We've learned a lot since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Everything in our working worlds changed seemingly overnight, and it became clear we'd all have to get used to a "new normal" in the workplace. New data and best practices emerged, but as cases began to decline, those practices have continued to change and evolve.
Returning to work poses challenges that, while complex and daunting, can be made easy with proper planning. We've talked about facilities management as well as policies and procedures when restrictions were at their tightest. Now that restrictions are relaxing, it's time to take another look at what the new new normal means to the workplace.
Pragmatic, Pedantic, or Both?
Early on, there was no precaution too egregious. We didn't have enough data or understanding to know what was necessary or what was overkill. Especially for frontline workers and essential businesses, there was no way to be too safe while infection levels were high and information was low.
Now, we better understand how the virus can be transmitted, who is at risk, and how vaccines can protect fully-vaccinated people. Policies and procedures should take new, appropriate, and attainable approaches:
Masking: At a minimum, follow the guidelines and requirements set by your state and local government. There's no harm in mandating masks in communal areas to ensure that everybody is comfortable in a shared space. However, it is less necessary to require masks at private workstations.
PPE: Sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and masks are still tools of the new normal. A generous supply of each item should be kept handy. While most employees have their own masks, keeping extras on hand is suggested to accommodate visitors, accidents, and breakage.
Meetings: Relaxed regulations and vaccinated populations have made it less risky to meet in person, though appropriate distancing is still recommended. If you invested in clear partitions, it's still worth keeping physical barriers up during meetings.
Here, There, or Anywhere
After making a quick transition to working from home, many of us stayed settled in our at-home workspaces. For some, this is a permanent change due to the elimination of space at HQ. For others, it’s a personal preference. Companies that quickly decided to allow indefinite remote work are starting to see the benefit of in-person work while understanding how flexibility and independence increase employee morale and trust. Your company has hopefully found its sweet spot for now with plans for the future, which might look like this:
Level 1: Office Abandonment
Heading home led to staying home. Some companies have completely vacated their physical presence and are now completely digital for the long haul. Ideally, technology put in place early on was selected with the robust features necessary for a completely remote operation. If not, it's well past time to improve tech infrastructure, beef up VPN services, embrace collaborative software, and streamline the WFH process.
Level 2: Forever Flexibility
The new workday is in the hands of the employees. Everybody can choose when to come in, when to stay home, and how to structure their workdays. While there might be occasional "let's get together" days, there are few rules or regulations as to who's where and when.
Level 3: A Gentle Welcoming
Even if you're in the "forever flexible" phase, many companies are using the early summer months to gently welcome employees back as they wish, offering a great deal of flexibility in schedules with a little management. Interaction between managers and staff is key in these situations so everybody understands hours and expectations.
Level 4: Scheduling Refresh
It's not quite as lawless as lower "levels," but it's not like the days of yore. Employees are encouraged to spend some days in the office, though it may not be the same 9 to 5, 5 days a week scheme. Set up your "office hours" on a team or individual employee basis, and embrace the best of a collaborative atmosphere and a focused WFH environment.
Level 5: Business as Usual
It's probably not like we never left, but it's close. Regular full-time hours are reestablished, and most on-site employees have returned to their desks. For essential workers, low-risk areas, or industries that deal with sensitive information, this may have been in practice long ago.
Transitions and Hybrids
Even in offices encouraging a full return, some employees may transition to a fully-remote position. Maintain the technological progress made during peak WFH and ensure that these forever off-site employees are still included in meetings, brainstorming sessions, and other collaborative activities. It's a great time to ensure that meeting spaces and conference rooms are permanently equipped with screens and video cameras to keep the whole team in the loop.
The rigorous disinfecting and cleaning guidelines established in response to COVID-19 led to one of the least virulent flu seasons of all time. For now, additional cleaning staff should be retained, ensuring the facility is constantly clean (especially as an increasing number of people return to the office). For years to come, keep the same cleanliness standards in play during cold and flu season, encouraging employees to practice good personal hygiene and increase disinfecting measures throughout the facility.
While traditional cubicles offer adequate separation and privacy, some forms of collaborative desking are ill-advised for illness. However, not all open office desking is created equal:
Especially in workplaces that intend to remain somewhat remote, a hoteling system might seem like an appealing option. This keeps desks completely void of personal items and supplies, allowing any on-site employee to sit at any open desk or cubicle. Hoteling has considerable downsides: Employees are often frustrated by the lack of personal expression and consistency.
This marvel of the modern workplace had its time in high-tech offices and agencies, bleeding into companies worldwide that sought a system that aims to create employee-enforced accountability. Inherently close-quarters benching is not only risky for spreading COVID-19 but is a risky option during regular cold and flu season. Providing more employee privacy in the form of stand-alone workstations or moving to a cubicle-based system can prevent the spread of illnesses and increase employee morale.
Offering less privacy than a cubicle, bullpen-style desking often situates 4 or more workspaces with employees sitting back-to-back. While they're a bit more exposed than a traditional cubicle, the back-to-back configuration is considerably less risky for spreading germs. Avoid using the pathways between bullpens as means of egress and, for particularly tight quarters, consider adding acrylic partitions between employees that sit close together.
Cube, sweet cube. Even though the idea of a "cubicle farm" sounds like a drag, semiprivate cubicles offer a higher degree of employee privacy and a wide variety of options to customize your space. These days, lower partitions can be supplemented with glass stackers on top, allowing for more natural light and a visually open atmosphere that still offers adequate protection from COVID-19, along with some privacy.
A completely sequestered office offers 2 huge benefits: a blissfully quiet workspace and the ability to have private meetings with 1 or 2 people. These intimate meetings are difficult to accommodate during COVID*19, and, in the interest of distancing, it should be advised to use a larger conference area to conduct even small-scale meetings. Alternatively, collaborative portions of desks can be separated by acrylic partitions to create physical barriers for one-on-one meetings.
Getting together in one room is becoming more and more commonplace. Preparing your conference rooms should still follow many of the initial return to work guidelines. However, it is possible to start introducing more seating so long as barriers and spacing are maintained. For now, it's best to keep a few conference chairs in storage to ensure that people are not crowding around tables. You can also keep meetings in larger, better-ventilated conference areas whenever possible.
It's more important than ever to make sure conference rooms and touchdown areas are tech-equipped so WFH employees can stay engaged with their on-site counterparts. Seek wall-mounted screens, video cameras, audio equipment, and computer docks that employees with varying degrees of tech skills can use.
We picked up a lot of healthy habits throughout the COVID-19 pandemic—some of which we can carry on as ways to live a healthy and productive life at work, home, or work-from-home.
From ways to live a healthier life:
Take Sickness Seriously: Playing it safe and staying home can start with a work-from-home day when you're feeling just a little under the weather, stopping a potentially contagious illness from spreading needlessly. This also decreases spread and speeds up recovery time for ill employees.
Maybe Mask Up: After COVID-19 passes, we can still take a page out of other countries' books and wear a mask during the onset of a cold when you have no choice but to leave the house.
Healthy Hand Hygiene: 20 seconds with soap and water sure beats a quick rinse, and there's no harm in keeping hand sanitizer nearby.
To lessons learned about our working world:
Work-From-Home Works: Employers don't need to be hesitant to trust their employees while operating off-site. The collaborative tools we need to succeed are implemented and at the ready whenever we need them.
Go Remote: More remote positions can be made available so employers can find the perfect fit, even if they're outside a densely populated city center or entirely in a different location.
It's Time for Tech: Workplaces without screens aren't going to cut it anymore. Taking meeting spaces into the 21st century is a great way to foster collaboration, software such as Microsoft Teams can be a game changer, and quick video calls can solve a problem faster than a 15-part email chain. A tech-ready workplace takes the guesswork out of working together and makes space for the important human elements of collaboration.
There Are Many Ways to Work: Some people work better from home, while others need a more structured, on-site approach. We have learned a lot about the tools we need to succeed, giving opportunities to those who have previously struggled with an on-site workday.
When to Relax
A lot has changed since we started talking about a possible return to work in late 2020. Nearly every state has relaxed or eliminated restrictions, businesses of all kinds have started reopening their offices, and, most importantly, we know more about the virus than we once did.
Many of our previous recommendations were based on worst-case scenarios in offices that needed to open their doors while being as safe as possible. While there are numerous best practices to keep up with and many ways to go about a safe return to work, there are new priorities:
Focus on person-to-person interaction in communal spaces. Instead of eliminating interaction, focus on making it easy to stay safe in shared spaces.
Keep cleaning supplies in every area, which will help make disinfecting an easy step throughout the workday without creating too many off-limits areas.
Encourage under-the-weather employees to work from home even if they're at the edge of a cold. Keeping the rest of the on-site staff healthy can foster the return to work process without triggering a mass infection of any type.
Set up outdoor outings to bring staff back together for casual interaction. Outfitting a patio space with durable, weather-resistant furniture can benefit a business for years to come.
A pandemic is still a medical crisis, and peoples' healthcare information is still protected by HIPAA and ethical best practices for Human Resources departments. While asking for an employee's vaccination information is tempting, the employee is not necessarily required to share it. These requirements may differ by state and situation. Ensure that your HR department communicates expectations for medical privacy in a way that legal counsel has vetted. When in doubt, assume the person you're working alongside is unvaccinated and take proper precautions for a safe workspace.