Will social distancing in the office harm productivity?

From 19th July 2021, the UK government has given businesses back the freedom to ask employees still working from home to come back to the office, subject to safe working conditions. We have previously discussed how employees can social distance in the workplace. Now we take a closer look at what effect this new way of working might have on productivity and employee morale.

Could a move away from the open office be beneficial?

The open office landscape has faced many critics over the past few years as employees struggle with the high noise levels and lack of privacy that come with it. Social distancing will force a natural move away from open working. Businesses will need to separate work areas and create barriers between workstations to allow for safe working. One of the most convenient ways to do this is through the use of office screens.

With smart investment, the right screens will be an effective solution to two separate problems. As well as providing a physical barrier to reduce the spread of germs, fabric desk screens will give each employee more privacy at their desk and absorb some of the surrounding noise to improve overall acoustics. Both of these factors have been shown to improve job satisfaction and productivity in open plan offices.

Will staggered work times and lack of socialising be harmful to employee relationships?

Ultimately, a return to the office should provide a boost to employee relations compared to working from home. While video conferencing and direct messaging have been an effective replacement, many workers find that there is no substitute for face-to-face meetings and the natural cooperation that comes from being together as a team.

However, a return to the workplace will not mean an immediate return to normal. Businesses are being encouraged to stagger break times to avoid groups of workers gathering in one place, so staff will still miss the camaraderie that comes from shared downtime. Meetings will need to be careful to observe guidelines; this may mean limited numbers or a different seating arrangement to avoid sitting closely face to face.

Companies should look at strategies to help rebuild relationships. This could be anything from putting teams in clearly defined bubbles so that staff feel safer with the colleagues they work with closely, rearranging the office so some breakout areas become safe spaces where employees can be socialise at a safe distance or virtual team building activities such as a company pub quiz night on Zoom.

Will the new measures have an impact on employee wellbeing and morale?

Undoubtedly, some of the necessary changes will require a period of adjustment. People are understandably nervous and strict guidelines in the office will do little to settle their nerves. The onus will be on the business not just to provide a safe and clean working environment but to focus on employee wellbeing.

Many people have struggled with their mental health while furloughed or working from home, a return to the office will not be an immediate cure-all for those issues. Others are experiencing high levels of anxiety about being back in close contact with large numbers of people. It’s important to understand that this anxiety may not just come from being in the office itself but from commuting to work, especially if busy public transport is unavoidable. Childcare is also still a big concern for working parents. Companies can support employee mental wellbeing by continuing to provide flexible ways of working and showing understanding for those not ready to come back to the office.

Look at ways to integrate social distancing and new hygiene practices into the office so that everyone feels safe but so that it also feels like a normal working environment as much as possible. This could be simple things such as leaving doors open (as long as they’re not fire doors), employing a daily cleaning service or fitting coloured fabric screens instead of the transparent acrylic screens seen in shops. While the focus must be on getting back to work and rebuilding the business, it is essential to listen to employees and keep their concerns in mind while moving forward.

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