Last reviewed 14 June 2020

Laura King outlines some practical steps an organisation can take to physically redesign office space to make it COVID-19 secure.

With the Government announcing a staged return to work in England, employers with staff working in office environments will need to review how to adapt their workplace so that it is virus-safe and ready for employees.

In its guidance for offices and contact centres, first published on 11 May 2020, the Government outlined how it expects employees to create a “COVID-19 secure” working environment in office settings (including call centres and operations rooms) where employees are unable to work from home.

At the heart of the guidance is a risk assessment, which requires employers to reduce the risk of infection to the “lowest reasonably practicable level”. It outlines that organisations should take three steps.

  1. Ensure a high level of hygiene by increasing handwashing and surface cleaning.

  2. Make working from home the first, default, option. Where staff need to come into the workplace, workplaces should be redesigned in such a way that social distancing can be adhered to. This means taking measures to ensure that staff can stay 2 metres (6 feet) apart.

  3. If social distancing cannot be adhered to, then the company must decide if the activity needs to continue, and if it does, ensure they have taken mitigating actions to stop the spread of COVID-19. The guidance suggests a number of mitigating actions that include using screens to separate people or using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face).

The guidance also stresses that when considering the COVID-19 secure office it is important to not just consider the areas where people spend a lot of time. Arriving and departing from work, travel between sites, and common rooms also need to be considered. Similarly, physical measures such as desk spacing should be complemented with logistical measures such as implementing shift working, scheduling breaks and rethinking how to manage visitors and deliveries.

The big picture — what does COVID-19 mean for offices?

When taking a wider view of the requirements to make workplaces virus-safe, there is likely to be three phases which employers will need to be mindful of.

  1. The immediate actions needed to get a workplace safely up and running.

  2. Adaptation to optimise the workspace.

  3. Longer-term considerations about what is needed from the office.

From the outset, it would be useful to be clear on which measures are a quick-fix and temporary, and which will reflect the “new normal”.

The first phase will be looking at the next few weeks and months: how do you quickly retrofit the workplace with relatively straight-forward measures that will ensure the safety of staff? It is likely these mitigating actions will be through interventions such as desk spacing, re-purposing spaces, removing seating areas and adding physical barriers.

The second step will be to consider optimisation. Employers will need to be able to adapt flexibly to changing needs as well as feedback based on regular reviews of the risk assessment. Key to this stage will be the ability to respond positively to suggestions to help improve working conditions and to encourage behaviour so that virus-safety measures continue to be practised. This might be through provision of different facilities (such as more rooms for video conferencing) or more permanent workspace solutions, such as zoned flooring.

The third phase will be to look to the longer term. With a vaccine for the virus still in development, and the Government maintaining that it wants to adopt a cautious approach, it is likely that workplaces will need to be COVID-19 secure for the foreseeable future. As such, it is likely that organisations will need to start to rethink what they need from their office space.

Many offices are open plan and occupied at a high density — the polar opposite of an environment that stops the spread of germs. If businesses are to maintain a happy and healthy workforce, then these issues will need to be addressed.

Steps organisations should take when considering a COVID-secure office

Key to any immediate action that employers take will be a high level of employee engagement. Understandably, many will be fearful of a return to work, and so employers need to work with staff to alleviate any concerns and to demonstrate that they are willing to listen and adapt. The following considerations will help with this.

1. Conduct a COVID-19 secure risk assessment of the workplace. The basis of workplace mitigation measures will be a walk-through from a virus-safety point-of-view, identifying the areas and challenges that will need to be addressed. Consider what you want the workplace to look like on the first day people use the space, as well as considerations that could be adapted over the medium-to-long term.

Ensure that the assessment is conducted with the input of members of staff who are familiar with working in the particular setting, as well as any other stakeholders such as trade unions. Some problematic areas to consider will include:

  • lifts

  • toilets

  • reception areas, entrances and exits

  • meeting rooms and communal areas

  • common “touchpoints” such as turnstiles, lift buttons or door handles

  • narrow corridors or tight spacing between work areas.

2. Establish workable rules that are simple to follow. These controls should be straightforward, and easy to adhere to. For example, if it is determined that flow through the building is in a clockwise manner, then clearly mark this on the floor. Input from staff in designing solutions to any challenges identified in step 1 will be critical here as it will mean the rules are much more likely to be adhered to.

3. Set up a COVID-19 secure team. This team should be responsible for monitoring how well the new workplace is functioning and should include the current members of staff responsible for occupational health, workplace health and safety as well as staff representatives and trade unions. This team should be able to inform risk control measures and act as a conduit for staff concerns to be fed into management decision-making processes.

4. Regular review. As with any new practice, the effectiveness of the new plans should be regularly reviewed. The formal review should include a walkthrough to see how the measures are functioning in practice, including whether they are being adhered to as well as any impact they are having on day-to-day operations. Feedback from staff using the workplace will be incredibly helpful to determine what is working and what isn’t, and so it might also be useful to conduct an anonymous survey to solicit opinions and to identify problem areas, as well as other ideas and solutions for improvements.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

It goes without saying that a fundamental aspect to a COVID-19 secure premises is communication. For any measure to be successful, staff will need to firstly understand what is required of them and then they will need to co-operate with the interventions in place and change their behaviour accordingly. For example, there is clearly no point in having a one-way system if staff are not aware of it, or if the markings on the floor do not make it obvious where to go. Staff will also need to be willing to comply, eg by taking the “long route” to the exit, rather than making a short cut against the designated flow.

This means that alongside any interventions that are adopted to make the building safe, there should also be a corresponding communication plan which includes a staff induction to introduce the new measures. Both the communication plan and the risk assessment should be published so that there is transparency about how the organisation is responding to its duties.

It has also been shown that people are much more likely to follow instructions if there is a clear reason “why”, as well as if they are involved in decision-making. For this reason, any measures taken should be:

  • reasoned — ie there is a clear rationale and objective for implementing them

  • consistent — ie what is required in one place is also required at a similar sites elsewhere

  • based on staff input — ie both from the initial risk assessment process and as part of any continuous review.

As well as redesigning COVID-19 secure workplaces alongside staff, consider whether it is possible to undertake a trial of any interventions and make amendments based on feedback. Remember, this is new territory for everyone and so wherever possible establish two-way communication. Listening and acting on feedback and concerns will not only make the risk assessment more robust, it will also give staff the confidence that they are safe to come to work.

Practical steps in the near-term

Many of the redesign options available to companies will centre around five fundamental principles.

  1. Spacing to reduce seating density.

  2. Changing the orientation of furniture.

  3. Adding physical barriers.

  4. Clear instructions for shared spaces.

  5. Using visual aids.

COVID-19 secure desks

There are a number of ways that hygiene can be improved at desks, eg by providing individuals with their own keyboard and mouse, putting cleaning materials on desks for use before a shift starts and at the end of the day, and enforcing a strict clear-desk policy.

Desks should be spaced apart and reorientated to reduce face-to-face configurations. For example, four desks facing inwards could be turned around so that they face outwards with the use of physical screens to create a barrier behind, in front and to the side of each work area.

Desks that cannot be reorientated or are not 2m apart should be compartmentalised with physical screens that can be easily cleaned.

COVID-19 secure distance markers and routing

Use floor markers to delineate the golden 2m rule, eg around desks and in any areas where a queue has the potential to form such as at reception desks. Identify the “pinch points” where people congregate or where the movement of people is concentrated and design the flow around the office to avoid these. Use signage on the floor to clearly mark the direction of travel.

COVID-19 secure communal areas

Make it clear how many people can be in a space at any one time and use signs on the door to communicate this. Meeting rooms, for example, will have a maximum capacity and there should also be a protocol for entering, exiting and cleaning shared rooms. Similarly, in confined spaces such as lifts, a maximum capacity will need to be identified, although wherever possible people should also be encouraged to use the stairs.

COVID-19 secure restrooms

Providing COVID-19 secure toilet facilities is perhaps one of the hardest areas to adapt as there is a requirement to provide a certain number of facilities for staff. However, with reduced occupancy there will be options for reducing the provision of facilities, eg by blocking alternate sinks so that people maintain a safe distance from one another when washing their hands. Where there are a small number of people in offices it might be possible to restrict the use of facilities to one person at a time by installing a lock on the inside of the main door.

Another aspect to consider is the hygiene of restrooms. Enhanced cleaning is important, but there are also options for the use of non-touch technologies, such as for toilet flushes and taps that will improve hygiene. Consideration could be given to non-touch door handles and the provision of alcohol sanitiser outside the rest room that people can use on exiting the facility. As in hospital settings, the use of paper towels for drying hands is more hygienic than air driers — leaving hands damp is the least hygienic of all options.

COVID-19 secure reception areas

Entrances and exits will be an obvious pinch point for staff. As well as some of the measures outlined by the Government, such as staggered start times, these areas will also need to be managed. These areas set the tone for the rest of the building and will mark the start of any designated routing around the office; therefore, they will be a critical area to get right. Make sure visual aids on the floor and distance markers are clear, and also consider if there are alternative ways in and out of the building that can be used to alleviate any potential for congestion.

To help protect receptionists, screens can be provided to create a physical barrier, and the number of seats provided for waiting can be reduced. Items such as sign-in books will need to be replaced with non-touch alternatives — options can include switching to digital visitor management systems or requiring receptionists to sign in on behalf of visitors.

Cleaning

Clearly, cleaning will be a critical element for a return to work.

It is worth noting that making cleanliness as high-profile as possible will provide reassurance to staff. Cleaning schedules should be reviewed, and records should clearly display when an area has been cleaned, and by who. As well as wall-mounted hand sanitising stations, staff should also be able to wash their hands regularly, sanitise high touch-points such as copier buttons, and disinfect areas and desks before and after they use them.

Looking to the long term

Going forward, there are any number of solutions to help reinvent the office. From voice-activated technology, non-contact sensors to call lifts or pedals to turn on taps, to high-tech materials that are anti-microbial and easy to clean, it is likely that the market for COVID-19 office solutions will be on the rise.

As well as the design of the office space, other aspects will need consideration by facilities teams, including better quality air filtration and the ability to provide regular deep cleans.

While the first step will be to conduct a risk assessment and put in place measures to ensure staff safety, the work will not stop there as the concept of a COVID-19 secure office evolves along with our understanding of the virus, our response to it, and the adaptation measures required.