Back to work post COVID - Five ways to help your staff feel safe

Ross Haxton

By Ross Haxton, Creative & Brand Services Director

Posted on

Careful planning will help to smooth the transition back to work

In our series on the workplace, we are looking at both big ideas (long term) and simple ways (quick wins) to help get your employees back into the office.

Having all lived through the world’s biggest experiment in global homeworking, we know that our relationship with the place of work has changed forever.

In our last blog, we identified five big trends that will shape workplace design:

  1. Home comfort
  2. The need for human connection
  3. Outdoor and indoor green spaces
  4. Collaborative space
  5. Flexibility

For Facilities and HR Managers facing the immediate challenge of getting the workforce back to the place of work, we’ve pulled together our top five tips that will help you to quickly and cost-effectively adapt your workplace.

Two universal truths

The workplace has been extended beyond the office walls to a million spare rooms with web cams.

It’s important to continue to give your employees choices, so before we jump into adapting workspace, we must embrace two new universal truths:

  1. Working from home will be normalised – remote working is here to stay and an agile approach to work will combine both home and office
  2. Not everyone will return to work at the same time – thanks to phased returns, space and distance will become available naturally and this will address density and distancing without having to drastically alter the physical environment.


How do we persuade people to leave the comfort of their home and return to work?

Many will not want to relinquish the extra time afforded by not commuting and the extra money in their pocket.

As well as high standards of hygiene, the office must become a compelling destination to draw people back. The speed of return will be dictated by:

  1. Government mandate
  2. Company policy
  3. The will of individuals

There are five things you can do to proactively prepare your workplaces and help to draw your employees back.

1. Build Trust - Duty of Care and Health & Safety

The office provides the physical manifestation of your care for the welfare of your employees – never has the need been greater to clearly demonstrate that people are at the heart of your business.

A mass return to work will require a leap of faith, and an increased investment in health and safety provision. H&S staff who were often perceived as unnecessarily pedantic are suddenly the experts we need to turn to for advice.

Maintenance and cleanliness provide visible proof that you take your duty of care to employees seriously. It’s also important to try to build trust between employees by encouraging everyone to maintain the same standards of hygiene.

Quick wins include:

  • Hand sanitisation stations
  • The provision of antibacterial wipes
  • Opening windows to increase air circulation
  • If you have an air conditioning system, increase the number of air changes per hour
  • Clear communication to remind staff of new cleansing routines

All of these measures will limit the risk of infection and help to build confidence.

In the longer term, we will take inspiration from hospital design with a ‘disinfection infrastructure’ – choosing antimicrobial finishes for floors, furniture, curtains and door handles. Sanitisation tunnels and mist sprays on building entry can also be incorporated into office design.

Quarantine rooms and oxygen supplies may well become the norm.

Air conditioning design can be modified to separate floors or zones. The introduction of HEPA (High-efficiency Particulate Air) filters and high-energy ultra-violet light units can help to kill bacteria and viruses.

The softer side of welfare and ‘well’ design

Consideration for mental well-being must also be clearly demonstrated. To help create an office that provides a sense of security and an escape from the outside world, introduce elements of biophilic design, connecting your space to the natural environment.

This does not need to be expensive – it could be as simple:

  • Introducing a few potted plants to act as a natural purifier and provide cleaner breathing air
  • Opening the dusty old vertical blinds to let in natural light and improve vitamin D levels
  • Opening windows to increase air flow

On a grander scale, it can be introduced into office design, using natural finishes – wood, stone, natural colour palettes, and the introduction of living walls.

The objective is to enhance our senses and reduce stress levels.

Environmental awakening

The pandemic has highlighted that our world is fragile. There is a heightened sense of collective responsibility to protect it, particularly amongst millennials. Workplace can quite easily become the expression of your Environmental Social Governance approach.

Quick wins include:

  • Lower energy lightbulbs
  • Natural ventilation instead of air conditioning
  • Sensors to control power
  • Longer term solutions include alternative power sources and high tech fit outs.

Think outside the box

Help employees to feel secure by reducing the comings and goings at the office – for example, invite a food service into the office to save individual employees from having to venture outside in search of their lunchtime snack.

Traffic can also be reduced through provision of a concierge service that staff can use to run simple errands such as post office or laundry trips.

2. Decongest for social distancing

More flexible work schedules and rotating teams will naturally help to reduce the number of employees in the office at any one time, making social distancing easier.

Our hybrid working life (home and office) will be matched by hybrid workspaces – a mix of personal space and communal touchdown areas that help to create that all-important sense of community.

Keep your office open plan – it is easier to clean (less doors handles to open) and easier to ventilate to allow air flow.

Privacy will be facilitated through enclosed booths with video conference facilities to connect with those working remotely. Where meeting rooms are required, replace existing doors with swing or motion sensor doors to reduce contact points.

Adapting existing workstations

We know that the size of office desks has reduced, in line with shrinking or obsolete technology – laptops versus desktops, mobile phones, fax machines etc.

It will be necessary to space out staff and use glass panels or plastic shields in some instances.

Make workstations minimal and remove clutter. Providing personal equipment (laptop or tablet and phone) will reduce the risk of cross contamination and do away with cumbersome wires, making it easier to clean.

Make available disposable recyclable place mats that individuals can use for the day and recycle.

With social distancing, the cost per square foot is going to be squeezed. With an eye firmly on the ways in which people will work in the future (employees want to collaborate in the office), there is much that can be done to help in the longer term:

The future workstation

We know that agile working and collaboration will be central to future office design.

Rather than having personal desks that are used only 50% of the time, offer touch down communal spaces that offer more flexibility, with a variety of comfortable furniture, supplemented by a private locker for each employee.

Don’t leave behind the more introverted members of your workforce, factor in quiet spaces too.

New prototype desks and pods are already available, they incorporate technology such as a central screen that allows the pod to connect both office and remote workers.

Office Locations

As public transport is not encouraged, and car sharing reduces, we are likely to see an increase in smaller community nodes, rather than big central work hubs as people are less inclined to commute.

Not only will there be a need for more parking or bike racks, but you should accommodate for personal care such as shower rooms.

HSBC rebrandHSBC rebranding

3. Wayfinding and educating employees

We have all become accustomed to the temporary one-way systems and floor stickers that are now a part of everyday life in terms of shopping or visiting public spaces.

Our movement within the workplace must also be more tightly managed through more detailed journey planning and improved wayfinding.

Temporary decals or stickers can be used to experiment with the space you have, to be replaced by more permanent professional looking solutions, once the new system has been tried and tested.

  • Formulate rules for the use of pinch point or high circulation locations such as stairways, entrances or elevators – how many people can use the space at any one time?
  • Introduce one-way systems where space is tight, for example, in corridors
  • Establish rules for the use of communal areas such as kitchens
  • Clearly communicate the rules and provide constant reminders
  • Clearly explain expectations in terms of the cleaning regime for shared items and be sure to provide the tools needed such as sanitising wipes

Is now a good time to invest in digital signage which can be easily updated as rules change?

Coca-Cola workplace branding

4. Workplace Branding

We know that working remotely is possible. We know the advantages in terms of time and cost savings and the ability to put the washing machine on between meetings!

But we also miss our colleagues, the human connection and the shared learning that the workplace can bring. Work culture is intangible but extremely important. Nowhere is company culture more evident than in the office.

The workspace gives employers the opportunity to express values and set expectations, to inspire and inform in a way that an online meeting cannot.

Banks, with their expensive imposing buildings, have known for centuries that their buildings are the ultimate expression of their brand – secure, impressive, sturdy.

Together with design, workplace branding can create the appeal needed to draw people back by making the workplace a destination in its own right.

Design led workplaces, that use graphics and colour and texture and form, create a sense of cohesion. Without this, you risk simply providing a space for a fragmented group of people, loosely connected by tasks and functions, rather than shared values.

Any space has to be designed, so design it carefully, with thought to what you want it to say about your company and how you want your employees to feel. After working from the comfort of home, it’s important to draw inspiration from the hospitality industry to make it comfortable and welcoming, as well as functional.

With increased emphasis on shared spaces, it’s important to not depersonalise too much. Employees still respond better if they are personally engaged, for example through a digital wall of photos.

5. Technology – automation and touchless

Video conferencing changed the way we work at home and it will continue to be further integrated in the workplace, bringing together remote and office workers. Now is the time to invest in AV – surely it has already proven it’s ROI over the past few months?

A switch to individual equipment revolutionises our personal connection with technology but technology can also help to make our workplaces worker friendly and safer.

Many of the big ticket solutions will require substantial investment, so expect to see closer collaboration between tenant and landlord. Certification for COVID-proof spaces, fitted with sophisticated ventilation systems, anti-microbial materials and smart technology that will help to make the work experience touchless.

In larger multi-tenant offices, there is a need for collaboration so that all users feel comfortable and safe. Individual tenant companies may have to prove adherence to stringent pandemic requirements.

In the longer term, touchless technology is central to a safer working environment. Motion sensors, face, voice and iris recognition technologies will be harnessed to automate:

  • Lighting or heating when entering a room
  • Opening doors
  • Smartphone controls for lifts and and AV systems
  • Buildings will use our smartphones to recognise and track visitors to provide a contactless journey
  • Visitor management systems will use thermal imaging cameras to gauge body temperature face, voice and iris recognition
  • UV light will be used at night to eradicate invisible enemies

Technology can also help to deliver your ESG agenda through improved environmental control and smarter facilities management.

Beware short termism

Interim measures, such as plastic screens, can seem like the most cost effective and quickest to implement workplace changes but think carefully before you invest.

They can leave you with an office that is not conducive to collaboration and not aesthetically appealing. It can also be expensive to rectify when circumstances change and can also lead to a substantial amount of undesirable waste, both in financial and environmental terms.

Top Five Tips

  1. Bring together different teams for planning the return to work – a holistic approach will serve you best. Facilities for space planning and cleaning regimes, HR for flexible work schedules, Marketing for branding, IT for repurposing our IT requirements
  2. Be sure to integrate technology into your workplace planning, equipping staff with ways of flexible working, including personal laptops and video conferencing facilities
  3. Use workplace branding and wayfinding to create a sense of destination, create a safe haven from the outside world and remind employees why they love working for you
  4. Think long term – a quick retrofit may seem the most cost-effective solution, in the long term it may prove more expensive with heavy wastage in non-recyclable plastics such as screens
  5. Enhanced health and safety in the workplace are a given. The most successful companies focus will focus beyond safety and shift towards creating real engagement in the workplace.

Next up

We’ll be looking at sustainability in the workplace.

We’ve implemented workplace programmes for companies such as HSBC, Coca-Cola and Kaplan.

If you feel you could benefit from no-obligation advice on how to bring your workplace up-to-date, ready for the post-COVID world, we are right here to help.