Experts across fields are suggesting the world may never be the same again, and the workplace is no different. Whether you have essential employees who have been on-site throughout the pandemic or you are preparing to return employees to the office, creating a safe and healthy workplace is a continual area of focus.
But where should you start, and how should you go about it?
Preparation: Start with the data and some guiding principles
Workplace consultancy Teamwerc has been working with clients across industries to navigate these questions, and Founding Partner Jen Nguyen cautions businesses from jumping in and haphazardly moving heavy equipment or workstations. Instead, she advises clients to start with some basic data: current square footage and the numbers of employees who occupy the space (factoring in any who may work from home on a permanent basis going forward, as well as any workforce reductions you may have unfortunately needed to implement). After layering in the consideration of six-foot social distancing, employers may find, for example, that they need to reduce the number of individuals on-site by 30%, and that can be accomplished in a number of ways - through staggered scheduling, rotations across different groups, asking some employees to work from home more permanently, or even enacting short-term leases on new space to increase capacity. In other words, organizations shouldn’t automatically assume they need to permanently overhaul their facility.
In addition to evaluating your existing space, Teamwerc Founding Partner Julija Costantino advises companies to create a set of guiding principles for their decision-making. Along with employee health and safety, you may have other priorities to consider; for example, are there specific teams that need to be on-site as soon as possible? Agreeing upon these principles upfront enables an organization to check all subsequent decisions and remain focused on their priorities throughout.
While principles vary by business, both partners encourage all clients to prioritize flexibility and minimal upfront capital investment. Ms. Costantino points out, “We all know things are changing, they’re fluid. Everyone is trying to cut costs and there have been layoffs across the board. So why invest so much capital into reconfigurations that are costly and set in stone?” Instead of installing new walls or dividers that can’t be easily moved, start with changes that can be quickly adjusted and iterated upon, which will enable you to evolve to meet dynamic federal and local requirements or employee feedback.
So what should businesses be thinking about in the short-term?
Space adjustments: Managing capacity and usage
- Cafeterias, break rooms, and shared food: If you have historically provided food for employees (e.g., you had a food service provider on-site, or offered snacks or beverages), you may be tempted to close all food services. Encouraging employees to bring their own food is likely the safest option, but you may not want to eliminate food service entirely. In an April Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb and former FDA Deputy Commissioner Dr. Stephen Ostroff encouraged businesses with on-site food services “to continue to run safe food services instead of letting employees wander to the corner deli, where precautions may be uncertain and spaces more crowded.” According to Ms. Costantino, the majority of Teamwerc’s clients who had previously offered food on-site will continue to do so with some modifications; for example, self-service buffets or salad bars are out, and all items should be individually packaged.
Even if you don’t provide food on-site, you will need policies regarding spaces in which employees might enjoy or prepare food, such as cafeterias, break rooms, or kitchens. Employers should consider staggering lunchtimes or break times in shifts, either by formally assigning shifts or by asking employees to “reserve” a limited set of spots within a shift. If you have outdoor space, encourage employees to use that area to expand your capacity, or you may even suggest that employees with desks eat lunch or take breaks at their desk.
Post signage regarding your policies for the use of refrigerators, coffee stations, water dispensers, and microwaves. At the very least, increase the frequency of cleaning for these items; one option is to keep disinfectant wipes next to them so employees can clean before and after using.
- Conference rooms and collaboration spaces: Even for employees co-located on-site, Dr. Gottlieb recommended the continued use of videoconferencing which would enable an extended closure of meeting spaces. Alternatively, you may choose to open meeting spaces with reduced capacity. Teamwerc has found that most clients using this approach reduce capacity in each meeting space by an average of 75%. Commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield suggest calculating new capacities by “dividing the net usable area by the square of the locally acceptable social distance (e.g., for a 6’ social distance: a 200 SF room divided by 36 SF would have a recalculated maximum capacity of 5 people).”
- Hallways: Some organizations are posting signage to make hallways unidirectional; that is, traffic can only flow one way. While such an approach does ensure employees don’t cross paths face-to-face, it may not be feasible in all facilities - and, frankly, employees are human and want to take the shortest distance to their destination. Teamwerc often encourages employers to keep hallways bi-directional, but ask employees only walk single-file and stay on the same side of the hallway as they would drive on the road, keeping to the very edge of the hallway. If desks or workspaces abut a hallway, you might consider shifting desks further from the hallway.
Cleaning & ventilation: Keeping the facility as clean as possible
Evaluate your sanitation protocols to ensure your disinfectants, methods, and frequency of disinfection reflect the latest guidance from the CDC. On the date of this post, the CDC recommends businesses frequently clean and disinfect “high touch surfaces,” such as “tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, sinks, etc.” The guidelines instruct that surfaces should be cleaned with soap and water followed by disinfection with an EPA-registered disinfectant that has been approved for use against SARS-CoV-2 (in the event you are unable to secure disinfectant supplies, the CDC also notes that a bleach solution of sufficient concentration will work effectively). For electronics such as screens, keyboards, remote controllers, etc., use alcohol-based wipes or sprays of sufficient concentration - alcohol will disinfect but is safer for electronic equipment than most disinfectants.
For disinfection throughout the day, some companies are using a “self-service” approach, in which employees who use a space are expected to disinfect before and after usage. Other organizations are asking their sanitation teams to disinfect during the day; in this scenario, Ms. Nguyen suggests placing a standing reservation on each conference room calendar in order to reserve it for cleaning.
Teamwerc also advises businesses to contact whoever manages their HVAC system to inquire about the last time maintenance was performed, the type of filtration in use, and how frequently they expect maintenance to be performed going forward. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) references guidance from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers regarding appropriate HVAC operation & maintenance. Similarly, if you have operable windows, start opening them during the day to let in fresh air.
Personal protective equipment (PPE): Don’t forget distribution logistics
Providing face masks or PPE to employees is “one of the things we strongly advise,” says Ms. Nguyen. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has provided guidance (see pp. 18-25) on recommended PPE based on an assessment of the risk level of a given job. If you do choose to provide PPE, consider how you will safely distribute such items, train employees on appropriate use, and safely dispose of them.
Hygiene and PPE supplies: Keep a close eye on inventories
If you aren’t closely monitoring your hygiene supplies, you should start doing so, and set targets for how many weeks’ of supply you want to maintain. Inventories to watch include basic cleaning and hygiene supplies (e.g., liquid disinfectant or disinfectant wipes, liquid soap, paper towels, hand sanitizer) as well as equipment like face masks or PPE (e.g., gloves, face shields). With global supply constraints, you will want to act early to replenish supplies. Ms. Nguyen notes that many of the big suppliers rely on international supply chains that may incur long lead times, and instead suggests looking for local organizations like apparel companies who have re-tooled their operations to produce items like face masks (see, for example, the Traveler Mask Project, linked at the bottom of this article).
Partnering with landlords and service providers: Work as one team
If you don’t own your facility, make sure you are working closely with your landlord. Align on any new building or sanitation procedures, any changes in access protocols, or any alterations you expect to make to physical spaces. Similarly, work with any service providers or vendors you may have coming on-site, including potentially asking them to come during non-peak hours where possible. In general, Teamwerc advises that you align with your landlord and/or service providers to ensure all your policies are consistent, and that you share a minimum set of requirements regarding how you safely operate in the facility.
Supporting employees: Create a company “voice”
In communicating these changes to employees, Ms. Costantino recommends deciding on the tone or “voice” of your organization early and making sure that voice is consistent across the organization. Use a cross-functional response team or another cross-functional forum to align your policies and voice across stakeholders, including people management, HR, security, and sanitation. While the voice of your organization will be unique, both partners recommend you start with a foundation of empathy and understanding, and that you create pathways for employees to anonymously provide suggestions and feedback.
Once you have aligned on your voice, Ms. Nguyen recommends posting a scorecard for your facility that summarizes all the changes or improvements you have implemented in the facility, policy, or procedures. “A scorecard should show what changed and what we are doing differently today, whether it’s how you move through the building in the common areas, to how you check in, to how you use access control, to how we’re maintaining cleaning. Be really transparent.”
Finally, Teamwerc emphasizes that it’s necessary to continually encourage and remind employees of best practices and expectations regarding hygiene, social distancing, and any behavior requiring their personal commitment. Ms. Nguyen points out, “As much as we talk about reconfiguring workspaces down the road, that doesn’t remind an employee to wash their hands - we still need to focus a lot on the right behaviors.”
Closing thoughts: Use your guiding principles, and prepare to learn and pivot
While there is much to think about in the post-pandemic world, Ms. Costantino encourages employers not to get overwhelmed by the possibilities and decisions. “We’re not trying to make it rocket science...Let’s just use what we have.” Ms. Nguyen adds, “We as employers need to admit we don’t have all the answers, and we are going to make mistakes. But we’re going to use our guiding principles, be resilient, and be ready to pivot.”
Teamwerc is a workplace consultancy that partners with organizations worldwide to articulate and implement workplace strategies. For more information, visit their website at http://teamwerc.co/.