May 27, 2020

How to Make an Open Office Safer for Employee Health

As companies look to reopen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some business owners are reconsidering their office designs. The open office space, which was hailed as an optimal format for employee collaboration and creativity, is now seen as a health hazard because of its confined and shared workspace.

Social distancing in a finite space like an office becomes extremely difficult when you remove walls (barriers). This inability to isolate increases the spread of germs from employees across desks, computers, and other surfaces. 

While the open office might seem doomed, there are a few ways for employers to modify the open office to make it safer for their employees.

Create ‘Buffer Seating’ Between Workers

One of the main benefits of an open workspace is that it requires less real estate. The Wall Street Journal found that between 2018 and 2019, the average office space per seat dropped by at least 14%. 

Businesses love the open floor plan because it requires less rent space and is designed to incentivize and improve collaboration, conversation, comfort, and creativity. 

In an open office, you don’t need to knock on closed doors or peak over cubicles to talk to your colleagues. However, you’re also unable to truly distance yourself—which isn’t ideal during a global pandemic.

If employers are serious about the health of their team members, then they may need to put their money where their mouths are and invest in more space to allow for proper distancing between employees. 

The coworking space WeWork announced that it would create “buffer zones” in its open floor plan. While that buffer will lead to fewer desks per square foot, it will help protect employees and flatten the curve of COVID-19.

The CDC recommends a minimum of 6 feet for social distancing, so the buffer seating between employees should be at least that—preferably more. 

Face Employees Away from Each Other

Most open floor plans place employees across from each other throughout the day. If you need to ask your manager or coworker a question, you can just glance up. 

The World Health Organization says that one of the modes of transmission of the coronavirus is through respiratory droplets. Further research from the WEF says that microdroplets can carry COVID-19 and can last for 20 minutes. 

In other words, face-to-face conversation in close proximity spreads germs.

Consider reorganizing your open office so that employees work with their backs to each other. They can still ask questions because their coworkers are within earshot, but the new seating arrangement will mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Limit Capacity in Meeting Rooms 

Along with creating buffer zones around desks, business owners need to be mindful of how employees collaborate. With an open floor plan, employees need more meeting space for private discussions. Some business owners turn executive offices into smaller conference rooms while others look for spaces that serve as communal work desks.

These meeting areas need to be scrutinized. While 8 people might usually fit into a room, under the new social distancing guidelines, will everyone have 6 feet of space?

Consider limiting the capacity of meeting areas to allow enough room for employees. You can also set up a sanitizing protocol for team members to wipe seats, tables, and other surfaces before leaving.

Any time your office has communal space, your employees are able (and likely) to spread germs. 

Alternate Remote and Office Workdays

Many organizations are beginning to find their footing with remote work, so don’t throw it away as soon as you’re able to go back to the office. Try slowly migrating back to normal with a flexible schedule that combines office and remote workdays. Alternating work locations for your staff will make it easier to maintain a clean workspace while also giving your employees more freedom.

You may want to discuss the flexible schedule with your team first to see if some employees actually prefer working in the office over working from home—and vice versa.

Considering your employees’ preferences when deciding whether to continue offering remote work can keep your space safer while also improving productivity and employee satisfaction.  

Do the Little Things

Business Insider recently published the results of a Bospar survey, which found that 52.9% of Americans believe open offices will increase the spread of COVID-19, and 41% think their office will be a “hotbed of infection.” 

While you can help keep your office safer by implementing strategic changes like more work-from-home opportunities and updating meeting guidelines, sometimes it just takes small changes. 

To keep your office safer now and moving forward, consider:

 

Everyone wants to return to “normal” in the wake of the pandemic, but the reality is that the modern workplace is going to change. More people will work remotely, and businesses with open floor plans will need to adjust how closely people work. If you’re looking to improve the safety of your open office, consider the tips above. 

About the author

Derek Miller
Derek Miller
Derek Miller is a writer specializing in entrepreneurship, small business, and digital marketing. His work has featured in sites like Entrepreneur, GoDaddy, Score.org, and StartupCamp. He’s currently the CMO of Smack Apparel, the content guru at Great.com, and a marketing consultant for small businesses.

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