Reopening Offices Right: A COVID-19 Commercial Interior Design Playbook

Architects and commercial interior designers can help companies do thorough COVID-19 hazard assessments and give decision-makers workable options for returning to work.
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Going back to work after months in lock down will take more than wearing masks, moving desks or cleaning break rooms. While there are many ways to protect workers, none is as simple as it seems—even in open-plan offices. Office re-openings done right take rigorous COVID-19 hazard assessments, workable options from architects and commercial interior designers, and agreement from all stakeholders on an approach and how to enforce it.

Howto get there? McKissack & McKissack’s Architecture & Interiors team has been advising our leadership team on returning to work, and are prepared to provide advice to our clients. We’ve found one common denominator:  The more you dig into it, the more complicated it gets.  And the more creative we become to find workarounds and solutions.

We all know that controlling COVID-19 spread means maintaining a safe distance between workers at all times because the virus travels with our breath. At construction sites and other outdoor spaces, water droplets that carry the virus scatter in the wind. Indoors, they linger as air recirculates and survive on surfaces. Increasing airflow in buildings and using other mechanical controls can lower COVID-19 exposure, but it is not enough. Additionally, physical distancing measures can be hard to put in place correctly. And like the use of masks,they’re even harder to enforce.

 

Space Planning Starts with Meeting a Firm Goal: 6 Feet of Separation

COVID-19 guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for six feet or more separating employees, or the use of impervious barriers. But even this basic social distancing measure — assuring that two people without stretched arms do not touch — is hard to execute with consistency. When we draft office space plans to give every chair 6 feet of separation, reality hits:  There’s a lot to fix.

Such as? Open office plans encourage close collaboration literally, with workstations clustered together around circulation routes and no or low partitions. Benching arrangements, in which workers face each other or sit side by side, increase risks of stirring the virus when seatmates reach for files or move in their personal space. Once stations are moved further apart, circulation routes will not be wide enough for comfortable two-way travel, and there may be few available one-way routes.

Break spaces, lunchrooms and washrooms—with all their counters, fixtures, appliances and different types of seating—are veritable hot zones. So are enclosed conference rooms of every size. Architects and commercial interior designers,adept at space planning and problem solving, are go-to resources to resolve these issues.

 

3 Paths to a Safer Office Reopening

In following the CDC’s updated guidance, McKissack approaches COVID-19 with humility. Even the experts have much to learn about the virus. But our office reopening playbook presents combinations of three basic options:

· Keep Some Workers Offsite. Social distancing effectively guarantees fewer employees can occupy the same space.Not all of them need an office—collaboration technology allowed them to work for months under lock down. McKissack has been effective working remotely, yet some teams require the traditional infrastructure an office offers. Now corporate executives must set priorities for which teams will be most productive back in the office. Some functions may have to share desks by staggering shifts, start times and break times. Employees at highest risk for COVID-19 will need to continue working from home.

· Rearrange and Retrofit. Workers who return will need reconfigured workstations, spread farther apart or with additional shields or partitions.  Long tables or benching systems, even with fewer seats, often will need to screen off each worker from those on either side, across the table or stopping by. Executives will need an open-door policy, if only to avoid using doorknobs. Restrooms should have occupant limits, feature sensor fixtures and be cleaned constantly. The conference room? Stick with Zoom.

· Find More Office Space. Conference rooms, break rooms, restrooms and kitchens are high-risk areas as long as COVID-19 spread is an ongoing concern. Meanwhile,spacing out workstations will crowd some team members out of their current spaces.There’s a temporary fix for both issues: Reclaim common areas as overflow works paces. Store the impossibly large boardroom table – still not practical to maneuver around with proper social distancing – and replace it with workstations. Not all teams have to be in the same office, if vacant facilities are available. Companies planning an imminent move should consider more generous space planning or even leasing additional square footage.

Companies can complement their space planning by changing how people work. Marking off new traffic directions and safe standing distances will help teams break old habits. Maintenance crews should disinfect doorknobs and other high-touch surfaces daily, but employees also need hand sanitizer stations at copiers,snack areas and supply stations; a ready source of bottled water and touch-less sanitizer refills; and clear instructions on how to safely clean their own work spaces.

Finally,team and company wide communications need to show concern for everyone’s safety and reinforce new practices for using face masks,maintaining social distancing, using online collaboration tools, stepping outside for breaks and staying home if COVID-19 symptoms appear. An office reopening is time to revise on-boarding and training materials to reflect what companies have learned about working safely and caring for their employees.

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