As South Africa starts with a phased approach to easing lockdown rules, companies are considering what their own “back to the office” will look like and how their current workspace will need to adjust. Facilities and workspace managers across the country will be actively considering the health, safety, and wellbeing of all employees before re-opening office to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Whilst everyone is still unsure about how the future will unfold, this short-term challenge is giving many organisations the opportunity to re-evaluate how their business operates. We know that social distancing will continue to form part of everyday life, including in the workplace, for some time and workspaces will need to be adapted and reconfigured to accommodate less people on a floor or within an area. Large portions of the workforce may continue to work from home leaving some office buildings completely empty.

What steps should you be following before reopening your offices after lockdown?

Create a team or steering committee

  • Create a team or steering committee which includes members for key departments such as human resources and IT. This will help improve decision making processes and ensure execution is smoother
  • Involve key individuals from across the organisation to assist with the cascading of information to various parts of the business. This helps with creating buy in and trust to ensure that you take the right actions
  • Employers will need to comply with new workplace protocols that include disease surveillance and actions to prevent the spread of infection. This includes screening staff daily for symptoms of COVID-19, temperature assessments as well as ensuring that employees comply with social distancing and wear masks.
  • The Department of Health will issue a comprehensive guide that stipulates the latest COVID-19 workplace Health and Safety practices, so make sure you keep up to date with these.
  • If you have not yet, ensure you have updated emergency contact information for all employees


Communicate to staff in advance

  • Even if plans are not 100%, start communicating to employees as soon as possible to help reduce concerns and prepare them as plans evolve. This will keep any fears or uncertainty in check as well as plan for future behaviour such as wearing masks, utilisation of hand sanitisers, number of people in meeting rooms etc
  • Start opening the conversation about the new COVID-19 aware company culture. There are some great examples of companies that have introduced 6-feet workplace strategies that drive a new behaviour and reinforce the need to be hygiene obsessed.
  • Your company might have had an unwritten rule that people were still expected to be in the office when they were mildly ill, this is no longer applicable and, it’s important to be clear about that upfront.


Understand how the office space needs to change.

This period of working from home will have proven that a great deal of work can be done remotely. Upon returning to their offices, companies will need to ascertain how much space is actually required. As a first step, decide who needs to go back to the office and what type of work will they be doing. There are multiple ways to approach this.

  • Investigate if you can change work patterns, by creating different groups or departments to come to the office on specific days, or a week on, week off scenario. This allows for business continuation and collaborations whilst still limiting the number of people in a space without the need to enforce social distancing.
  • Plan how workspaces need to be changed to accommodate people in the office whilst still observing social distancing.
  • If people will only be going to the office for meetings. You might find that keeping social distancing rules in your meeting rooms drastically reduces the meeting space you have available.
  • Proactively manage cleaning protocols. Consider whether you want to provide disinfectant products to use as necessary or whether you plan to increase the frequency of professional cleaning in certain areas.
  • Create sanitation stations at entrances and exits as well as at the access points to high traffic areas. Do not neglect less obvious high touch points such as coffee machines and printers.


Proactively manage occupancy

As stringent social distancing measures are required to be implemented in the workplace. Occupancy monitoring will be more vital than ever in the wake of COVID-19. Companies will need to proactively monitor and track whether social distancing is being adhered to and identify high-risk areas such as shared kitchens or elevators. Ceiling based occupancy sensors will become even more relevant to monitor both standing and sitting behaviour. Occupancy patterns that emerge over time can be used to ensure that all space is used effectively. By either downsizing or re-allocating space, organisations could also achieve some longer-term cost savings.

If you are going to change your office space to be optimised for a new way of working, consider making it smart.

  • Incorporate technology solutions that track occupancy in real-time and give employees visibility into crowded spaces as well as provide them with easy ways of finding a space to sit or a room to meet in.
  • If you are moving to more optimised workspace, consider an activity-based working approach to your design to ensure people at the office have the right space to do their work.
  • At Cataly5t, we enable you to be at the forefront of this workplace revolution. Through the implementation of smart building technology, we help to provide healthy, flexible and productive places to work.


Do not forget environmental monitoring

Environmental monitoring in the office plays an essential role in optimising the health and wellbeing of employees and should not be overlooked. Increased deep cleaning in the office to stop the spread of COVID-19 could lead to an increase in chemicals or TVOCs, so it is important to keep your eye on this. Temperature and humidity play a vital role in the survival rate of viruses. As an example, low humidity can cause mucous membranes to dry out, which compromises our body’s natural defence to viruses. Improving your indoor air quality can prevent sick building syndrome and increase productivity and cognitive function.

  • Ensure you monitor and track real-time temperature, humidity, CO2 (carbon dioxide), CO (carbon monoxide), NO2 (nitrogen dioxide), O3 (ozone), TVOCs (chemicals) and PM2.5 (small particles such as dust) and assess this data against optimal values.

Cost implications

  • Plan for budget increases in the short term as office reconfigurations may need to be done to adapt the work environment, facilitate more mobile working opportunities as well as the increase in hygiene measures

When this is all said and done, it is important to acknowledge that the way we work, and our workspace has changed forever. We do not know how the future will unfold but it will forever be altered, and the COVID-19 pandemic would have been the pivoting point for this. It is critical during the return to the office planning to be as agile as possible and be able to respond and adjust to new challenges as they unfold.

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