short- and long-term future, businesses will be able to capitalise on the unique opportunity they have to completely reshape the workplace for future growth.

Retrofitting in the now

For the first wave of employees returning to work, the priority will be creating a safe, healthy workplace as quickly as possible. Sara Ambruster, Vice President of Strategy at Steelcase, says “We believe it’s critical get employees back to the workplace – work is a social activity and the office is where employees have access to the people and tools they need to collaborate most effectively and to generate new ideas that lead to innovation.”

Spaces need to be designed to meet health guidelines and prevent the spread of disease – but also to make individuals feel safe at work. If people do not feel comfortable returning, productivity and engagement levels will drop, so focusing on the employee experience is crucial at this stage. Organisations will meet these needs quickly by retrofitting their workplace with what they have today: moving desks apart, adding friendly barriers, and providing visual cues for employees to follow.

A lower density of workers – around 50% for many businesses – will allow for greater distancing and a change in workplace geometry. Instead of the standard linear rows of desks and chairs commonplace in office design, desks rotated at ninety degrees from one another will ensure that employees are facing in different directions and thus restrict the possibility of transmission. Additionally, physical separation elements, such as screens and panels, can be used to divide up spaces even when minimum distancing cannot be met.

In the near future businesses will reconfigure their spaces

As a greater number of employees return to the office – potentially between 75% and 100% - adaptability will be key to ensure safety and improve wellbeing. Travel is likely to remain restricted for some time to come, with the added possibility of local lockdowns, meaning that businesses will need to integrate videoconferencing into the physical workplace. Increased virtual participation will decrease the need for large meeting rooms, businesses can also encourage standing meetings – some of which may be able to take place in open spaces or even outdoors.

For those employees who are physically present, it will be essential to design for disinfecting: opting for smooth surfaces that are easy to clean, fabrics that can be washed, and protective or anti-microbial coatings. Organisations should also consider materials that won’t degrade with continuous cleaning, to avoid having to replace them when they wear out. Cleaning should be increased not only in frequency, but also in visibility, so that employees know their workspaces are safe and disinfected. Adopting flexible furniture and power also helps to build in resilience, as employees can move their workstations further apart or closer together, depending on distancing regulations. Mobile power allows individuals to utilize spaces that were previously impractical, including outdoor spaces, where there is a lesser need for social distancing. Empowering their employees with the tools needed to adapt their own workspace can allow organisations to be ready for potential further outbreaks or other unforeseen circumstances in future.

Looking further, it’s time to reinvent

Further into the future, there will be an urgency to move beyond where we were before the outbreak. Workplaces will be the focal point for organisations to reignite innovation, productivity and growth, and they will do so by balancing diverse ways of working with greater support for employee wellbeing than ever before. The drive for flexibility in the workplace and fluidity between modes of work will replace ideas of density and permanence. The very best organisations will create a social infrastructure: a range of diverse places and experiences that shape how people interact, allowing for spontaneous collaboration and serendipitous inspiration.

Focusing on wellbeing will lead workplaces to introduce technology-enabled elements, such as voice-activated doors and behaviour sensors that can pick up on potential illness before it spreads. Offices need to be designed to allow everyone equal participation regardless of age, abilities, or health issues. Another aspect of this will be the seamless integration between remote work and the physical office, allowing employees working from home to continue to fully contribute to shared goals, and maintain a strong sense of community.

The opportunity to re-design

Throughout the coronavirus lockdown, many people across the country will have been hoping for things to return to normal – but, when it comes to the workplace, this is neither possible nor desirable. The offices we return to will be unlike anything we have ever experienced before, and although this is challenging, it also provides the opportunity and momentum to rethink what is most significant in workplace design. Working remotely and solitarily during lockdown has highlighted the importance of the office as a hub for social interactions and serendipitous encounters, both of which contribute to innovation. If companies take the lessons of the past few months into account, they will be able to bring out the very best in their workforce moving forward and create a workplace fit for the future.  

About the Author

Alicia Michael

Alicia Michael

Alicia is Director of EMEA Communications at Steelcase, based in Munich. Originally from the UK, she spent over a decade in Marketing & Communications agencies – leading major global organizations to develop comprehensive cross-platform strategies.

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