Do we already have the tools to enable social distancing in the workplace?

Resources for remote working and automating workplace facilities such as lighting are already well established in modern workplaces. Does this mean that safe social distancing in the workplace is not such a challenge as we feared?

Using existing resources to manage workplace social distancing

For a number of years the trend has been towards hot desking, smart working and homeworking to accommodate greater workforce flexibility and optimise premium office space. The trend has also been towards automation, and technology enabled work environments with globally based teams collaborating in virtual space.

During Covid 19 these procedures and tools have been put to the test with even greater need to encourage and support remote working to create the required social distancing measures in the workplace.

In some senses, the practices and tools needed for a post-covid era are already in hand. However this by no means applies to all organisations, and we are certainly not ready culturally or emotionally to abandon our collective intent to get things back to normal.

The key questions are: to what extent and how do things return to normal and what are the implications for workplace design?

It is evident that social distancing is a new fact of life. By the time everyone is vaccinated against the present threat, the awareness of the potential risks we pose each other, and the new measures and procedures we have adopted to mitigate them, will be deep rooted.

Our organisations have too much invested in the structures and mechanisms of the traditional office to abandon these overnight. Nevertheless workplace redesign will be essential, and the very viability of premises will come under greater scrutiny as square metres per head ratios and resultant costs will look very different.  Time spent in offices will be expensive, and therefore it will need to be productive. At the same time organisations will still need people, and those people will increasingly be needed in planning, design, creative and problem solving roles.

ThinkingWall Divider mobile whiteboard wall

So how will workplace redesign pan out in practice?

We are going to need lots of signage, waymarking, tape on the floor and acrylic screens – like we are seeing in supermarkets. They have been quick to adopt new practices and the non-essential retail sector will need to follow suit. The layout of browsing shops and shopping malls is going to need some thinking through.

The journey from front door to desk is going to need some careful consideration – numbers in lifts will need to be managed, doors kept open or on automated openers. One way systems and screening may be needed to manage the flow and proximity of people on more populated floors.

Mobile whiteboard TV unit

With more people connecting in from home, meetings, huddles, sprints and other collaborative activity will need to be conducted in virtual space. Such interactions are still likely managed from the office meeting space, where larger screens and whiteboards can be used to facilitate and enable collaborative activity, connecting in those who are office-based and providing the continuity.

Other face-to-face gatherings are also going to be essential to keep people sane, engaged and feeling part of a team, part of a community – that is what organisations are, after all?!

Bringing people together to create shared collective experience is going to be the glue that keeps organisations together. The environment, process and tools for enabling this safely are and will remain key to an effective workplace.

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