As businesses transitions back to the workplace, there are many questions about what changes are necessary for creating a safe and employee-friendly environment. After weeks of working from the safety of their homes, employees will have a wide range of questions and concerns about moving back to the office.
Some employees might be eager for the personal interaction and structure that an office provides. Others might prefer a gradual transition or one that allows for flexible work hours to support childcare issues or off-peak commuting times. By listening to employees and creating a clear and flexible plan, employers can help mitigate risk and support employees during this critical juncture.
Any "back to work" plan should focus on creating a single entry into and out of the office to reduce the potential for spreading pathogens and, particularly in food facilities, to eliminate cross contamination. Most office buildings can be reconfigured to allow for a single entry point, with touchless temperature monitors, and a wellness center nearby for additional health screening if required.
On the interior of the space, the focus should be on improving air quality and reducing the potential for touchpoints and close personal contact. In a typical building, air is recycled throughout the day, with limited fresh air entering the system. Introducing Bi-Polar Ionization and UV-C spectrum upgrades to the HVAC system to purify the air, along with increasing the number of air exchanges per hour, can significantly reduce the spread of pathogens. Also, utilizing UV-C light after hours to disinfect surfaces frequently touched is another important step in reducing the risk of infection.
When re-evaluating the office interior layout, businesses should look at employee work-flow patterns, and the path of customers or vendors within the facility. Separating the various groups, in a controlled manner, reduces contact and cross contamination. Automatic door operators should be installed on main doorways. Existing office layouts can be designated with one-way traffic aisles, and by removal of a few chairs, social distancing can be achieved in open workstation areas, conference rooms, and between tables in breakrooms.
These social distancing measures should be non-evasive and not require significant or costly furniture modifications. There are many portable furniture accessory components that are coming on the market that will accomplish screening between employees. These components are generic and fit most any systems furniture. They are easily installed with clamps or supported directly off the floor on rolling casters. They do not require modifying existing workstations and can be removed at a future time.
Other easy retrofit steps would include anti-microbial treatments to fabric surfaces, using anti-microbial paint on walls in high traffic areas, and wrapping removable anti-microbial tape on all other door handles and cabinet pulls.
All these measures would require the support from a Health & Welfare Policy. Top down company support and management of these improvements will help relieve anxieties of returning employees. There is no "one size fits all" approach, but implementing plans that are flexible and focus on health and well-being will go a long way in supporting employees that have varying degrees of fear and varying degrees of health risk conditions. An important focus is to support the overall health and productivity of employees while maintaining business goals.
As businesses look toward reopening - and a possible second wave of infection later in the year - it is important to understand how the flow of business can be modified while still supporting the overall goals of the company. Being proactive in addressing these concerns will go a long way in retaining and attracting the best talent in the workplace.
• Karl Heitman, AIA, LEED-AP, is president of Heitman Architects in Itasca.