If you’re a business owner or in charge of deciding when employees can return to the office, you’re facing a ton of uncertainty. While many industries, such as restaurants and retail, have received detailed guidance on what’s expected, those who work in office settings have been left wondering what’s next.
One thing that’s certain, however, is that 64 percent of workers are wary about returning to their offices, which is why you need to think ahead about what changes will be necessary for when that day arrives (and what investment might be involved to make them). Here’s what to consider when preparing your office to reopen.
HOW WILL WE RECONFIGURE THE OFFICE SPACE?
Most experts agree that the new normal will incorporate social distancing for quite some time, which likely means you’ll need to rearrange your employees’ workspaces. This is especially true for offices that have open-plan layouts that don’t offer much space between employees.
“From a layout perspective, there will be a progression away from ‘benching systems’ and open concept work areas to a focus on smaller work areas and larger workstations that allow more space per employee,” says Caitlin Cappa Nuñez, a project manager at commercial real estate firm Transwestern. She recommends instituting a “clean desk” policy." For conference rooms where quarters are tight, think about removing some chairs to encourage lower maximum occupancies.
You’ll also want to think about the flow of foot traffic in your office, which can be addressed by instituting a one-way path of travel in narrow corridors and doorways. If you do this, make sure there is adequate signage and floor markings to serve as regular reminders.
WHAT NEW HYGIENE PRACTICES DO WE NEED?
According to a recent survey, more intense hygiene protocols top employees’ lists of what would entice them to return to the office, with nearly 60 percent stating that masks, gloves and hand sanitizer would make them feel safer.
But installing sanitation stations with ample hand sanitizer is just the start. “Today’s offices are set up to share, and organizations need to think creatively about low-cost, effective solutions so they can modify and evolve,” says Michael Silver, chairman at Vestian, a global commercial real estate solutions firm.
To keep these areas as germ-free as possible, start with a rigorous schedule for cleaning communal surfaces and high-touch areas, with at least five wipe-downs a day, Nuñez suggests, and switch to antimicrobial materials where you can. You might also add more single-use supplies, or stock the kitchen with wipes and signs requesting that employees wipe down handles after use.
Remember that merely implementing these practices is not enough. “Hygiene is common sense, but adjusting worker behavior is the challenge,” Silver says. “Training employees to adopt new, safer workplace behaviors is a matter of skilled change management.” A good place to start? Model the behavior yourself.
WILL WE STILL ALLOW REMOTE WORK?
While some of your team will be eager to get back to the office, others may have embraced remote work — and some companies have announced they will be allowing employees to work from home indefinitely. A similar policy could work in your favor, as reduced foot traffic will make it easier for in-office employees to social distance. Other options are staggered work hours — for instance, having Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday teams that take turns coming into the office.
Of course, you’ll have to balance your decision with your business goals, too. Some businesses may require more collaborative work. Silver recommends comparing production goals among teams or individuals to ensure that what’s being accomplished remotely compares favorably to what has been done in-office. The key is to measure output rather than face time.
If you decide to operate with a hybrid team, you may need to update your infrastructure to accommodate it. That will likely entail evaluating audio and visual needs in your conference rooms because video calls are likely to increase, Silver says. You’ll also want to make sure you’ve deployed strong anti-virus systems, as well as mobile IT teams to evaluate any breaches, Nuñez adds.
WHAT WILL THIS COST US?
It’s likely no surprise that the cost of implementing these modifications can add up, and the tab will vary depending on how many employees you have and how many square feet you occupy, among other factors. The good news is that the majority of these are one-time costs, Nuñez says. And if you plan to downsize your office space with fewer employees coming in at a time, you might be able to find ways to save by paying less rent or selling some of your workstations, chairs or other furniture.
You might be able to get some assistance from your landlord in sharing some of the expenses, Silver says. “The extra costs of delivering these services within a building should not necessarily be borne by the tenant, as clean, safe standards have to be established in the workplace — and in some cases, delivered by the landlord.” He recommends negotiating which tenant improvements the landlord might underwrite, as well as ensuring that common areas of a building are attended to. “A landlord must agree in writing to deliver a new standard for safe, healthy post-COVID actions,” Silver says. Don’t forget to consult with your insurance carrier and legal counsel to ensure you are protected from liability.