As a number of states roll out tentative plans to gradually reopen their economies, businesses have to move quickly to establish new protocols and strategies for returning to the office in the evolving pandemic landscape. First and foremost on the agenda is the need to develop new safety protocols to ensure the health of employees as they return to work. Established guidelines — such as OSHA’s Guidance in Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, which outlines engineering, administrative and work practice controls that employers should take to reduce the risk of workplace infection, as well as a number of CDC publications — lay the groundwork for creating safer work environments.
While these guidelines provide a crucial reference point, developing a “return to the office” strategy is still a complex task requiring companies to weigh a range of unique risks and benefits. There is no one-size-fits-all approach — each company’s strategy may look different, and some employers will continue to rely heavily on remote working strategies, while others move quickly to return essential workers or adopt another approach.
The current climate may offer an opportunity for companies to be less reactive and more strategic in how they approach workplace design and strategy, as the pandemic has catalyzed dialogue about important issues which may have otherwise gone unaddressed. Some of the key topics companies should take this opportunity to consider more deeply include:
- Work/life balance and the need for flexible work from home programs
- The drawbacks of open office plans and the desire for privacy and separation
- The costs of commuting, including increased pollution and traffic
- The need for more agile and flexible workplace design
- The importance of measuring cost per person rather than pursuing increased workplace densification and focusing on cost per square foot
Given this context, it is vital for companies to understand the short and long-term issues they need to address in developing their own return to the office strategy. Several tools can help companies address these design and planning questions as they work towards a workplace strategy for the COVID-19 era and beyond. These tools — including a step-by-step outline covering the major tasks involved in developing a workplace strategy, and a matrix covering related design and facility issues — are presented below as preliminary conversation starters to provide companies with initial direction as they launch into the complex work ahead of them.
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