Defining the New Normal: Redesigning the Workplace Post-COVID-19

After several months of lockdown and staying at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, many companies are beginning to ask their employees to return to work. However, this has been met with widespread angst and fear among workers, who largely feel that returning to work increases their risk of getting the infection - and this is quite arguable.


The COVID-19 outbreak, which has infected more than 26 million people and killed nearly a million people worldwide, has altered life as we know it. Where and how we dine and relax, where we can and cannot go to, how we relate with family and friends, and how we learn at school have all been altered in what is described as the “new normal”. Inevitably, our workplaces have to be readapt to these times to keep workers safe, healthy, and productive. 


The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads primarily through droplets released when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks. People can also get the infection by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth before washing their hands. 


Therefore, workplace remodeling in the post-COVID-era should factor in these modes of spread of the virus to create short-term refits and longer-term modifications to the workplace environment that can curb the spread of the virus.

Limit Physical Interactions

The first, obvious step in limiting the risk of coronavirus transmission in the workplace is to prevent the import of the virus into the workplace. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people who have or think they have COVID-19 should isolate at home. Not only that but if you have been exposed to COVID-19, the CDC recommends that you stay home whether or not you have symptoms until you can safely return to work


In light of this, not every employee needs to return to work. You can make all-inclusive policies and practices to protect all employees. Employees who have been exposed to COVID-19 may be allowed to take on other work responsibilities that may not require on-site presence. You can offer telework opportunities for these workers until they can safely return to work. 


Staggering workshifts is another excellent way of limiting physical interactions at work. Employers can create hybrid work patterns, which allows employees alternate between on-site and remote work. 


Limiting interactions in the workplace also means rethinking meetings. Unnecessary meetings can be struck off your task lists and the vital ones held virtually. If you could limit meetings to email or a slack message, even better. 


If you’re going to be recruiting new employees, digitize the process as much as possible. Leverage online assessment tools and conduct video interviews to limit on-site interactions with your prospective employees.


Social Distancing 

The WHO recommends that people keep a distance of least one meter (3.3 feet) between themselves to reduce the spread of the virus. This may be daunting for offices where people work in close quarters. However, it is doable. One simple way is to space workstations at least one meter apart.


Discover Financial Services in Chicago has adopted this structural remodeling, placing large “X” prints between workstations to indicate areas that are off-limits. Global real estate services firm, Cushman & Wakefield, also made a similar change with the 6 Feet Office Project, launched to help other employers redesign the workplace to protect their workers. The company recommends placing posters and signage in different parts of the office building, instructing employees to walk around their office clockwise and stick to one side of the corridors.


If you are concerned about your employees remembering to stick with the rule, you can leverage technology to do the reminder. Proxxi, a Canadian startup is launching Halo, a wearable device that vibrates and sends a notification when a wearer is within 6 feet of another wearer. This takes pressure of trying to remember to keep the one-meter distance off your employees, optimizing productivity.  


If your workspace is not roomy enough to move your workstations apart, you can install transparent physical barriers to protect employees from one another. These plexiglass barriers maintain the original plan of your workstations but keeps every employee safe. You can also install these barriers in your reception or desks to shield  employees from clients and visitors. 

Contactless Office

One of the ways the coronavirus spreads is through contact with infected surfaces. If your workers must return to work, you can leverage technology to create a contactless office. The goal is to eliminate the need for workers to press communal buttons. 


Global design firm Perkins and Will has adopted this, using a smartphone to send a command to the staff coffee machine. Your elevator buttons, door handles, and toilet flush handles could also be automated to function using motion sensors or face recognition algorithms to keep everyone’s hands off them. Voice-recognition technologies could also be integrated into your conference rooms to control lightening, ventilation, and sound using voice commands. 


However, some surfaces will need to be touched to get work going. Work desks, laptops, telephones, keyboards, and chairs should be regularly cleaned and disinfected. Provide workers with wipes and disinfectants to clean these surfaces at the start and close of work. You may also need to install signs that serve as reminders for your employees to clean their workstations frequently.


In the absence of contactless options for other surfaces, you can employ simple hacks. Consider installing hand sanitizer dispensers close to each door for employers to sanitize their hands after touching door handles. You may also consider installing brass door handles that are reputed for their antibacterial features. 

Ventilation

Studies have found that the risk of coronavirus spread is higher in indoor spaces that are poorly ventilated. In April, CDC reported that air conditioning blew coronavirus-laden droplets around a restaurant in China, infecting at least three families. 


A simple way to mitigate this is to increase ventilation in shared office spaces, install high-efficiency air filters that can filter coronavirus particles as well as dirt without limiting airflow. In fact, employers can consider using natural ventilation, opening windows wherever possible and safe to do so. 


For heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, it is best to increase percentage of outdoor air by using economizer modes. With these systems, the key things to note to limit spread of the virus is to improve central air filtration, increase airflow to occupied spaces, and disable demand-control ventilation that reduces air supply based on occupancy. 

Regular Health Monitorng 

The WHO has also advised workplaces to conduct regular health checks for their workers to identify high-risk patients. This may involve regular COVID-19 symptom screening, scheduled temperature checks, 

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Some companies have installed thermal scanners and sensors underneath work desks to monitor body temperatures and identify those who might be having a fever. Australia-based wholesale IT equipment company Dicker Data recently procured body thermal scanners that beep if a worker standing in front of it has a fever. Workers who have fever as well as other COVID-19 symptoms may then be encouraged to get tested. 


Workers may also install contact tracing apps that monitor their exposure to COVID-19 patients. This has been developed by accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to be track COVI-19 cases in its office buildings.


The coronavirus pandemic has changed life as we know it. Employers, therefore, need to readapt work structure and design to get the better of the health crisis. The work environment of the future, therfore, is not just one to boost productivity but also to ensure employees feel protected and healthy.