Help Keep Employees Safe With These Back-to-Work Furniture Solutions

A few preparations can transform your office for the post-pandemic era.

safety, furniture, social distancing, facilities, spatial arrangement, workplace layout, cleaning, signage, reconfiguration

As your staff begins to return to the office as COVID-19 stay-at-home orders are lifted, you’re faced with an urgent challenge: helping to keep employees safe and healthy in a shared workspace. Businesses and facilities managers will need to implement extra safety measures during this transitional period to support social distancing and disinfecting. Thankfully, small changes can make a big difference. 

In this infographic, we’ll demonstrate how simple furniture rearrangements and additions can help employees practice responsible social distancing.

But that’s not all business leaders can do to address employee safety as people return to the workplace.

“There are multiple aspects to this — people, space and operations — and they’re interdependent,” says Jan Johnson, head of workplace strategy for Allsteel

Business leaders and facilities managers need to encourage social distancing, keep the office sanitized, and develop and communicate new protocols for using space and moving around. “Don’t forget the power of participation and engagement with the people in your organization,” Johnson says. “Employees need to feel both physically safe and psychologically safe. Getting them involved adds to their feelings of safety, because they’ve been heard and had their concerns addressed. We’re all learning more every day — from how COVID is transmitted to the value of testing and contact tracing. This means we need to be prepared to keep updating our plans and checking in with staff to share any new protocols and the reasoning behind them.”

Workplaces considering layout-based solutions can use virtual tools like the one from FastOffice to visualize new arrangements. But different workplaces have different needs, as the resource guides at Back to Work Safely make clear. 

As you get your office ready for returning workers, consider these strategies:

1. Promote Safer Employee Interaction

Companies must consider how employees are physically interacting with each other as they move around the office, not just when they’re at their workstations. 

“Everybody’s instinct is to think about the distance between desks and people at those desks. We also have to think about circulation as people move throughout the day,” Johnson says.

Here’s what companies can do to limit physical interaction and promote safety and distancing around the office:

  • Designate hallways as one-way paths so that employees aren’t passing each other.
  • Remind employees to use only their dedicated space — no more pulling up a chair and working together in another person’s cubicle.
  • Establish capacity limits in conference rooms and breakrooms.
  • Help employees who schedule meetings to keep the number of attendees to the capacity limit that the space can accommodate.
  • Temporarily replace amenities that many people frequently touch, such as water coolers and bulk snack bins, with single-serving options.

Before employees return, company leaders should spell out these new guidelines with official communications. In these messages, explain the purpose of each and how long you expect the new guidelines to be in effect.

Encourage employees to ask questions and give feedback as they get used to this different environment, so any modifications or new concerns can be addressed.

2. Lower the Density of Your Office

There are many ways to separate employees with screens, barriers and dividers. However, if workers’ primary work areas are too close together, it will diminish the effect of those barriers. Now is the time to take advantage of any office space that is underutilized. Is there a conference room that’s rarely used? Is that big lounge area frequently unoccupied? You can also move mobile boards into bigger, open spaces for meetings.

Reducing the density of your workplace to follow physical distancing guidelines could also have other benefits: You might see improved satisfaction and productivity. According to a study from leading engineering firm Jacobs, researchers studying the effect of office density found that “crowding impacts physical and emotional well-being, mood, task performance and stress. It increases distractions and reduces attention span, making it harder to focus and persevere with complex or difficult work tasks.”

Once you’ve lowered overall density, review group activities that usually require teams to work together. Are there steps that can be handled digitally? When face-to-face or video interaction is key, are there spaces with the technology to involve remote team members so they can effectively contribute? 

3. Make Cleaning a Habit

Office sanitation can no longer be treated as a sporadic undertaking. Make efforts to clean and deep-clean your office regularly. Follow CDC guidelines as you clean the office, and encourage employees to clean their own workspaces. You can also add more hand sanitizer dispensers around the office, particularly in high-touch areas, and place signage about washing hands regularly.

Disinfect high-touch areas such as door handles, kitchen appliances, shared teleconferencing equipment and sign-in areas several times a day. A checklist system can help ensure that cleaning is regimented and timely, not haphazard. 

4. Use the Right Furniture

Opt for hard surfaces where you can, as they’re easier to disinfect. The CDC guidelines on disinfecting recommend that you use diluted household bleach — 5 tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water — to wipe down surfaces. 

According to The HON Company, the following surface materials can be cleaned in this manner:

  • Powder-coated metal
  • Painted MDF
  • High-pressure laminate
  • Thermally fused laminate
  • Edgeband
  • T-molding
  • Glass
  • Plastic
  • Poly-shell seating

5. Communicate Safety Measures With Signage

When employees return to the office, they’ll have to think about their physical space, movement and cleanliness in a way they haven’t before.

“It’s a challenge to be super conscious about something that we normally don’t have to give a second thought to,” Johnson says. “It’s hard and may add to our stress levels; but if we view it as our shared responsibility to watch out for each other, we can build social cohesion — which in turn reduces stress levels.” 

To help employees follow safety measures, give them visual cues around the office with signage. This can include:

  • Arrows taped on the floor to encourage one-way movement in hallways
  • Written reminders about new room capacity limits of conference rooms and lounge areas
  • Markers in conference rooms and breakrooms indicating where employees can sit or stand to ensure a safe distance
  • Reminders around the office to wash hands and sanitize personal workspaces regularly

Signage and other forms of designating usage are particularly useful in shared spaces, such as reception areas, lobbies and meeting rooms. Indicate which seats are available for use (and which areas are off-limits) with signage or other indicators, such as partitions. Choose materials and wording with a friendly tone, rather than a messaging approach that implies hazard or danger. Clear plastic partitions, for example, allow people in shared areas to see one another.