COVID-19 and the Future of Furniture, a slide deck published by a commercial real estate firm, advises clients to consider increasing the use of “products that create division and social distancing.”
Therein lies a central dilemma of office design in the age of coronavirus: How can employers make employees safer by putting more space between them – without creating division in the ranks?
Masks don’t just provide an uncertain degree of protection against airborne infection; they also mask facial expressions, making it harder for people to read each other. And with Plexiglas partitions going up everywhere from supermarket checkouts to cubicle farms, we need to keep in mind that “barriers cue that there’s danger,” says Michael O’Malley, PhD, managing director at consulting firm Pearl Meyer and a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine.
So as companies begin to repopulate their offices and make physical changes to keep employees safer, they need to consider and invest in the organizational and social psychology of their workforce.
Audit the paths employees must travel to reach your offices
In strategizing for the new normal office, employers have a lot to think about. “The question is, how do we get the right mix of offices and workstations, get the right people in the office when they need to be there,” says Rick Ybarra, MBA, principal at Avison Young Consulting Services. Employers are wise to keep in mind a dilemma felt by many employees: Their health is endangered if they come into the office, and their job is at risk if they work from home – or at least they may fear it is.
Companies that lease office space need to assess safety measures that the landlord is taking for common spaces, from the parking lot to the office door, including door handles, elevators, peak pedestrian flow, and so on. “Elevators in many residential buildings recommend that individuals only ride elevators with people from their households,” says Amira Roess, PhD, MPH, professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University. “A similar recommendation is warranted in office buildings.”
Landlords who are serious about protecting their tenants will consider automatic door openers, touchless entry systems, and more – if they want to keep those tenants. Flextime is one way to reduce problems with elevator congestion – and expanded flextime opportunities are always appreciated by workers.
The ecology of offices: Open or closed workspaces, indoor or outdoor
O’Malley believes that if companies can provide additional closed offices for employees, it will be good for business. “Research says people don’t like open offices – they actually interact less than with closed offices,” says O’Malley. “And the cost savings of open space have not offset the costs of lost productivity."
For lower-skilled office workers such as telemarketers and claims processors, “you want people pretty close together for social support, because they have to handle a lot of difficult calls with customers,” says O’Malley. The short-run solution may be partitions, especially transparent ones.
Some companies may balk at making significant investments in additional partitions and other changes in the office environment. But these costs need to be weighed against the potential devastating costs of lost productivity and employees’ trust and of an outbreak in the office.
Better ventilation for reduced exposure to airborne virus
A key improvement to environmental safety is one that employees can’t see. “Bring in more fresh outdoor air, increase filter efficiency of the building, consider portable air purifiers with HEPA filters,” said Joseph Allen, DSc, MPH, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a video interview. “The costs to run fans more, to do more air exchange, are not insignificant – but they are tiny compared to overall costs of the virus and response.”
O’Malley sees a future in which employees are spending more time working literally outside the office. “You’re going to see a lot of outdoor workspaces, with sitting areas and WiFi,” he says. “Being outdoors also has positive effects on mood and well-being.”
Dividing into teams: To share or not to share workstations?
Many employers are considering dividing workers into two teams and having them alternate days in the office with days working from home. “One idea is to split your staff into two or more groups with one group that works three days in a row, another that works for the next three- or four-day cycle,” says Roess. “Daily cleaning should occur, and in between shifts deep cleaning should occur.”
Managers should acknowledge that many employees will wonder exactly what kinds of cleaning are being done, and on what schedule. So with shared workstations, it’s critical that “employers communicate the new cleaning protocols, what the organization is doing and what individuals need to do,” says Ybarra.
And it’s imperative that companies base decisions about safety improvements on science, not on feel-good measures that may turn out to be ineffective. For example, “it’s unclear how effective antimicrobial work surfaces and office furniture are for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19,” says Roess.
Trust in leaders who step up
Leaders aren’t leading unless they set the example by wearing a face covering and taking all the precautions that everyone else is expected to take. “If I head up an area where workers must come, I’m going to be there, to be with them,” says O’Malley. “It’s hard to respect a leader who isn’t present.”
The health of employees should be paramount, but it’s not the only reason why employers should protect their workforce with improvements to the office environment. “How employees are treated will affect how consumers and investors react to the company,” says O’Malley. “You have a more watchful stakeholder community now.”
Trust and accountability are critical to reopening businesses as safely as practicable. “We need everyone to play their role here,” Allen said. “It’s going to take a lot of social trust. Our society can be quite resilient when we put our minds to it.”
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