As the federal government begins to pivot from COVID-19 response to reopening the economy, businesses need to start planning for their workers to return to work safely as the threat of COVID19 infection persists. Whether it’s in a week or a month—when employees come back to the office, their workspaces will need to change to help protect them against this virus.  Simply adding more hand sanitizer stations and cleaning more often may not be enough. And these changes will need to remain in place even after COVID19 is eradicated to protect workers against potential future epidemics. 

ACG National Capital recently assembled a panel of experts to provide best practices and help business leaders return to work safely.

The panel, led by Christie Minch from Cresa, included Elizabeth Long and Holly Martin of OTJ Architects, Lew Brode of Greenman-Pedersen, Jordan McLean from HITT, Shannon McLendon of Motley Fool, and Richard Rhodes from Cresa.

These experts offered six recommendations to help those preparing their offices for the return of employees:

1. Institute Changes Before Workforce Returns

When employees come back into the workplace, their environment should already be set up for them to maximize their productivity and do the things that are harder for them to do when they are working remotely: collaborating and sharing ideas with their coworkers. 

According to Elizabeth Long from OTJ Architects, you want to make it clear that you’ve thought about these issues and instituted changes already.  This way, workers are not constantly worrying about safety and therefore, are more focused on their work. 

2. Rethink Your Building’s and Office’s Entries and Exits

“One piece of low hanging fruit is to decentralize the entry and exit experience,” Holly Martin of OTJ Architects advised. “Most buildings are designed to bring people in through one centralized point, but some buildings are considering using exit stairs for both ingress and egress,” with dedicated stairs for going up and for going down.  This reduces strain on elevators—the small, enclosed spaces where it’d be hard to maintain six feet of separation, as per social distancing guidelines. 

The same is also true of reception areas because they too, can lead to crowding. Measures should also be taken to allow people to enter and exit the office through multiple points. 

3. Reduce Capacity in Open Format Offices

In open offices that offer little distance and few partitions between workstations, Ms.  Martin suggested instituting a “checkerboard pattern” of occupancy, with only every other workstation occupied at a time. 

“Checkerboard” occupancy Source: OTJ Architects

4. Upgrade HVAC Capabilities

With more studies showing that increasing air flow and bringing in more outside air can help to limit the spread of the virus, there are several quick and economical adjustments that can be made to building HVAC units. 

In addition to increasing HVAC systems’ runtimes, both Lew Brode of Greenman-Pedersen and Shannon McLendon from Motley Fool pointed out that upgrading air filters might be an option worth considering. 

“This is a good low cost upgrade that a lot of people are focusing on right now,” Mr. Brode commented, as filters with a sufficient efficiency rating—specifically MERV 14A-rated filters—can remove most of the viruses from the air flowing through them. 

5. Reduce the Number of High-Touch Surfaces

While building managers and companies should give tenants and employees the means to wash and sanitize their hands more often, they should also consider reducing the number of surfaces that they need to touch where they might pick up germs to begin with. 

Jordan McLean of HITT recommended replacements that would reduce the number of these high-touch surfaces, including touchless sinks in bathrooms, sensor-activated lights, and door handles that can more easily be opened using feet and forearms instead of hands.

Another way to decrease the number of surfaces that occupants need to touch could also be connecting building systems to the network so that people can control building resources from their smartphones. 

As an example, Mr. McLean pointed to capabilities that would allow someone to call an elevator from their phone, saving them from having to touch a conventional wall panel. 

6. Take the Good with the Good

Even with all of this planning to return to work safely, it is important that the lessons that we’ve learned working remotely for an extended period of time aren’t forgotten.

“We need to take the good with the good,” Ms. Long commented, and move forward with a better understanding of what workers can better accomplish when they’re working remotely and what the best uses of their time is when they are in the office. 

“This is a very unusual time.  We’re using this time to make lasting changes for what we need in the future,” she continued. 

For more insightful conversations with industry experts on best practices that can help you and your business, check out ACG National Capital’s lineup of events HERE.