What does a safe return to the office look like?
As lockdown restrictions start to ease, we are all anticipating that offices and non-essential workplaces will soon reopen. It’s unlikely that things will go back to normal right away and some businesses may choose to make permanent changes to the way they work. Over the next few weeks AJ Products will look at the steps businesses can take to make a return to work safe and productive.
It’s important that you consider what changes you need to make to the physical working environment before staff return to work. What do you need to set up in advance? We look at how to bring staff back into the workplace safely.
Firstly, there are some key questions to ask:
- Will some staff return to the workplace before others?
- When will the full workforce return?
- Will the full workforce return to the office full time or do you intend to continue with some remote working on a permanent basis?
These questions will impact what steps you need to take and when you need to take them. If you need to order new equipment, be sure to do so well in advance of the first staff members coming back into the office.
What changes can be made to the physical workspace?
Some form of social distancing is likely to be recommended for a while to come. Consider the layout of your workspace in order to allow more space around workstations than you would have done previously, so that employees can move about the office more freely. You might consider changing the way meetings are held so that participants are not crammed in one room. In-person meetings will be one of the biggest benefits of returning to the office but think about location: walking meetings can be a great alternative in small groups or perhaps holding meetings in a breakout space instead of a conference room will allow people to spread out more.
If you are using the space in new ways, you should also consider whether existing lighting is sufficient. Desk lamps are a simple solution if not.
The placement of desk and floor screens is one of the simplest and most obvious ways to separate work areas. As well as providing a physical barrier, office screens offer a number of other benefits, such as giving each employee more privacy at their desk and absorbing some of the surrounding noise to improve overall acoustics. The open office landscape has faced many critics over the past few years due to the high noise levels and lack of privacy; returning to a busy workplace will be a shock to the system for many employees after a year of working from home. With smart investment, the right screens will be an effective solution to two separate problems.
While people are still nervous about the spread of the Coronavirus, ensure that hand sanitiser stations are readily available upon entry into the building and throughout the office. This is just as important for people’s peace of mind as it is for office hygiene. If your workplace will have temporary rules in place for returning staff, ensure these are well communicated with clear signage.
The advice on workplace ventilation has actually not changed: the HSE has always recommended maximising the amount of fresh air in a space but the pandemic has brought it back into the forefront of our minds. As we come into summer, natural ventilation can play a big part; open windows, doors and air vents to allow for natural airflow. Combine this with an HVAC system that brings in fresh air from outside to improve air quality. Upgrading your air conditioning system is a long-term investment in the health of your employees that will well outlast the pandemic.
If your building has any outdoor space, encourage staff to make the most of the warmer weather by installing picnic benches or outdoor seating areas where employees can take their lunch break or even sit out to take phone calls and work for a while. Not only is this a much lower risk for the spread of infection but spending time outdoors has been shown to have a positive impact on mental health by reducing stress and improving mood.
Making some fairly simple changes to office layout can have a significant impact on health and safety at work with respect to the spread of Covid-19. Moreover, many of these measures will have a positive impact on employee mental health as well. We will look more at how to support mental health as we continue our Return to Work series.