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Social Distancing in the Office

May 20, 2020 | by Jo Cipolla
Reviewed by real estate expert Jonathan Tootell

Almost one-third of Americans have experienced a job or income disruption, and 10% of Americans have been temporarily laid off, Zach Hyronwski writes for Gallup. Twenty percent of Americans were working from home as of April 2020 in the wake of the outbreak. Recently, states have begun to relax restrictions on businesses, allowing the economy to reopen.

Many businesses will be devising plans to safely bring employees back to the office, abiding by best practices for social distancing. Many COVID-19 mitigation strategies exist. Tell sick employees to stay home. Encourage hand washing. Clean the office thoroughly and often. However, this article will focus on social distancing. “Social distancing” is the buzzword we have become accustomed to hearing, but “physical distancing” is more accurate. Social (or physical) distancing means increasing the space between people to stop or slow the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses. Experts recommend staying at least six feet away from others.

While no one-size-fits-all social distancing blueprint exists for the workplace, we can provide some guidelines to help your business move forward.

Collaborate with other office tenants

Before you sit down and make a plan to bring your employees back to the office while practicing social distancing, consider who else works in your office. These might be other tenants who rent from your landlord, or they might be subtenants who rent from you. Reach out to the landlord and or other tenants and ask them to work with you on the plan. This is particularly important if they share parts of the office with you, like an atrium, conference rooms, the gym, the kitchen, or equipment.

Have employees work at least six feet apart

If your employees already work in separate or private offices, great! However, many employees share office spaces. In these cases, increase the space between desks to at least six feet. You may need to move or remove furniture to achieve this. But that makes it sound too simple, right? What if you simply do not have enough space in the office to allow everyone to work at least six feet apart? What about shared spaces, like conference rooms and elevators? Keep reading. We have more suggestions.

Bring back employees in waves

Having fewer people in the office makes it easier to implement social distancing rules. Especially if you want to start bringing employees back very soon (and don’t have time for a major interior design shift at the moment), you might consider bringing employees back a few at a time. Most companies are planning to bring employees back to the office in phases to help prevent a second wave of the virus, according to the Lear Corporation Safe Work Playbook.

“The current workplace model is not conducive to social distancing,” said Dr. Shrikant Sharma, Head of Analytics at Buro Happold. Not all offices are the same, of course, but some businesses will have more struggles than others abiding by social distancing. Those with open office plans, for example, may find these particularly challenging. So what can you do if you want to bring more than just a few of your employees back to the office?

Have employees work in shifts

Another option to keep the number of people in the office to a minimum, is to have employees work in shifts. For example, instead of asking everyone to come in at 8 a.m., vary the start times between 5 and 11 a.m., based on employee preference. Another benefit of that strategy is that it allows employees to travel outside the usual rush hour times. If enough businesses adopt this model, commuting via public transportation could become safer as well because fewer people will be traveling at once, making social distancing easier to achieve while traveling to work.

Ask employees to wear cloth masks at the workplace

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends people wear cloth face masks (not surgical masks or N95 respirators outside a medical setting) “in situations where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” Therefore, many businesses are asking or requiring employees to wear a cloth mask while they are at work to slow the spread of the virus.

Different states have different guidelines regarding mask usage that often vary depending on industry; familiarize yourself with these guidelines before making a plan for your employees. Here are some basic guidelines for offices. Employees working in personal office spaces without other people present do not need to wear a mask, but they should wear masks if anyone else enters the office space or if they enter a common area where other people are present.

However, certain considerations apply. Some employees may have a medical condition that makes it dangerous for them to wear a mask. Some employees may have to frequently answer the phone, and talking on the phone while wearing a mask may make communication difficult; consider moving these employees away from others, perhaps in a personal office, so they can answer the phone mask-free. Also, people cannot wear masks while eating or drinking, so employee lunch hour traditions will have to change as well.

Make plans for community/shared office spaces

What about spaces like lobbies, conference rooms, and break rooms? In hallways, bathrooms, and lobbies, people can maintain social distancing and stay six feet away from one another if they pay attention and wait their turn. Bathrooms will need to be cleaned and sanitized more often, and employees will need to be reminded to maintain social distancing while hand washing or using the bathroom mirrors.

Encourage employees to stay in their offices and personal spaces as much as possible. That might mean closing break rooms, or it might mean indicating only one or a certain number of people can use the break room at a time. This, of course, depends on the size of the break room. Because employees must remove their masks to eat lunch, you should encourage them to eat in their offices and away from others, not in the break room.

Conference rooms may pose a particular concern, especially if more than one tenant of an office building utilizes them. According to a 2019 Workplace Utilization Index by Density, 36 percent of the time, only one person is using a conference room at a time, which, of course, necessitates no special social distancing measures. However, 2-4 person conference rooms pose the highest risk for exceeding the capacity that meets social distancing standards. Before arranging a meeting, make sure each person who attends the meeting will be able to remain at least 6 feet away from the others in attendance. This might mean fewer people can come to the meeting, or you may need to use a larger conference room to accommodate everyone.

Hold virtual meetings

You won’t have to worry about social distancing during meetings if you hold remote meetings. You could use a platform such as Zoom to create a video conference so that employees can “join” the meeting from their personal offices or even from home.

Get a new office space

If you find that your current office space no longer serves your needs during your quest to implement best practices for social distancing at the workplace, look into ending your lease. If you need help with that or want to find a new commercial space that better serves your needs, contact one of our experienced real estate brokers today.

This is not intended to be legal or medical advice. Always follow local health and governmental guidance to ensure employee safety.

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