Once upon a time, in offices everywhere, we all packed into tiny elevators without blinking an eye. We palmed door handles, still warm from another’s touch. We put our hands all over microwaves and refrigerators covered in visible fingerprints.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought an end to our old office lives and ushered in a new age of public-health awareness, sanitation savviness, and social distancing at work.
Social distancing at work might be the most novel aspect of our new normal. When have you ever worried about bumping into someone while preparing snacks in the office kitchen?
Let’s go ahead and tackle the question we’re all asking: What is social distancing at work?
Social distancing at work is the practice of staying at least 6 feet apart from our co-workers, co-commuters, and office and building mates at all times. The core rule at the heart of social distancing—staying 6 feet apart—necessitates additional interventions, such as reducing office capacity and limiting the number of people allowed at in-person meetings.
Social distancing at work allows us to continue efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 while also safely resuming new-normal business practices.As offices and businesses reopen, social distancing measures may help avoid COVID-19 surges.
Social distancing at work also demands building managers, bosses, office managers—and really anyone who works in an office—to start thinking like public-health professionals, constantly striving to identify and mitigate risks.
We developed the consideration points below to help you start envisioning your safe return-to-work strategy.
We encourage you to discuss these points with as many people (inside and outside your company) as possible and to frequently check national, state, and local government websites for up-to-date guidance as the COVID-19 pandemic develops.
Table of Contents
→ The precise standards and procedures anyone cleaning your office (or occupying your office) should understand and follow.
→ The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have the “why” covered. Just read these lines from their guidance on cleaning and disinfection:
“Current evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials. Cleaning of visibly dirty surfaces followed by disinfection is a best practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses in households and community settings.”
→ Consider these points to start establishing your cleaning and disinfecting protocols. Work closely with your office cleaning staff as you plan. If your office sits within a larger building, then you’ll also have to collaborate with building managers and additional cleaners.
Do you work in a building with common areas your cleaners don’t cover? These areas might include:
Do you have a system in place for tracking areas that have been cleaned and when? (Think of those checklists you see on the doors of public restrooms.)
Are contractors available should you need an emergency cleaning session if someone in your office tests positive?
What cleaning products does your staff use?
Do your cleaners have a list of critical office areas or items to cover each day? Think of any surface people touch often, including:
Should you consider hiring a third-party sanitation inspector?
What cleaning protocols will you ask staff to follow?
What cleaning and sanitation products can you supply employees?What will you expect them to bring?
Members of our Facebook Group for Office Managers have recommended:
→ Your plan for keeping crowds in your office low enough to decrease the risk of spreading infection.
→ Without crowd control planning, most office environments make it impossible for people to stay 6 feet apart at all times. For example, if even one hallway is less than 6 feet wide, then it could lead to disease transmission.
This post features a model showing how quickly disease spreads in a standard office environment with no crowd control.
→ Consider these points to start crowd control planning.
How many employees will be allowed in the office at any given time?
Dr. Shrikant Sharma reports his analytic team’s finding:
“The results show that beyond 40% a occupancy rate revisions to desk layout and high footfall areas will be needed to enable effective social distancing in the workplace.”
How will you determine who’s allowed in the office?
How many people will be allowed to meet / gather in common areas?
Other considerations for meetings:
How will you monitor or enforce these rules?
Will you appoint an on-site monitor or allow employees to self-report compliance?
→ A clear, well-communicated PPE policy that gets ahead of employee questions and ensures consistent practices throughout your company.
→ PPE works in conjunction with social distancing to block exposure to infectious material. The CDC recommends wearing PPE whenever there’s a chance of contacting potentially infectious sprays or spatters, which can be created by coughs or sneezes.
→ Develop your plan and distribute PPE (or communicate what you expect employees to provide) before returning to work.
→ Consider these points to start developing a PPE policy.
Complete a PPE risk assessment for your office.
How closely packed are employees throughout the day?
Pandemic times have heightened the risk status of simple coughs and sneezes.
Consider the level of human contact necessary to conduct business.
Use your office’s contact level to determine what kind of PPE might be appropriate for your office.
Will you ask employees to wear PPE during their commutes?
Will you provide the PPE or ask employees to secure it themselves?
If employees must provide their own PPE, will you mandate the type you require?
One office manager in this Facebook Group explains how her company is managing PPE,
“We purchased 400+ masks, 6ft distance between all employees, masks must be worn in common areas, infrared temperature scan upon entering the building.”
→ A strategy for reorganizing and altering your workspace to decrease the risk of spreading infection.
→ Many office designs maximize capacity, cleverly and comfortably fitting as many people into a space as possible. The same human density that makes modern office floor plans cost-effective also makes them breeding grounds for disease.
However, workspace modifications, implemented in conjunction with other prevention protocols, could make existing offices safe again.
Airborne disease expert, Dr. Donald Milton, told National Geographic:
“You could space people out, and if you’re doing that in combination with a reasonable amount of ventilation and sanitation, you should be able to have a reasonably safe space.”
→ Plan to modify your office before returning to work. (Empty offices make completing modifications easier, and planning early gives you time to secure funds or communicate challenges with staff if the necessary modifications are outside your budget.)
→ Consider these points to start developing a workspace modification plan.
Model employee movement and clusters within the office.
How can you reimagine the flow of human traffic in your office?
Goal: Remove as much human error from the challenge of social distancing as possible.
Inspiration: Vehicle traffic control.
What additional upgrades can you make to limit surface contact?
Who will make these modifications?
How flexible are your modifications?
What needs to be cleaned, replaced, or disposed of?
How will you evaluate the success of your office modifications?
→ The collection of tools and strategies for telling employees what’s going on and asking how they feel about it.
→ Even the best-planned policies accomplish nothing if no one adopts them.
→ Consider these points to develop a return-to-work communication plan.
Ask employees how they feel about the situation.
Create and distribute a survey.
Ask managers to talk to direct reports.
What types of communication will be necessary to ensure everyone understands your new policies?
Consider non-policy updates your employees need to hear. Some of these communications may be challenging, but transparency is the only way to ensure employees can plan ahead if changes impact their lives.
How will you balance “hard” communication with “soft” communication?
Work on cultivating new mindsets.
→ Staggered attendance allows more people to work in the office if they do so at different times. Restaurants and amusement parks have long used staggering strategies to entertain and feed large crowds of people while keeping capacity within regulations at any given time.
→ If your office capacity is lower than the desire or need to be in the office, then staggering attendance helps everyone get at least a little office time.
→ Develop a staggered attendance policy after you establish your office’s capacity limit and figure out how many people need or want to be in the office.
→ Consider these points to develop a staggered attendance policy.
Consider different options for staggered attendance and flexible schedules:
How often will you refresh space distribution to cater to different pools of employees?
Members of our Facebook Group for Office Managers have recommended:
→ Making sure employees have the support they need to work while keeping themselves and others safe.
→ Challenging times call for above-average support.
→ Consider these points to develop an integration and employee support policy.
Update all existing office policies to accommodate new safety measures.
Work with your human resources (or other relevant) team to completely append any office handbooks or policy documentation you have.
What support do employees need outside the office?
One office manager in this Facebook Group had this advice:
“I suggest you brainstorm to set out a mind map or task list or similar to address the thoughts that you think are applicable to your organisation vs state/govt guidance. [. . .] Just ask yourself what questions you have and what answers you would like to hear applicable to keeping yourself safe in your environment (and getting to your place of work). You can’t address everything but you can try to do the absolute best you can within reason/cost. Write it all down then control what you can. Your questions are pretty much the same as everyone else’s I’m sure. [. . .]”
→ Protocols to stop employees from bringing infection risks with them as they enter your sanitized and modified office space.
→ Just one employee can infect multiple people.
→ Consider these points to establish your entrance and screening protocols. If your office is part of a larger building, then you’ll also have to collaborate with building managers, security guards, or any other groups who “own” or monitor points of entry.
Make a list of every known point of entry to your office.
Map how people flow from various points of entry to your specific office.
Establish your symptom screening protocols.
Some options include:
What other factors will you check or require before entry?
Establish screening-based decisions.
Establish ongoing interventions in the case of a breach—if someone allowed in the office starts displaying symptoms or reports a positive test:
Designate an office public health liaison to monitor the situation outside your office.
Members of our Facebook Group for Office Managers have recommended:
→ Allowing employees to continue working according to your previously-established or pandemic-prompted work from home policy.
→ Return-to-work plans include several moving parts and tons of uncertainty. Continuing an effective remote work model may be the safest option if the nature of work allows it.
→ Before you consider how to plan a return-to-work policy and as you develop your policy. Weigh pros and cons of effectively managing remote work vs. taking the risks and managing the array of logistics involved in returning to work.
→ Consider these points to redlight or greenlight a default work-from-home policy.
→ Guidance to help employees travel to work while reducing their risk of disease and their potential to pass disease to co-workers.
→ Packed public transportation vehicles come along with the potential to produce devastating exposure cascades.
→ Consider these points to start establishing your safe commuting guidance.
What are your local transportation authorities saying about safety measures?
Do you have the budget to offer alternative transportation?
Revise your transportation incentives.
Consider revising start times so employees who rely on public transportation can ride during off-peak hours.
Now that you’ve read all these consideration points, you’re probably trying to picture a realistic timeline. We encourage you to take your time and develop a phased and flexible approach. Here are some closing words of wisdom from a member of our Facebook Group,
“My university is developing a phased plan but there are no dates, on purpose. Instead there are conditions that must be met before each phase can progress, and if conditions change we could even move backward between the phases. The details aren’t published yet, but in general the conditions will depend on the rate of infections in our area, hospital capacity, the availability of PPE, the ability of different buildings/labs to adapt to social distancing protocols, etc.”
Disclaimer: We aim to provide you with quality recommendations for a happy and healthy office. None of the information on this list was provided or reviewed by medical or public-health professionals. We are not responsible for health outcomes in your office.