Return To Work Insights + Best Practices Following COVID-19
With nearly every state currently in some stage of phased reopening, employers are now faced with designing and implementing a Return To Office (RTO) Plan in tandem with finding their footing in a market strikingly different than that of just a couple of months ago. [1, 2] In truth, these two considerations dovetail, as companies with a robust, forward-looking, and well-communicated response plan will instill confidence and assuage anxiety in their returning workforce. These plans will also, invariably, constitute not only behavioral and social changes amongst employees, but changes (perhaps permanent) to the physical workspace itself.
With the fallout from COVID-19’s relentless advance upending nearly every industry on a worldwide scale, there is no shortage of voices (and therefore no shortage of debate) discussing how to approach the future shape of the workplace, one of the many ways we will all be navigating the “new normal.” With revenues, sales, and consumer confidence shrinking in most sectors, it could be forgivably assumed that many companies would simply reach for a band-aid instead of prioritizing a workspace evolution.  But the reality is, many top CFOs are already focusing on the long-term change necessary to not only bring their workers back, but adapt their physical spaces to new conditions of safety and health. Of the top three transitional implementations for on-site work that polled CFOs are planning, two of them are focused on the realities of space.  Reconfiguring work sites and establishing alternating shifts amongst workers are not buzzy trends but viable, sustainable core changes to workplace environments that may well remain intact beyond the threat of COVID-19. These changes are being selected because they are practical and responsible, with workers and their communities standing to benefit from lowered transmission risk. Even legal experts and law writers are now parsing these conversations and analyzing these trends, further nodding to the likely inevitable and systemic nature of these workspace transformations. 
So, with the “what” starting to firmly establish itself (and the “why” intuitively understood), the question of workspace transformation and upfitting rests on the “how.” Referencing the opinions and concerns of health care experts is wise. Paying heed to the guidelines coming down from federal and state officials and bureaucracies is equally smart, and often necessary. In both instances, there can be a lot to unpack.
The current CDC guidance focuses heavily on individual behavioral and hygienic modifications, blessing the best practice of social distancing but stopping short of clear advice on how it may be actualized. In fact, two of the only clearly articulated and tangible changes to physical spaces encouraged in their guidelines are improvements to ventilation systems and having an allocated space to separate and isolate infected or potentially infected workers or visitors.  The official White House website offers far more abstract advice to employers, mostly encouraging adoption of generally agreed upon best practices (e.g. improved workplace sanitation, limiting business travel) while deferring to state and local governments to hash out the details of what that might entail or require.  OSHA has no mandate in place for the development of an infectious disease response, regardless of COVID-19.  Thankfully, there are many in the interiors and environments industries who, as a matter of profession, have gathered, digested, and distilled troves of information to produce viable, functional, and flexible solutions for employers looking to respond robustly and effectively to this (and future) infectious disease concerns.
Companies and their workers must exist in their time, with eyes still cast on both the past and the future. Problems and opportunities change, sometimes hand-in-hand. A business cannot “opt out” of adapting to the unforeseen. Some will do what is required, some maybe less. But many others will do more and do it shrewdly, seizing a chance at renewal, improvement, and continued dividends. The goal should not simply be to weather the storm but to emerge stronger for being tested. As such, many employers will navigate the transition of their physical business spaces in tandem with expert opinions, whether those voices come from the CDC, other business leaders, our politicians and bureaucrats, or those within the interiors and environments industries.
• Hygienic Tech – Hygiene Kiosks
One of the chief anxieties surrounding the novel coronavirus is just how much there still is to learn about the virus and its associated risks. Admitting that, there is still strong consensus for the adoption of some very basic and demonstrably good behaviors, most of them ultimately hygienic in nature. These are behaviors that are easily reinforced and facilitated in the workplace through design.
Consider, for instance, the addition of self-administer hygiene stations to the office. Our ingrained relationship with hand sanitizer preceding 2020 was typically one of last resort – a small, two-year-old bottle of gelatinous alcohol lounging somewhere in our cup holders or purses, rarely conscripted for action. Tissue boxes, whether at home or in the office, were practically ornamental outside of allergy season. Now we see these items as hygienic necessities and are made anxious in their absence.
So, it is therefore incumbent on shared-space designers to provide, nudge, and normalize. Just as everyone knows to wash their hands after using the restroom, with this action immediately facilitated by the ubiquitous availability of hot water and soap dispensers, the emerging routines of our “new normal” will be made possible and convenient by readily available hand sanitizer, surface wipes, and facial tissues in small footprint structures. If and when desirable, these hygienic stations can be adapted with flexible messaging, adding utility and longevity by doubling as informational kiosks.
• Hygienic Practice – Touchless + Personal Devices
The hands-on era is paradoxically dead and yet more alive than ever. For when it comes to communal spaces (especially “sensitive” ones), technology and design have championed innovations for decades now that limit physical contact with potentially contaminated surfaces. Toilets, sinks, trash cans, soap dispensers, and hand dryers operated by gesture or simple proximity. Doors that open and close in much the same manner or, as is starting to catch steam, doors that may be simply opened with the foot – inexpensive to install, free to operate, and effectively touchless. The design world has been marrying convenience to pathogen control for decades now in both homes and offices. Where still viable, certain low-tech solutions may continue to surface in modern designs because of their undeniable practicality. But increasingly, designers will be sourcing options from the frontier. With the internet becoming a near-ubiquitous utility, IoT devices have started proliferating in kind. Equally advanced and dependent technologies have emerged in tandem, from voice recognition to AI. The advent, adoption, and promise of these innovations offers options and solutions simply inaccessible a couple of decades ago.
This wide-ranging base of options (from primitive to revolutionary) exists simultaneously in a world where we have already found ourselves flooded and powered by consumer electronics, with an ever-growing subset of them operated through touchscreens. That is the inescapable nowness of our shared technological state.
Intuitively, something that requires firm, deliberate human contact to operate feels psychologically more imperiling than it did just three months ago. And obviously, context is everything – a bit of anxiety is understandable when assessing the smudgy gas station touchscreen that is both keymaster and gatekeeper to your hot dog order. Thankfully, the modern office can employ and embrace touchscreen technology in manners advantageous to limiting and preventing exposure to pathogens, coronavirus included. Firstly, consider simply transitioning away from shared devices. This is an easy and efficacious first step, fueled by two critical realities: (A) touchscreen devices are affordable enough that acquiring them is not generally budget-busting and (B) almost everyone already has one in their pocket and, with perhaps some gentle nudging, can begin acclimating to a world where a couple extra work-related apps on their phone or tablet might be expected of them.  Until touchless interactive technologies become the standard, it is prudent to focus on the strengths and silver linings of a touchscreen dominated world.  As anyone who has ever thoroughly cleaned out a keyboard can attest, the relative ease of sanitizing a touchscreen device cannot be overstated.
• Signage, Wayfinding + Rotating Workforce Shifts
Though some bloggers and journalists have been sounding the death knell of the office with eminently clickable headlines, the office is neither dead nor is it even endangered. It is evolving, as it must. This is no longer a stylistic argument over whether the classic office is stale or lame or stifling, but whether it can upfit itself to be navigable and relevant in a world where a highly transmissible and potentially fatal virus is a forefront consideration for employers and employees alike. 
Preexisting design concepts, such as the open office, will likely see renewed interest, traction, and vigor as employers scour for refitting options that passively allow for social distancing. However, with real estate being one of the most significant portions of overhead, it may not be feasible to effectively disperse the number of on-site workers into the currently available space.
Telework is quickly becoming a buzzword and, for some employers, it will unquestionably become a functional part of solving for the current set of needs. But the reality is, not every job can be done remotely and not every worker is at their most productive off-site. The math on what portion of any given workforce falls into which category is ultimately a case-by-case matter, as well. 
For the majority of businesses, negotiating the rhythm of the office will be a better, savvier solution. An inexhaustive list of ways this might manifest could include:
- Pocketing work groups and employing rotating shifts, thus empowering employers to maintain their ideal staffing, current location, and office culture.
- Color-coding desks, cubicles, and other work areas to allow for spaces (whether previously communal or not) to be functionally divvied up and assigned, thus limiting the potential of individual transmission or exposure.
- The additional of signage and wayfinding, which will undoubtedly play key roles in actualizing and maintaining these aforementioned changes.
- Informational posters to alert and remind the employee of current policy and protocol.
- Carpet stickers to assist with the preservation of proper social distance between employees in shared spaces, as well as to indicate the designated and preferred flow of pedestrian traffic.
One of the great benefits to driving change through graphic design is that the solutions on offer range from temporary to semi-permanent to permanent. Another is pricing – quite simply, graphics can bring messaging to life in ways that are attractive, versatile, intuitive, and affordable.
• Protocol + Screening – Security Systems + Isolation Rooms
Employee screening may very well emerge as one of the most effective and proactive strategies in workplace infection control, and will likely outlive the lifecycle of this current response. Enabling social distance, instilling and promoting best practices, and rigorously maintaining a clean and sanitized workplace are essential preventative measures, but what happens when someone at work actually does get sick? Or someone sick from outside your company visits your office? The key now is in prompt identification and separation of these at-risk individuals, through the creation or expansion of security systems to include screening and isolation.
Security systems and related protocol have been expanded and adapted through the years to address a range of threats, as employers work to prevent and mitigate harm to their businesses and workers. This pandemic will undoubtedly be one of those watershed moments for workplace security, with the worlds of design and technology, already inextricable, leaning further into each other. Solution-building for these high-risk occasions will eventually normalize innovations that currently feel foreign, strange, or even invasive to many office workers. Infrared temperature sensors will provide touchless and immediate readings on workers and visitors. Turnstiles will assist in coordinating and controlling pedestrian traffic. Mantraps will provide an isolation space for further screening and pathogen containment. Implementing these technologies will require the consultation of design professionals. The physical and ergonomic ramifications of clumsy execution or space mismanagement will be real and immediate. But through good design concepts and professional installation, the message of worker safety will transcend the anxiety of such unfamiliar process.
Employers should take comfort and confidence in knowing that these solutions are ADA-compliant and, when paired with the proper redirection of potentially infected persons to health care providers, self-reporting of confirmed cases to the CDC and other applicable agencies, and uncontested availability of FMLA for infected workers, actually meet and exceed the standards put forth by OSHA guidance. [13, 14]
As challenging as this emerging world sometimes seems, the need for employers to create urgent company wide response plans and revise worksites is not optional. One hundred years ago, the imperative of a fire response plan and clearly marked exits were yet to be hardwired into our collective common sense and architectural baselines. Half a century ago, the idea that every retailer, events venue, and office park would need to develop best practices and worker training seminars around the threat of active shooters probably seemed far-fetched. And not even a decade ago, the employers of New England could have been forgiven for assuming they would never need to plan for a hurricane. The constant evolution of threats requires a constant evolution of solutions. It is through good design concepts, as part of a thoroughly considered and multifaceted approach, that mitigation and prevention can be actualized.
We would love to help you create or modify your facility wellness protocol during this challenging period. To get started, call us at 1-800-849-2601, or you can contact us through the form below.
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About The Author
M. A. Karp is the resident CAD Operator and Detailer in our High Point, North Carolina headquarters. In addition to providing detailed setup and fabrication detail drawings for multiple trade show and commercial interior projects that flow through our Design and Detailing Departments, M. A. also supplies our company with a multitude of tasty quips and owns an expansive wardrobe of graphic t-shirts.