How do we get our workplaces ready to go back to work after Coronavirus?
As French President Emmanuel Macron described COVID-19, the enemy we are fighting is elusive and invisible. However, the implications and consequences of our fight are visible and blatant and will remain to be so for a while. Based on how things are developing around the world, it is safe to say that nothing will be the same as before. Until vaccines are developed or until herd immunity is established, returning to normal will not be an option. So what might our new normal be?
The workplace, is by nature, a place where people gather and it represents a huge risk of setting off another wave if not managed carefully. Instead of being a risk area, how can we use the workplace as an important arena for epidemic prevention?
As some countries that have been ahead of the curve try and restart their economies, we start to see people go back to work. The workplace however is by nature a place where people gather and it is therefore at huge risk of setting off another wave if not managed carefully. So instead of being a risk area, how can we use the workplace as an “important arena for epidemic prevention1”.
Coming out of lockdown is likely to be a gradual process, heavily restricted by a number of measures. Taking its name from the main measure of keeping 1.5m distance between people, what will our 1.5m society look like? After the lockdown period is over -however long it may be- the question of ‘Do we work from home or do we go back to the office?’ will not be enough. The questions we should ask are: What kind of workplace can we go back to? What would it take to make going back to the office work? and how do we adapt our workplaces to the 1.5m economy?
Studies are indicating a two year lead time in the best case scenario for a vaccine to be developed, tested and ready for the masses2. This means that we are not talking about a matter of a week or a month, but of at least two years. During that period, we hope to be able to function again, as a society, even if in a sub-optimal way or under strict requirements. What does that mean for the workplace? It means that our workplaces will need to be fundamentally different. And since this is a matter of years, not months, it is well worth it to approach adapting your workplace as seriously as it would have been to design it in the first place. In fact, let me rephrase that, it should be approached much more seriously. We are dealing here with life or death, literally.
The questions we should ask are: What kind of workplace can we go back to? What would it take to make going back to the office work? How do we adapt our workplaces to the 1.5m economy?
So, when the time comes, what can be some of the strategies to resume work without setting off another wave of infections?
Based on the latest health reports, and the few asian companies that are going back to work, we round up here the list of measures taken in some of the workplaces. While not all measures may be applied in all companies, they often include firm workplace rules, rigorous testing, travel restrictions, and comprehensive smartphone tracking.
- Employees are required to wear masks all day. In some companies, wearing the mask is tied to employees’ performance KPIs.
- Employees’ temperature is taken multiple times a day. In some instances, infrared cameras – in addition to security staff- are being used to that effect.
- Everyone is discouraged from taking public transport
- Most companies have established a rotation of the employees through the office. They are splitting their workforce into shifts and only allowing specific groups in the office at each given time. This results in a maximum of 50% of employees allowed into the workplace each day.
- The desks on the work floor have been rearranged so that employees are spaced by at least 1.5 meter.
- Some companies have arranged for food to be delivered to employees at their desks, so that movement is reduced and employees eat alone. In other instances, employees are seated one per table at the cafeteria, therefore ensuring enough space in between themselves, while also using cardboard ‘face shields’ to place around themselves and their meal, while they eat with masks off.
- The elevator floors have been marked with tape to keep people from standing too close to each other.
- Traffic to the coffee machine is regulated.
- Face to face meetings are discouraged
- Workspaces and facilities are decontaminated three times a day.
- Some companies have implemented a daily health questionnaire within their internal app that employees are required to fill in. Based on their answers, they are assigned a colour code that allows them or forbids them entering the office every morning, under the checks of security staff.
Start now to think about how your workplace needs to be adapted to the 1.5m economy, and remember to find a way to engage your people in this process.
Adapting the workplace to the 1.5m economy is not simply about creating more space in between people. Arriving into the office is sounding more like an emergency drill than the pleasant social encounter it used to be. Most companies will have to implement an arrival routine that will include checking people’s temperatures, equipping them with gloves, masks and strict instructions. How will our workplaces look when the reception becomes a hybrid between an infirmary and a security checkpoint? What happens to our meeting rooms, when a 12 people boardroom can only host 3 people? How can we ever use the elevators safely and efficiently? What about the coffee machine and the bathrooms? What about corridors that do not always have a 1.5m width available? And all this may be even worse if you work in a high-rise3.
While all of these may be sound and necessary measures, they are all physical measures. What about the social, psychological and emotional dimensions of employees’ well-being? Will the paranoia that is reigning in the supermarkets now accompany us to the workplace? Will we be torn between the joy of reuniting with a friend at work and the paranoia of wondering if he/she will be the one to get us ill? Will we gain new reflexes every time a human being gets close? Will we see every person around us as a threat?
Take for example the case of people eating alone in the cafeteria, hunched over their meal, with their faces hidden behind cardboard shields. Will this situation and many others, become so unpleasant that people choose to avoid the workplace and work from home? While necessary, these measures may have serious and irreversible implications on employee’s engagement and well-being. And while we do not have all, or maybe any of the answers, it is essential that we start asking the right questions. In order to ask the right questions and have even a fighting chance when it comes to the right answers, there is only one proven approach you can rely on: find a way to engage your employees in a participatory process. While the process that will suit every company will be different, it is essential that people are engaged in a participatory process and that the questions and answers are a collective effort.
Now that your employees are still working from home is in fact the ideal time to start thinking about how do you adapt your workplace to the 1.5m economy. Just like we have seen with governments, a ‘wait and see’ approach never helps. So instead of finding yourself late and in reaction mode once people are allowed back to the office, start now to think about how your workplace needs to be adapted to the 1.5m economy, and remember to find a way to engage your people in this process.
Will the coronavirus change the way we work, long after the virus is history? Will we abandon the workplace, with many more permanently working from home? Or will we return to all our past practices once this episode is over? In fact, if you think about it, the worst thing that can happen is that we indeed return to all our past habits and practices, as if nothing happened. That would be a total waste of an incredible opportunity to learn from our failures and the weaknesses of our systems. This is an opportunity to learn from the present, in order to design a future, that is fundamentally better than our past.
As Winston Churchill said “Never waste a good crisis”.
Would you like to be oriented about what you can do to start adapting your workplace to the 1.5 meter economy and how you can engage your employees in the process?
Request here a Free Professional Consultation of your Workplace, in which AKKA Architects will help you prepare your organisation to go back to work.
1. Wen Tianwu, Beijing’s urban management department for the Financial Times