Blog | How to Enforce Social Distancing at the Office
Social distancing at work is a whole different ballgame from other public places. Most people have distanced themselves from others while visiting the grocery store or another public spot for a few hours at a time. When they return to the office, where they spend eight hours a day and have set routines, it can feel alienating at first.
Physical distancing is here to stay in 2021. If you’re reopening your office now, you’ll need to create new policies and invest in permanent solutions to keep your workers safe for as long as the current health situation requires.
Ensuring everyone understands and follows the protocols will take hard work. It will involve redesigning office flow to reduce congestion and supporting employees in navigating the new normal. Let’s talk more about how to enforce social distancing in the workplace.
The Challenges of Enforcing Social Distancing Protocols
While social distancing practices have gotten a bit more familiar since the pandemic began, many challenges remain. As you prepare your office for physical distancing, you’ll need to overcome hurdles like these.
Complacency and Human Error
By now, we’ve all heard the “stay six feet apart” rule repeated more times than we care to mention. While reminders are helpful, you might have stopped listening after hearing them so often. And even all this time later, standing and conversing six feet away from others feels unnatural. Even those taking every precaution can’t control other people and may find colleagues, customers or visitors wandering into their social-distancing bubbles.
After such a long time avoiding gatherings and close contact with others, many people are tired and lonely. They don’t mean to put themselves or others in danger, but they miss having an intimate chat with their work friends. Or, maybe they don’t like how a mask muffles their voice during a critical discussion. They pull it down for a few seconds to finish their sentence.
It’s one thing to install signage and floor markings around the office and move desks farther apart. It’s another to get visitors and the people who work at your office to follow the rules. Workplaces must foster a safety culture and design incentives to help team members follow the rules.
Your office building has probably been standing long before anyone thought of the term “COVID-19.” Previous real estate and commercial architecture trends have ushered office buildings into the space efficiency era. As the information age made collaboration more critical to workplace success, interior designers and facilities managers pushed desks closer together. We’ve become so accustomed to office mates and desk pods that some buildings don’t have enough room to keep every employee six feet apart.
In the age of social distancing, your current office building might not have the capacity it once promised. A few years ago, you could’ve seated 50 employees in the same space that now must seat half that number. At the Arnold’s Office Furniture headquarters, our layout went from 251 seats to 132 seats. Fitting your entire team into your existing building requires some creativity. Maybe some workstations get moved into the employee lounge. Or, perhaps workers should adopt a hybrid schedule to keep capacities compliant.
Permanently Connected Furniture
If your office has used the popular benching system for its workstations, you have another factor limiting your capacity. In most benching systems, employees sit in rows facing one another, with only a low-profile divider separating them. The designs look contemporary, stylish and perfect for any open office layout. However, for an office practicing physical distancing, they’re not the right fit. They situate co-workers a few feet apart and, depending on the design, can’t separate to create appropriately distanced workstations.
Even separate, freestanding workstations could pose a challenge. Not all office furniture prioritizes flexibility. Rearranging heavy, bulky desks or cubicles could take days. Disassembling and reconfiguring traditional cubicles could be such a hassle that you might as well have welded them to the floor.
At Arnold’s Office Furniture, we recognize each work environment is unique. That’s why we’ve come up with several configurations to solve your furniture challenges with today’s social distancing protocols. Our solutions include temporary and permanent benching system dividers, letting you leverage your current furniture safely.
If you’re looking for cubicles that move as you need them to, consider the Sunline cubicle system. With six- and eight-foot cubes available, your furniture has built-in social distancing capabilities. The modular design and slide-into-place panels make these cubicles simple to reconfigure. Arrange them for physical distancing protocols now, and easily adjust the layout if the guidelines change later.
Tips for Enforcing Social Distancing at the Office
Social distancing requires a determined, ongoing effort. It’s not enough to state the rules and expect everyone to follow them. Employees need to understand the policies and why they’re essential. They also need the help of other engineering and administrative controls to limit crowds at the physical office. As you implement your new plans, monitor your workplace to ensure the rules serve their intended purposes and get followed appropriately. Here are some tips for how to promote social distancing at work.
1. Control the Crowds
Remember all the chaos that ensued during a regular workday before the pandemic began? In the mornings, employees all arrived at once and crammed into the lobby and elevators. Meetings brought everyone together around a conference table. Narrow hallways with two-way traffic squeezed people together, even for brief moments. In break areas, employees sat wherever they could, chatting and sipping coffee together.
The most effective way to control crowds is limiting who comes to the office. Reducing occupancy lets you easily seat everyone far apart and encourage them to avoid congregating in lobbies and break rooms. Work with your team to figure out who should come to the office. Get manager input, then follow up with employees to discuss who wants to go back. Consider who on your team has health concerns requiring them to work from home.
If more people must return to the office than will fit safely, consider staggering schedules. You could have half the team come in one day and the other half come in the next. Or, let employees reserve time in the office, while limiting the number of timeslots. Another option is staggered arrival times, which prevents crowding in the lobby or elevators.
Besides limiting crowds, you may need to modify your workspace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend adjusting communal spaces to avoid crowds. Rearrange the seating to put each usable chair at the correct distance. You could turn chairs over, drape them with tape or fabric, move them farther apart or remove some altogether.
2. Monitor Personal Protective Equipment Policy Compliance
Every workplace needs a different approach to personal protective equipment. Those who come to the office need face coverings, and some may need to take it a step further with face shields. Offices in medical fields may need N95 masks, while others are safe with surgical masks or even cloth face coverings. Workers who share communal spaces might need gloves to avoid contaminating high-touch surfaces.
First, set requirements that make sense for your team. Consider whether you’ll require a specific type of mask, and if so, whether to provide them. Decide whether to require employees to wear their masks while commuting via public transportation. Will employees need to wear masks while alone in their offices or while behind protective dividers?
Once you finalize your plan, two main concerns could crop up. The first is employees not wearing their masks or face shields properly. As many as three in 10 Americans say they sometimes, rarely or never wear a mask in public places. Some employees may wear their masks only over their mouth, pull them down to speak or remove them when nobody’s watching. To curb these bad habits, communicate the rules clearly and monitor ongoing usage.
The other obstacle is running out of PPE supplies. If you provide disposable masks, employees need a new one each day. Your office’s seemingly endless supply could run out sooner than you think. Track how many masks you’re going through and place your orders soon when your stock starts to dwindle.
3. Modify Workflows
If your organizational workflows require many people to be physically present or perform tasks close to one another, you may have to revisit some of your standard practices. One strategy involves task pooling. If you have many employees doing related on-site assignments, consolidate these so fewer people come to work in person. For example, instead of one employee completing a job and handing things over to the next employee, have one person perform both tasks. Then, more employees can work remotely while all the necessary on-site activity happens as needed.
Another potential workflow shift is conducting virtual meetings. Even if all or most of your meeting attendees are present in person, it could be a good idea to keep everyone at their desks rather than moving to a conference room.
4. Offer the Right Incentives
Modern workplaces incentivize model behavior through wellness programs. When you must encourage employees to follow social distancing rules, similar enticements could do the trick.
For example, some workplaces encourage employees to fill out their health self-evaluation by adding 10 minutes to their punch cards for a completed form. If you require employees to take regular COVID-19 tests, consider offering a small bonus for each submitted test result — positive or negative. Ensure all incentives align with current safety recommendations. Do not motivate employees to come into work when it is not safe to do so.
It’s also crucial to revisit any bonuses you already have. If you have an incentive that encourages carpooling or using public transportation, you might want to discourage it now. Supplement these with new benefits, like a reward for biking to work or driving alone. You might also discontinue any programs that reward perfect attendance or otherwise encourage employees to come in with COVID-19 symptoms.
5. Communicate Clearly and Offer Support
Whatever rules your office instates are only as effective as your team’s ability to follow them. That all starts with effective communication. Consider hosting a virtual meeting before employees return to work, explaining your expectations, answering questions and alleviating concerns.
You’ll likely need to revisit policies as new situations or guidelines emerge. Regularly check in with employees to see what is working and what isn’t, and what support they need. Offer resources to help employees get mental health care, child care and financial planning to ease pandemic-related stress.
How to Design Your Office for Social Distancing
With everything safely spaced, employees can go about their days and distance themselves without thinking about it, increasing compliance. Here are seven tips for how to design the workplace for social distancing.
1. Consider Your Current Configuration
You had a reason for your chosen pre-pandemic layout. Maybe it brought the right teams together, streamlined workflows or put the copier in a central location. As you adjust your office layout, consider what aspects of your current configuration make sense to keep.
Next, look at how the layout could impede effective social distancing. High-touch surfaces, frequently used corridors and equipment, dead ends and common areas can all fit the bill. If your space has enough room, one straightforward solution is to pull furniture away from windows and walls, thus removing dead ends and making it easy to establish one-way aisles.
2. Identify High-Traffic Areas
Unless you’ve just replaced your carpet, you can spot high-traffic areas by the worn-down sections of fabric. If you have wood or tile floors, consider what areas of the office see the most use. Entrances and the routes to the bathroom, copier, kitchen, break room and other communal spaces are likely your biggest culprits.
Be sure to mark busy aisles for one-way traffic and designate alternate routes for the opposite direction. Consider placing floor markings six feet apart to help employees gauge safe distances. Use these markings throughout hallways and wherever lines may form, such as near the elevators and bathrooms.
3. Create Blueprints for Potential Layout Options
Before you start pushing furniture around, have a plan. Top decision-makers such as a CEO or COO may want to approve the layout. You might also workshop your ideas with the people who use the space each day. Start with a few copies of your blank floorplan and sketch out your vision. Count the number of available seats in each layout and find the plan that maximizes your safe occupancy count. Show your office design ideas for social distancing to all stakeholders for approval and suggestions.
If you work with Arnold’s Office Furniture to promote social distancing at the office, we can develop floorplans using our computer-aided design software. We’ll create multiple layouts following social distancing office design principles and tweak them until we find the best configuration for your workplace.
4. Measure a Six-Foot Radius Around Each Desk
When it’s finally time to start moving your workstations, space the desks correctly. Use a tape measure to mark off six-foot bubbles around each workstation, and ensure no walkways, chairs or other desks’ buffer zones come within reach.
5. Use Partitions Where You Can’t Avoid Close Interaction
If your office is too densely populated for six-foot spacing, consider easy-to-clean privacy partitions instead. Look for high walls that will reach above each employee’s head. If you have standing desks, choose dividers that will travel with the desk height or are tall enough to reach standing height. Use transparent partitions in areas like the reception desk, where employees can’t avoid face-to-face interactions.
6. Follow CDC Recommendations for Communal Spaces
Communal spaces need special attention when designing safe social distancing office layouts. If they’re too small, consider closing them off. Otherwise, move chairs so every employee can sit six feet apart from their co-workers.
Set new maximum occupancy limits based on how many people can socially distance within the room. Bathrooms and storage closets, which might only fit one person at a time, need a system to let employees know whether a space is free or occupied.
7. Leave Reminders Throughout the Workplace
Your new layout will come with a learning curve. Besides discussing the new design before the big return, add signs throughout the space. Remind employees which aisles travel in which direction. Use your signage to promote other safety messaging, like a hand-washing reminder for the bathroom.
Effective Office Furniture for Social Distancing
If your current furniture isn’t conducive to physical distancing, it’s time for new solutions. At Arnold’s, we have options to upgrade your existing furniture for better safety alongside replacement furniture for maximum protection. We’ll also arrange your new furniture with effective social distancing office layouts.
1. Temporary Desk Dividers — Minimal Protection
If you need to get back up and running quickly, our temporary clip-on dividers provide an easy interim solution. They don’t require any disassembly and feature sound-absorbing PET. They come in many heights, up to 63 inches.
2. Permanent Panel Dividers — Moderate Protection
We’ve adapted our Sunline sliding cubicle panels for benching systems. With some minor disassembly, we can install full-height permanent dividers to make your benching system safer. With the ease and convenience of Sunline’s adjustable panels, you can stay nimble, rearranging your office or adjusting divider heights whenever it makes sense.
3. Cubicles — High Protection
Cubicles offer excellent social distancing protection, with panels that wrap around each workstation on four sides, with a small opening at the entrance. With standard sizes including six- and eight-foot cubes and wall heights up to 65 inches, your team will stay distanced and separated, offering excellent protection. As usual, our Sunline sliding cubicles keep your office easy to rearrange, so you can tweak your configuration whenever you need.
4. Cubicle Offices — Elevated Protection
For even better protection over a standard cubicle, consider our private office cubicles. These cubicles raise their wall heights to 82 inches, offering protection whether employees are sitting or standing. They also introduce a door, closing off each workstation on all four sides.
5. Floor-to-Ceiling Offices — Maximal Protection
Social distancing in separate offices is a lot easier than in an open-plan setting. The best possible protection uses floor-to-ceiling offices with glass walls, markerboard and fabric partitions. They give every employee a private safe zone. They’re also demountable and customizable, letting you break up your layout however it makes sense.
Find Social Distancing Solutions From Arnold’s Office Furniture
Every Arnold’s Office Furniture project comes with complimentary design services. We’ll take care of your social distancing office layout design, positioning your furniture to improve one-way traffic flow and keep workers six feet apart. As experts in office space design for social distancing, we can transform your workplace while helping you maximize your safe occupancy. For more information on our safe furniture options and space planning services, request your free quote. Or, check out Sunline Supply for quality PPE in bulk.
Alissa has over 25 years of experience in the office furniture industry. For many of those years, Alissa was a Senior Interior Designer. She then took her love of design and working with customers to the sales realm and has been dedicating her knowledge there ever since. Learn more about Alissa!