As we start to envision a time when we can stop working at our kitchen tables and return to the office, it’s important to consider what the new normal for workplaces will look like. Until there's a vaccine, office spaces will have to evolve if employees are to safely return to their desks. 

Although "flu season" is nothing new, this is the first pandemic the vast majority of us have experienced. People are hyper-aware of health risks—whether real or imagined. This fear is compelling for employers to be transparent and proactive when allowing employees to resume office life. Aside from the safety and confidence of their teams, the liability of an employee getting sick with COVID-19 is also a major driver in the push for more hygienic workplaces. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, InStore Design Display pivoted its focus as a designer and fabricator of domestic plastics for retail displays to personal protection equipment (PPE). We leveraged our access to materials and product development speed to help slow the spread of infection

The IDD team worked with healthcare workers and essential businesses like grocery stores and banks during the initial aftershock of the lockdowns and quarantine. After collaborating with leaders in these industries to understand their needs, our capabilities and well-established supply chain enabled us to avoid the woes of a global shutdown and swiftly deliver solutions to improve safety.

As the number of people returning to work grows, so will IDD’s effort to leverage our capabilities to help create safer communities. Our team of experts is working with industry leaders in workplace design and safety to identify the most effective, feasible solutions for the many challenges facing companies.

We are using the lessons we learned about re-entry preparedness to help you understand and navigate your immediate need for increased safety measures. Before you commit to a short or long-term solution, consider the following four points.

Open Office, High Risk

We’ve been in constant information overload during the COVID-19 pandemic. You may not remember learning about “Building X,” which was a call center on the 11th floor of a 19-story office building in downtown Seoul, South Korea. On February 25, one of the 216 people who worked on the floor started experiencing  coronavirus symptoms. In no time, a cluster of cases began to ping-pong across the office until the government caught wind and shut down the building.

As you’ll notice in the diagram, this floor had a layout that may look familiar to many of us. Long rows of shared desks line each side of the open floor, with a handful of smaller meeting rooms and private offices scattered throughout.

building x image

Floor plan of the 11th floor of “building X,” site of a coronavirus disease outbreak in Seoul, South Korea. Blue coloring indicates the seating places of persons with confirmed cases. Park SY, Kim YM, Yi S, Lee S, Na BJ, Kim CB, et al. Coronavirus disease outbreak in a call center, South Korea. Emerg Infect Dis. 2020 Aug.

As companies create their re-entry plan to get employees back to work, this infection map serves as a sobering blueprint. The open-plan office that so many companies adopted in recent years looks like the potential for an extreme public health hazard. 

Even after evidence-based complaints that the open office layout is distracting and noisy, hampers productivity and discourages in-person interaction, 68% of people work in an office with either no walls or low walls according to a 2010 study by the International Facility Management Association. Despite the ineffectiveness of open offices and the risk of spreading infection, it’s still difficult for companies to begin the undertaking of major refits due to the uncertainty of the future of the workplace. 

Prepared to return to work safely? See our Workplace Protective Equipment

Reduce Density

IDD and our workplace design partners are seeing an increase in safety measures, primarily focused on tactical solutions such as reducing the number of employees and guests allowed in the building at one time. Companies are hesitant to invest a significant sum on solutions that could be rendered ineffective in six-months, whether due to our increased understanding of Covid-19 or a vaccine. 

What you may see is small, targeted measures aimed to provide employees confidence in their safety.

These targeted solutions are a combination of short-term fixes intended to boost worker confidence, reduce staff occupancy, and eventually lead to longer-term design upgrades and modifications.

The first phase of resuming office life will involve making necessary changes to keep employees safe and allay fears. The most important of these changes is to reduce density. Instead of squeezing eight employees onto a bench desk, seat just three and clearly identify unused desk spaces as off-limits. Instead of bringing outside clients deep into the office for meetings, route them into low-trafficked side rooms (or opt for a video call). 

Increase Physical Barriers

Personal protection screens are another low-cost, easy to deploy, and high-impact measure. Installing an additional panel fitted between socially distanced desks can help make employees feel more comfortable. Similar measures can be taken in reception areas and any other communal space—think cafeteria or break room.

These solutions come in the form of:

Choose Great Partners

You may be thinking, “those look simple enough, we could do that in house.”

However, before heading to the local hardware store, let’s revisit the basis for implementing safety measures. The goal is to provide your employees with a sense of comfort that gives them confidence their workplace is safe. 

A hodgepodge combination of self-made barrier systems is unlikely to instill that confidence. In addition, as COVID-19 cases continue to increase so will the demand for materials used to create protective elements, making any plans for DIY more challenging.

When choosing a partner for personal protective equipment, there are many things to consider. It’s important to understand not only their capabilities but also their supply chain. InStore Design Display is a domestic manufacturer of plastics, this benefits our clients because we have access to hard-to-come-by materials.

IDD is also a successful design-build team. That means, if you choose a stock product or opt for custom, we will deliver solutions that are on time, on budget, and aesthetically pleasing. 

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