How to return to the workplace safely after COVID-19

Last week we hosted our first virtual coffee morning, focused around creating a COVID-19 secure workplace, the expectations of the future office space, the design adaptations we’re making and what measures we can take now to re-enter our workplace safely. 

We had over 50 people attend the event, with guest speakers including Rachael Flanagan, CEO and Founder of Mrs Buckét Commercial Cleaning Services, who recently launched a COVID-19 Prevention and Decontamination Deep Cleaning Service to help companies combat the virus at its core. We were also joined by Rob Hingston, Head of Origin Workspace, one of Bristol’s most contemporary co-working spaces, along with our very own Design Director Helen Bartlett who has worked on numerous office styles and trends throughout her twenty years in design.

Our design has always been research-led, and to avoid any assumptions of what the future office may look like, throughout April and May, we conducted an independent study to understand how people are working during the pandemic, what have been the challenges and what will be the likely changes to their office environment moving forward.

Here is a summary of what we found and what we discussed:

 

51% of all our respondents have an open plan office

“This pandemic doesn’t have to mean the end for the open plan office, it’s simply an evolution. We are going to find different, more effective ways of using open plan spaces for the better. The new government design principles are undoubtably a big learning curve for us as designers, and the office landscape as a whole, but there needs to be balance and a focus on how we use this space.

By creating more division, particularly in terms of screening throughout the office, this will allow the open space to sub-divide into alternative areas for different working styles and tasks. For me, if I’m involved in a focussed piece of statistical work, I struggle to concentrate when there is lots of noise. One benefit out of this global experiment, is that people are beginning to understand more than ever how they work on a personal level. On a business level, there will be more flexibility, where working from home may have been something that was traditionally dismissed right away by some companies, but now they are finding out that it is manageable to a certain extent.”

Helen, Paramount Interiors

 

70% of respondents said their central office would adapt by having less staff in the office at any one time

“There is a lot of confusion out there at the moment for the best practices in returning to work, but employers must make this as easy as possible for staff. Having clear, coherent communication with returning staff will be key. Guidelines and signposts also need to be visible from the first entry point into the office. What we do know, is that people will expect to see change. We expect to visit our local shop, see appropriate signage, navigate in an IKEA-style corridor effect, and have sanitation points. This ‘new normal’ should be easily accepted into the office, it just needs to be transparent and this will be key to a successful re-entry."

Rob, Origin Workspace

“As an employer, we have a responsibility to our employees, but we can’t forget the human element in all of this. People need to be made aware of the expectations to keep the workplace as safe as possible. Whilst reassuring staff that all measures have been taken to mitigate risk, we should consult with them and ask, ‘what would make you feel safe about returning to work?’”

Helen, Paramount Interiors

 

74% of respondents said their business would change operations by encouraging flexible working

“COVID-19 has shaken up the term “flexible working”. It has taken on a new and more powerful meaning, with workplaces having to accept the need to be more agile, more flexible, but not just in terms of the place you go to do your work, but the hours in which you do it and how. The way in which technology has allowed us to work has created efficiencies. Can we justify jumping on a train to London for an hour meeting anymore?

What I have seen with our clients, is that they are looking for new, smaller head office space to split their teams between those who can work from home effectively, to those who can do both and those that should have more presence in the office. Businesses that are in a traditional landlord-tenant relationship, typically with five to ten-year leases coming to an end, will be more likely to investigate downsizing their space if working remotely has proved to be successful for them.

I think that with the new form of flexibility in mind, the biggest change will be in the way that spaces are designed to accommodate this.”

Rob, Origin Workspace

 

78% of respondents said there will be a reduction in the amount of physical meetings

“I think the effects of COVID-19 has presented a real turning point for meetings. Firstly, the number of meetings will be reduced (hallelujah!), they will be shorter, due to the risk that’s associated, and virtual meetings will remain. I think the other difference will be when to have meetings. Perhaps physical meetings will be more widely used for connecting teams? Virtual meetings are great, but it is very difficult to read and understand a team member’s body language. Will connection be lost if physical meetings are a thing of the past? Again, it comes down to finding the right balance, and understanding the different personalities of your team.”

Helen, Paramount Interiors

“We need to be careful, as there are many high-risk touch point areas within meeting rooms, door handles, chairs, IT equipment. To reduce risk, meetings may need to take place in an open area, rather than an enclosed meeting room.”

Rachael, Mrs Buckét

“Stand up meetings have been popular for us in the past, it saves time. Also, by allowing meeting rooms to be booked for half hour max, will create efficiencies whilst reducing the number of meetings normally held in a typical day."

Rob, Origin Workspace

 

49% of respondents said the real challenge to working from home has been loneliness and well-being

“Home working was thrown on people very quickly, and so this situation hasn’t truly tested the concept. Broadband wars, home schooling, ergonomics. People were not prepared and have not been set up in the correct way. People have also been working on their own whilst isolating, which is mentally exhausting. What we need to remember is that being told to work from home during a pandemic, is very different to asking, ‘would you like to work from home?’

I think it is important for businesses to consider having a qualified mental health first aider on-board. You do not need to have the solutions, but by having the right support structures in place, or just a sounding board is a huge step forward in helping and encouraging staff, as we begin to work in this new way.”

Rob, Origin Workspace

 

How can employers prepare for a safe re-entry?

“Peoples mindsets are changing, and COVID-19 has helped spotlight cleanliness in the workplace. By sending in the ‘cleaning crew’ gives a clear message to employees that preventative measures are being done by their employer to mitigate risk. Employers can start now by taking stock of their cleaners’ cupboard:

  1. Are your cleaning cloths colour coded? It is a shocking statistic, but 60% of cleaning companies use the same cloth to wipe communal toilets and office keyboards (Eugh!)
  2. What cleaning solution is being used? What is important is that your cleaners are using a product that is Public Health England approved EN 14476 which disinfects the virus after just one minute
  3. Do you have up-to-date safety data sheets? These describe the physical and chemical properties of the product and how the products should be stored and handled.”

Rachael, Mrs Buckét

 

What would you consider being the high-risk areas of a typical workplace? What can we do to protect these?

“Communal areas, such as lifts, stairs, toilets, kitchens and printing rooms are all high-risk areas. To help reduce the risk of infection, we have introduced a chemical fogging solution. The fog goes into the air, rests, and lands on surfaces, killing the virus for up to 30 days. This solution is the only one found in Wales.

By sanitising workplaces and communal areas in this way helps put employees’ minds at rest seeing the Ghostbusters look, sterilising the workplace ready for return. 

Landlords should protect common areas starting from the outside in. Sanitisation and signage will be key.”

Rachael, Mrs Buckét

 

Final words from our host…

 

“COVID-19 has changed some things for the better and these things will be with us for a long time ahead. But employers can put medium and short-term measures in place now to help in re-entering the workplace.

Yes, different sectors will have different requirements, and yes, we can expect the commercial property market to remain turbulent, maybe until there is a vaccine? But what we do know, is we all want to get the best out of our people. We can do this now by working with our landlords to provide an office environment that abides by the latest government design principles and safety measures, as well as creating an office experience that is compelling and where employees are looking forward to returning to.”

Kevin, Paramount Interiors

 

Thank you to all our guests and attendees. For information on our Prevent & Protect: Return to the Workplace package, including decontamination, workplace analysis, protective screening and more, please contact us.

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