Post-COVID workplace: How to retrofit, reconfigure and reinvent your business with focus on employee health

April 29, 2020

This paid piece is sponsored by Interstate Office Products.

Most modern offices weren’t designed with a pandemic in mind.

Their open plans, shared spaces and collaborative setups are great for keeping employees engaged and interacting – but not ideal for physical distancing.

So as workplaces begin to transition away from remote offices and back to communal ones, there likely will be adjustments needed.

“The good news is there are ways you can work with your existing space, maybe bring in a few new additions, and create an environment where workers will feel safe, limit their exposure to others and ultimately be productive upon their return,” said Gary Gaspar, CEO of Interstate Office Products.

“We’re implementing much of this in our own workplace as we’re helping other businesses do the same.”

As a premier partner of industry leader Steelcase, IOP has access to research and strategies that have been rapidly developed and are being implemented for the post-COVID workplace.

That includes a way to quickly and easily retrofit your existing space, potentially reconfigure it with new layouts and think longer term about how offices will need to be reinvented to accommodate the changing ways they will need to support the well-being of workers.

Over the past decade, the allocation of space per person in the workplace substantially decreased, Steelcase said in its newly released report on the post-COVID workplace. That increased the likelihood of spreading infections. By giving people more control over where they work, with multiple work spaces within a building and areas designed for “nomadic” workers, spaces now exist that will have to be reconfigured and cleaned frequently if they continue to be used.

The characteristics of modern offices “created a competitive advantage for organizations – a means to foster new work styles, build culture and attract talent,” Steelcase said in its report.

“While many organizations prepared for employee safety in other ways, the workplace was not designed to mitigate the spread of disease. Companies around the world were not prepared to think about the workplace as an environment that needs to adapt quickly to health risks that can rise unexpectedly. Going forward, they cannot take the risk that rapid transmission of a virus could cause a facility or entire business to shut down.”

Retrofit and reconfigure

Interstate Office Products has been implementing strategies from Steelcase in its own downtown workplace.

“There are a lot of things you can do with your existing furniture,” business development specialist James Gaspar said.

“For instance, we rotated some desks so people weren’t as close together. We have one area where a printer was right next to someone’s desk, so anyone coming up to it would be breathing toward that person. We moved the printer farther away from where people are working. In our break area, we reconfigured it so there’s one way in and a different way out, and employees aren’t crossing paths.”

Screens can go a long way in turning a more open office environment into a more private one. Take a look at these example work spaces with varying levels of fixed and portable screens added.

“A lot of the screens are in stock and able to ship out quickly,” said Kristi Christensen, IOP’s executive vice president of sales and design.

“It’s about a week after we order to get some in stock; some free-standing screens might take a couple weeks, but they will quickly help you create a boundary or barrier between employees.”

There also are screening options for height-adjustable desks that clip onto the back of the desk, “so as you transition from sitting to standing, it moves with you and continues to provide a barrier or boundary,” Christensen said.

Additional pieces like these can further create boundaries and even add storage.

The mobile screen shown here doubles as a whiteboard and also could be used during standing meetings with teams safely spaced apart.

Common spaces and cleanliness

Your common areas in the workplace also likely will need some rethinking.

“It’s a huge environment for people to be sitting too close, but we still want workplaces to be able to utilize those spaces,” Christensen said.

“So there are settings where you can take the same furniture, orient it differently and add a few small pieces to create a safety zone, so you can use it with other people,” Christensen said.

Here’s an example of what that could look like in an office.

And, of course, you’ll want to make sure those areas stay clean. An emerging best practice is called “clean in, clean out.”

“You can create little cleaning stations so supplies are in close proximity,” Christensen said. “If you sit in something, you wipe it down before you leave, so it’s clean for the next person. It’s giving employees empowerment to take care of themselves.”

IOP has started helping several businesses with new layouts and in some cases new pieces for the office in anticipation of workers returning. It also has been helping retrofit along the way for offices that have continued to bring in employees but distance them.

“And our installers have really acclimated to new practices,” IOP president Sheila Casiello said. “We have continued to install office furniture throughout the pandemic, and they are very conscientious. It just becomes a matter of habit and awareness.”

You’ll now find IOP installers maintaining distance between each other and with customers, wiping down shared tools and carts, and wearing face coverings when working at a customer’s location.

Signage solutions

There are easy ways to add visual cues throughout the workplace that make it easier to adapt to the new environment. IOP is offering stickers that may be used on the floor or along walls or hallways as markers showing how to stay far enough apart, what way to walk and how to avoid bottlenecks in the office.

“There’s an emotional part of this,” Christensen said. “Those visual cues remind employees that safety is being addressed regardless of where you’re going in the workplace. It shows that as an employer you’re taking this seriously and intentionally planning ways to keep your team safe.”

IOP also has signs and markers in its office showing 6-foot distancing, reminders to wash hands and signs showing potential symptoms of COVID-19.

At one point, there were four people left in the physical space with everyone else working remote. Within the past week, a few more have come back, but the total remains at a very low density per square foot. Once screens are added, it will be safe to bring back additional employees.

“We haven’t decided when we’ll continue to bring more back,” Casiello said. “We’re trying it out with the first group, and we’ll see how it goes with maintaining distance and following new procedures. The biggest part is making sure employees are listening and practicing the procedures.”

Long-term thinking

Whether it’s the COVID-19 pandemic or other illnesses that circulate when people share space, offices likely will be reinvented to reflect the need for more adaptability.

That could include spaces designed for easily expanding and contracting to accommodate greater or less distancing. It also could include things like sensors to measure different aspects of well-being and engineered materials to allow for more cleaning and disinfection over time without degrading, Steelcase said in its report.

“There will be an urgency to not simply return to where we were but to be resilient, move forward and thrive,” it said.

“Innovation, productivity and growth can be reignited and accelerated with a workplace that is designed to balance diverse ways of working while supporting people’s well-being more than ever and respond quickly and easily when faced with disruption. The opportunity ahead is to reinvent.”

To access the Steelcase guide to the post-COVID workplace, click here.

Contact Interstate Office Products for helping retrofitting and reconfiguring your workplace, at 605-339-0300 or iop@i-o-p.com.

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Post-COVID workplace: How to retrofit, reconfigure and reinvent your business with focus on employee health

Most modern offices were set up for collaboration — not physical distancing. But there are ways to reconfigure as you head back to work.

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