How New Zealand Businesses Can Prepare for Staff to Return to Their Open Office Workspace
COVID-19 (coronavirus) restrictions are likely to move out of Level 4 in some regions in the next few weeks. However, the new normal is going to look very different for workers and businesses.
Open Plan Offices
Open plan offices have been growing in popularity in New Zealand. There has also been a trend of reinventing the open plan office designs to activity-based workplace design. This is a combination of open, semi-private and private spaces in the office where the staff can move in and out of based on the space they prefer to be in.
They feature office design, modular workstations, breakout areas and collaborative spaces that embody the company culture and foster productivity. This led to the individual having the option to work on their assigned desk or any other area such as a pod, office kitchen area, break-out areas, stairs, etc. However, these environments also allow staff to intermingle more easily and potentially spread germs. While we did not think about these things with such intensity earlier, COVID-19 has forced us to rethink the way we approach health and safety at work.
It is more than likely that New Zealand will only gradually ease the restrictions. Like China, Hong Kong and other countries most businesses will have to prepare to take a cautious approach to life after lockdown. Not just masks, sanitisers and distancing, businesses will need to figure out how to implement guidelines in the physical and social layout of the office. In open plan work environments especially keeping staff safe will require a great deal of planning and care.
Safe Work Practice Assessment
Safe work practices to limit exposure to COVID-19 at work include assessing the risks and thereafter implementing a series of controls that are feasible and reasonably practical. With a limited workspace such as the open plan office it may be hard to implement the rules around distancing. Businesses may need to manage the gradual return of the workforce. This means some staff could continue to work from home for an extended period of time.
New Social Protocols at Work
It is uncertain how much of the social distancing rules could continue post lockdown. But businesses will do well to prepare the workplace. This could mean accommodating staff differently especially in the open plan layouts that many offices have.
In order to maintain a better standard of hygiene and controlling contact amongst staff in an open plan layout that may not have individual workstations, businesses will require to establish a thorough cleaning routine, adhere to a strict health and safety policy that mandates a social protocol, and maybe even take on additional workspace.
Creating more space between staff can limit the chance of spreading germs. This could mean creating workstations in underutilised areas of the office like the meeting rooms. Ensuring there is a physical distance (at least 1.5 metres) between staff would mean lessening the exposure to possible infections.
Social distancing includes limiting physical contact with others. This implies that companies may need to encourage staff to abstain from even a handshake when they in the office.
Workplace Hygiene to Combat Coronavirus
Businesses should scrub all work equipment thoroughly before and after use. Having an adequate supply of wipes, sanitisers and access to wash and dry hands, using masks, and taking additional care around shared equipment like phones and stationery is essential. Workplaces should be cleaned regularly and disinfected. In order to keep up with the new demands they need to ensure there is adequate amount of soap, water and toilet paper. Door knobs, lifts, elevator buttons, counter tops are areas that are frequently touched and require intensive cleaning.
Best practice for staff includes cleaning items touched most often, such as the keyboard, mouse, desk phone and the desk surface. Instead of starting off the day with a to-do list, the new normal could be to wipe down items and surfaces that the individual is going to touch often.
Staff should be encouraged to wash their hands frequently for at least 20 seconds with soap and water or by using an alcohol-based sanitiser and to practise good hand hygiene. There could be hygiene stations set up at the entry and exit to the common areas such as the reception area, lifts and cafeterias. Having signs and posters around to remind workers of good hygiene practises will stress the importance of being on the alert and not being complacent.
Using protective personal equipment like masks and gloves are some controls that may also need to be considered. As there is no one size fits all approach it is essential to consider the type of business, the workers who come and go and even clients who visit the workplace.
Office refit post COVID-19 lockdown
While the staff may be keen to return to the office post the coronavirus lockdown, they will also be apprehensive working in shared spaces and in close proximity. This is still a good time to start reviewing options on preparing your office workspace for staff to return to work after the COVID-19 lockdown.
In certain cases, the only changes required may be to include better screens and partitions in the workspace and for the desks. In other office situations, it may require a review of the office layout and specialised space planning by experienced office fit-out specialists. Whatever the situation be, the reality we all need to accept is that tough as it will be, we will return to normalcy (maybe a new normal) at some point and businesses need to make all reasonable attempts to eliminate the current risks, create safer workspaces and be resilient.