10 Ways to Balance Safety With Wellbeing When Bringing People Back to the Workplace

The office as we know it is ripe for upheaval. While companies are reevaluating the role of the office after a long period of remote working, it’s important to be mindful of whether we might be risking wellness in the name of safety. Office design can play an important role in the prevention and transmission of disease in the workplace, while also supporting employee wellbeing. But only if done right. 

As companies begin to bring workers back into the office, knee-jerk reactions to OSHA’s guidelines have resulted in more than calls for social distancing. Likewise, with eagerness to return to some semblance of pre-pandemic ways, business leaders need to pause and ask: Are we making changes to the office due to knowledge of this virus or out of fear? And what will be the impact of those changes?

For example in many office environments, there are up to five generations of workers, and some will be at higher risk for infection than others. Generational norms affect how workers might respond to new design considerations. Those previously comfortable with the cubicle may wax nostalgic for the good old days. Younger staff may feel stifled if you introduce walls separating people. Careful consideration of the impact of design changes are a must to minimize the potential for harm to cohesion and values of the workplace. 

Similarly, we know that the virus can live on surfaces for up to four hours. Recently, some scientists posit that the virus may remain airborne for longer periods than first thought. Is adding more surfaces by creating physical barriers really the best solution to this challenge? More surfaces require more cleaning, and they create more opportunities for contact transmission of the virus. 

The changes you make now will go a long way toward providing the psychological safety that workers will need to feel ready to return to the office. So before installing more partitions and plexiglass shields, stop and reconsider what we know about the virus and fully survey the technological and operational tactics and tools available. 

The reality is that there is no single answer to safely working in an office environment during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, identifying a range of actions will help organizations make smart, thoughtful decisions in support of the staff and the organization’s sustainability. 

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10 Ways to Create a Healthy Office Environment

When remote work doesn’t work for everyone, establish policies and procedures for staff working in the office.  Here are some tactics to consider:

  1. Stagger schedules and access. The aim is to minimize the number of people in the office at any one time. It will be critical to communicate guidelines for employees on how to maintain a healthy work environment. You’ll want to discuss issues regarding transportation to work, personal protection, hygiene, and actions the company is taking to minimize transmission of the virus. 
  2. Require personal-protection protocols. Face masks — if worn by everyone — greatly diminish virus transmission rates. But they do not absolve people from social distancing. Also, depending on your existing layout, encourage compliance by leaving alternating work stations empty to support six-foot distance requirements. Close off areas where no opportunity for physical separation is possible. And as a last resort, install temporary barriers. Additionally, offer PPE at low or no cost for those in need. And of course, provide individual cleaning supplies for each employee. 
  3. Communicate clearly and through multiple channels. Support your measures with visible signage that makes expectations clear. Provide information and training regarding maintaining health and safety during the outbreak. Also encourage employees to be aware of their own health and encourage them to stay home if they are feeling sick. 
  4. Use temperature scanners and other technology. These devices discourage sick staffers from coming to work and detect the ones that do. 
  5. Manage office air. With increasing concerns about the virus in the air, you may want to consider more robust air purifying systems, as well as access to fresh air. If it’s an option, open windows and doors to allow more fresh air in the office, which will help circulate it too. Additionally, HVAC units can be especially helpful in areas where collaboration and engagement are necessary. Restrooms are also areas of concern.
  6. Reevaluate office layout and access. Carefully consider the location and layout of the office entry and receiving for staff, visitors, and deliveries. Separate entrances or paths that are used only by visitors can cut down on exposures from non-employees who have not met the same safety protocols. You can also reconfigure paths of travel so that work nodes limit the people in any one area.
  7. Add lockers at entrances. This enables storage of coats and other garments away from where people work. Likewise, you can incorporate an entry vestibule in the building lobby. Such smaller entry spaces create decontamination zones that help clean air prior to entry into the office.  
  8. Change out materials in high traffic areas. Some flooring material, including vinyl, LVT, and rubber, offer improved cleaning and durability characteristics. Antimicrobial materials like high-pressure laminates, solid surface acrylics, quartz, and stainless steel minimize the chance of virus growth on raised surfaces. 
  9. Incorporate voice-command or hands-free systems. This would help to limit surface transmission via highly used doors and elevators.
  10. Limit the number of users in areas of amenities. If you have a breakroom or a gym, you’ll want to ensure proper social distancing in such spaces. You might also consider multiple smaller spaces for amenities instead of singular large spaces (if new construction or remodeling is an option). You’ll want to follow certification standards like WELL as a good guide for human-centered design.

Lastly, don’t forget about people working remotely. It’s a good idea to duplicate office conditions. Strategies implemented in the office to facilitate wellness should be duplicated in remote locations. Design and furnishing elements, including ergonomic furniture, biophilic design concepts, natural lighting, and electronic lighting that support circadian rhythms are all things to consider as you extend wellness goals outside of the shared office. 

You might also consider alternative work sites. Many are altering their spaces to provide protected, sterilized environments that can be rented. Since their infrastructure supports web access and ergonomic environments, alternate work sites are a viable option when workers’ homes aren’t ideal. 

Regardless of efforts you make, it’s critical to approach this problem carefully, with deep consideration for wellness and the humanity of your workers. By thoughtfully thinking about the nature of work, the health and safety of workers, and the mission and values of your organization, you can ensure that your new workplace will become a place where people want to be —  even when they don’t have to be there.

Darryl Henderson, AIA, leads Hanbury’s Interior Architecture Practice, bringing to his projects his passionate belief in the power of design. He delights in engaging with clients and their stakeholders to deeply understand the needs of learning and working environments and translating that into an architecture that is connected to the identity and mission of the client. He finds inspiration in the changing landscapes that clients face — evolving technologies, demographics, social norms and expectations, and spatial support for health and well-being — and seeing those as opportunities for responsive and adaptive design solutions that enhance the experiences of people who encounter them. Darryl can be reached at: dhenderson@hewv.com.

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