Of all the spaces that we occupy throughout the day, our workstations are the home base we return to between meetings, after a lunch break, and every morning as we step into the office. Inherently personal and fairly individual, these safe spaces now create a heightened challenge for keeping each and every employee safe and secure.

Whether you're completely reworking your entire floorplan or making emergency adjustments, returning to work depends on a fully-prepared network of employee workstations. Whether your office is modern or traditional, large or small, uniform or varied, or anywhere in between-- a combination of solutions can be tailored to fit your unique needs and requirements.


There's four main types of desking found in open offices. From there, these styles can be mixed throughout spaces to diversify the floorplan. Each type of desking can be adapted in different ways to suit the rest of the office, providing increased or decreased privacy for workers.

Semi private workstations that surround the employee on at least three sides.

Clusters of workstations that put four or more employees back-to-back.

Wide-open side-to-side workspaces with little to no privacy between employees.

Larger semi-private cubicles with enough space for supervisors to meet with staff.


No matter what type of desking you're dealing with, there's various parts that come together to create a functional workstation. Each component needs certain attention to create a healthy working environment:

  • Panels: The surrounding material surrounding the workstation itself. Modern offices often utilize fairly short panel systems to increase natural light and visibility, however many traditional office areas use panels that stand roughly 50" high. Newly purchased panels should be 74" high to exceed standing height and old systems should be retrofitted with vertical extenders or stackers to reach standing height.
    • Fabric Panels - Fabric is hard to disinfect and can be cleaned with a wipe down with a mix of gentle soap and water or steam cleaned.
    • Laminate Panels - These can be wiped down as you would any other laminate, using spray disinfectants or other chemicals.
    • Glass or Acrylic Panels - Stackers, sliding doors, and entire panels may be made of these clear partitions and can be cleaned with spray disinfectants or chemicals.
  • Desktops: Open office desking should already be made from durable materials, such as high-pressure laminate, that's easy to clean and durable enough to stand up to rigorous use. Ensure that all desking is routinely cleaned with heavy duty solvents on a daily basis, along with spot cleaning and wipe downs throughout nthe day.
  • Storage: File pedestals, utility drawers, wardrobes, and other personal storage pieces are often included to store employees' personal belongings and work materials. Ensure that these items and their handles are adequately wiped down during nightly cleaning as well as occasional wipe downs throughout the workday.
  • Shared Workspace: Bullpens and managers stations will often include shared workspace between individual workstations. These areas should be sectioned off with acrylic dividers or restricted from use for the time being.


A complete renovation is a costly, time consuming project. While social distancing guidelines aren't going anywhere, they're an urgent need that requires immediate attention. For now, use low-cost solutions to adequately space and separate staff, but keep an eye towards the future. When the time comes for a total overhaul, look towards solutions that are ready for a future wave of COVID-19.


Despite any recommendations, federal, state, and local regulations must be followed. Be wary of any fire codes, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other rules that apply to office spaces. Generally, adding space and distance only furthers compliance with these guidelines, however it's important to ensure that paths of egress are well-maintained.


As you invite employees back into the workplace, consider who should arrive first and who should follow. Since working from home has become second nature, the rush to return to work may not be as urgent as you'd think:


  • Volunteer Only: After determining the number of waves you'd like to pursue, begin by taking volunteers for the first wave. These will ensure that the initial group feels confident and secure in their return.
  • Consider Management: Be sure that team leaders are present during the return. Even if every team isn't represented, ensure that enough team leaders are onsite to provide an adequate show of strength in management.
  • Alternate Cubes: As you continue to bring employees back, be considerate of where employees are seated. If a cluster of employees returns at the same time, assign temporary cubes to maintain spacing or be selective about who participates in early waves.
  • Department-by-Department: Avoid recalling entire departments at once, should they all be seated in close proximity. This can create unnecessary crowding in localized areas.


For those who can maintain two easily accessible setups, consider alternating days in the office versus working from home. Ensure that these schedules are clearly defined and that they don't require unnecessary duplication of resources between home and the workplace.


Since working from home has become second nature, the rush to return to work may not be as urgent as you'd think. To ensure safety and inspire confidence in your policies, consider extending the time of your return to work and keep employees home for a touch longer than you would otherwise. Be sure to support your homebound employees with thoughtful rules and adequate preparation.


To practice social distancing when navigating the office, widening the pathways between cubicles keeps working employees properly separated from people coming and going from other areas of the office. Sometimes this can be as simple as moving storage items or collaborative spaces between workstations, other times it can be a much more daunting process.

This often requires physically moving panel systems and desking. Contact a local installer to take on this physically challenging and somewhat dangerous task in order to ensure that the finished systems are structurally sound so that nobody becomes injured on the job.


Create directional walkways throughout the space using floor-mounted decals or posted signage, encouraging employees to follow the same direction in particularly narrow passageways. At the start of your return to work, include a floorplan that highlights these directional areas.

The space within bullpens or between rows of cubicles often becomes de facto walkways. Use physical partitions or signage to adequately communicate that only specific walkways are to be used for casual movement or egress.


While many panels currently measure 50" high, some modern open concept areas have significantly shorter partitions. A recommended 74" in height can be attained in multiple ways, either by making further purchase for taller panels or by adding glass stackers to the top of your existing system. While these are often proprietary to the existing panels, custom fit or semi-universal solutions are becoming more common as the needs become more urgent.

In a pinch, use movable partitions at the desired height between open areas. Whether you're repurposing a mobile whiteboard or leveraging stand-alone solutions, attaining a proper height is more important in workstations than other seated spaces, particularly if employees are equipped with sit-to-stand desks.


Within a floorplan, touchdown spaces, storage pieces, and even game tables might be located in precious central spaces. In order to leverage space between workstations, these may need to be relocated or reduced in order to move panel systems:

  • Move storage systems to the perimeter or into separate areas to minimize their footprint and keep them out-of-the-way and spaced out.
  • Add artificial plants on top of file cabinets and other stationary items to discourage their use as collaborative workspaces.
  • Relocate touchdown spaces and encourage the use of onsite virtual meetings or separate conference areas with limited capacity.
  • Convert any cubicles used as lounge areas or copy/print nooks back into single workstation cubicles.


While looking for the right solution for your scope, budget, and individual needs, an outside opinion is a valuable tool. Beyond looking towards savvy guides, seek out the counsel of a professional space planner to find innovative ideas for increasing workplace safety. At NBF, we provide complimentary space planning services; contact your local sales rep to get more information.


For detailed plans and before & after examples, visit our Reimagining the Workplace: Open Offices page.

Each desking system has its own unique set of perks and problems. While some tenets are shared between styles, the best solutions are tailored to each desking type:


When you think of the traditional office, you think about standard cubicle systems. These are typically surrounded on three sides, featuring panels made of fabric or laminate-covered surfaces. Many cubicle systems are highly modular in nature and each manufacturer may be able to supply custom-fit pieces that can be added with ease.

  • Aim to add extra protection to the entryway of the cube by adding narrow cubicle wings to reduce this access space.
  • Seek out sliding doors that can fully seal the space when occupied.
  • Increase the height with stackers or additional panel sections.
  • At first, try to alternate occupancy, as these are often close-quarter spaces.
  • In the long term, seek out larger cubes that provide additional workspace while increasing the space between each individual cubicle.


Highly collaborative departments often opt for bullpen-style spaces. These can be fairly contained with only one access point, or they can be structured with larger breezeways between each set of bullpens. These areas place employees in a back-to-back-to-back configuration with at least four employees per-bullpen.

  • Restrict access to the bullpen and disallow the use of pens as a walkway for those who aren't seated within them.
  • Immediately restrict the number of employees seated in the area, at minimum halving the occupancy of the space.
  • Eliminate any collaborative workspace, whether it's a central meeting table or any comingled desking between workstations.
  • Add partitions between desks as well as standing-height partitions between seating.
  • Consider using storage items to separate desks, such as taller open-air slots or small utility drawer towers.
  • In the long term, increase the size of the bullpen to allow additional breadth between employees.


Long rows of barely-separated workstations have become a rising trend in trendy open-concept offices, often seen in tech startups, publication companies, and advertising firms. Employees sit side-by-side in close quarters, promoting a collaborative atmosphere and sense of community. Unfortunately, these are by far the most difficult environments for social distancing.

Benched workspaces are often used for hoteling, a solution for employees that aren't always in the office who only need occasional, impersonal workspace. In these scenarios, hoteling employees are usually partially remote and can be some of the last to return to the office.

  • Surround each workstation with acrylic or solid partitions on all sides.
  • Keep employees home or relocate to other cubicles at first.
  • Separate table desks into individual workstations; divide two-person tables into single stations.
  • Use mobile partitions to separate seating between people.
  • Ensure that dividers are sturdy enough for their desired height or reinforced for added strength.
  • In the long term, consider reworking benching workstations into semi-private cubicles or make each station a stand-alone entity within the office.


Whether it's a one-on-one meeting with a direct report, a quick touchbase with a fellow manager, or the need for added workspace, managers stations are larger panel-based workstations that mimic the layout of a small private office. These areas feature space for larger U or L-shaped desks, guest chairs, enhanced storage space, and even room for a small meeting table.

By their nature, these cubicles can be treated more like a private office while reevaluating a layout and, depending on the panel system used in their construction, retrofitting may include adding a sliding door to the entrance or repositioning the layout.

  • Remove excess guest chairs and reduce occupancy to one guest per-station.
  • Divide meeting tables or spaces in half with acrylic dividers.
  • Retrofit cubicles with doors, sliding doors, or cubicle wings.
  • Ensure that the height exceeds 74".


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