By Michael Rhoads, November 17, 2020

The good news about the pandemic is we (hopefully) may start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. When will a vaccine be ready? When will it be widely available to the public? These questions do not have a definitive answer yet.  However, it is important to prepare now for what steps your agency will have to take once it is feasible to return employees to shared office spaces.  GSA recently put out some guidelines to help agencies prepare for a return to the office in the Return to Workplace Strategy Book.

Office etiquette – a new paradigm

When returning to the office, it is important to prepare employees for a paradigm shift in their behavior. The recommendations from GSA specify that “Frequent Cleaning by Individuals” will be necessary. This may be a sudden change for some employees after a long hiatus on telework, but it’s worth noting that employees “… should not rely on others to disinfect surfaces.” The agency should offer the cleaning supplies, but those supplies will be for agency office use only.

While individuals will be responsible for their own workspaces, the shared workspaces such as conference/meeting rooms, breakrooms, and restrooms will also get a makeover.

For meeting and conference spaces, it is important to ask can the meeting be held virtually instead? Since the capacity of meeting rooms will not be the same as before, consider how many people can fit in the room? Can the door to the meeting room remain open to allow for more ventilation?  Additionally, does the meeting room have the technology to loop in employees who are attending virtually?

Phases for reopening the office

Before the first person walks back in the door, determine the building capacity with your GSA building manager to determine how many employees your office can safely accommodate. A phased reopening approach is recommended.  When determining how many people to bring back in each phase, consider the workspace footprint and how many people may be able to inhabit the space at one time.

Per the GSA: “[T]he reduced capacity of these spaces may affect the number of people who can return to the workspace per phase.” Reassessment will loom large in your phased reopening.  Keep abreast of changes to federal, CDC, and local guidelines.  Employee feedback should be a part of your decision-making process. Also, consider if more parking spaces will be needed by employees who previously used public transportation and now prefer driving.

Individual workspace planning

When considering how to distance your employees’ workspaces, the Return to Workplace Strategy Book provides some great floor plan examples of how to phase in employees safely.  The office capacity used for these examples reflects an office with the maximum capacity of 33 cubicles, and 9 private offices.  Pathways are the spaces where an individual can walk freely.

30% Capacity: The most conservative model would allow individual cubicles to maintain physical distancing at all times. No additional barriers, such as clear plastic shields above cubicle walls to extend the height of the wall, would need to be added. Individuals would be placed in cubicles that allow for other co-workers to move through pathways without contacting a cubicle’s space.

50% Capacity: When half of the office capacity is used, physical distancing mostly would be maintained for individual cubicles except when co-workers walk around in pathways. Barriers such as clear plastic dividers would be added to the top of some cubicle walls to extend the height of the cubicle wall.

75% Capacity: Personal responsibility is the key to this level of employee capacity. Barrier use is important since employees would be encroaching on each other’s space more frequently via pathways around the individual’s cubicle. Clear plastic barriers on top of all cubicle walls in most areas of the workspace would be necessary. At 75% capacity, the use of smaller meeting spaces as individual offices should be considered.

Additional takeaways

Touchless Experience – GSA must approve any changes to fixtures such as doors, faucets, and toilets. However, it is a good idea to update these items to touchless fixtures to reduce employee contact with one another in high touch areas.

Occupancy Monitoring – Sensors can be placed in lobbies, meeting rooms, and break rooms to keep track of how many people are in a space at a given time.

Signage – The guide also offers templates for signage to put up around the office, not only for the employee workspace, but for lobbies, restrooms, breakrooms, and wellness/well-being areas.

The most important takeaway is agencies should be flexible in their approach to returning to the office. As the guide states: “Each agency will need to address specific conditions location by location.” In the coming weeks and months, we will face many challenges brought on by this pandemic, but I am positive the lessons we learn now will only make us stronger for the future that awaits us.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!  Stay safe, and remember, we’re all in this together. [email protected]

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