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Don’t Be Dense: Social Distancing at the Office

Social Distancing

Our society likes to pack people into airline seats, cubicles, restaurant booths, and more. But all that is changing in this new pandemic age of social distancing.

It’s not surprising that for many office workers, the work-for-home life will be a permanent shift. It was already heading in that direction, after all. When the pandemic is said-and-done, 20–30% of office workers could remain working from home a meaningful amount, a number that’s four to six times higher than it was just a just a few years ago.

But not everyone has that luxury. A Cambridge Group study found that the new work-from-home “elite” are primarily high-income workers in high-income geographies. Sixty-two percent of Americans in the top 25% of household income have had the option to work from home, which is more than double the average. 

Office changes that can happen now

For the rest of us, OSHA guidelines offer a glimpse into what 2020-21 office spaces will need to look like:

  • An isolation room (like a sick room) where any worker who begins to show symptoms can be isolated until they can either go home or leave to seek medical care – and protocols to keep that room clean and monitored.
  • Flexible work hours (including staggered shifts and A/B days) to reduce the amount of workers in the office at one time, if feasible.
  • Where customers are present, six-foot distances with floor tape in areas where lines form, more permanent drive-through windows or curbside pickup, and limited customers allowed at one time.
  • Staggered breaks and rearranged seating in common break areas to maintain physical distance between workers.
  • Repositioned workstations to create more distance and measures, like plexiglass partitions, to close up opened office spaces.

Offices that are most affected can be those that are set up as call centers—with workers often facing each other in close proximity and talking for long periods of time, two practices considered high risk. The steps above can help, and remote call center jobs are also on the rise because of those risks. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) itself was scrutinized for one of its call center contractors not following social distancing protocols. A trainee tested positive for coronavirus and the others—about 70 in total—were forced to quarantine.

“Ironically, that call center provided callers with information on COVID-19 for the CDC,” The HT Group Founder and CEO Mark Turpin points out. “So, it’s a learning curve that we’ll all navigate together.”

Future expenses

Longer term, remember all those visions of the “office of the future” we’ve heard about for years? Here we thought these capital expenditures were centered around human and energy efficiency. Who knew the tipping point on budgeting for these technologies would be a nasty virus? But here it is, the near future as envisioned by recode’s Rain Molla:

“Upon entering your building, the doors may open automatically so you don’t have to touch the handles. Before you board your elevator, you might tell the elevator where you’d like to go, rather than pressing the many buttons within the elevator. When you reach your floor, you could walk into a room full of dividers and well-spaced desks instead of the crowded open floor plan you’re used to. In common areas like meeting rooms and kitchens, expect to see fewer chairs and posted documentation of the last time they were cleaned…These are just the changes you can see. Less noticeable in the post-coronavirus office would be more frequent cleaning policies, antimicrobial properties woven into fabrics and materials, amped-up ventilation systems, or even the addition of UV lights for more deeply disinfecting the office at night.”

Other visions include:

  • Touchpoints, like keypads and control panels for lighting, climate control, and A/V systems, replaced with apps on employees’ personal phones (from Inc.).
  • A clean-desk policy: Each employee gets a cubby or locker in which to store things at the end of each workday so that desk surfaces can be fully cleaned each night (from Inc.).
  • Fever-detection and facial recognition camera technology that can quickly identify incoming workers by name and screen vital signs (from the New York Times).
  • Social-distancing wristbands that vibrate if workers get too close to each other (from the New York Times). 

But how do you invest in such technology when money is tight? McKinsey & Company offers some advice around resetting capital spending.

“However, each organization’s situation is different, so seeking your own advisor is critically important,” Turpin adds.  

What about business travel?

Business air travel will never be the same, but it is expected to rebound dramatically.

“Each dollar invested in business travel can result in as much as $12.50 in revenue,” says Turpin. “That’s too much potential sales income to leave on the table.”

This Conde Nast Traveler article points out corporate travel could recover as much as 70% overall by this time next year, assuming a best-case scenario. Lagging behind in that scenario are large meetings, conferences, and conventions, which will take much longer to recover.

To strategically plan for sending workers back up in the air, take a look at this advice from Festive Road Managing Partner Caroline Strachan.

“Company Confidence x Traveler Confidence x Government Permission = Permissible Travel,” is the formula she recommends considering, adding that “this alignment is needed to allow even just one trip to happen. If you haven’t sat with your executives before now, please do. Work out together what matters most as travel returns. How quickly or conservatively do they want to return? Many may be concerned about the floodgates opening and losing control of spend and the types of travel undertaken. Pair this with what is ‘permissible travel,’ and then travel can recommence.”

Weigh those options with how airline travel is expected to change. Temperature screenings, face mask mandates, more personal space, and even novel coronavirus-sniffing dogs may be in our futures. These changes will make business travel safer, but they will also drive up costs.

Start planning

“Don’t wait to put a plan into action,” Turpin advises. Snack nation offers this surprisingly comprehensive Ultimate Guide to Social Distancing at Work Checklist that you might find useful. We’re here to help, too, Turpin adds. “Our HT Cares! Executive Advisors can help you think through your biggest challenges, and our HT Staffing team can help you plan for and even safety-train temporary staff.”