The immediate concern is the return of people to the building and this first stage may require several iterations, very likely in parallel with evolving social distancing measures, before you can plan for longer term ‘normality’. However, it is key to understand that you will need to plan for change over time.
1. The return of the employee/occupant - how many?
Firstly, the facilities lead should respond to government guidance on working safely during COVID-19 by carrying out a risk assessment to determine the workspace capacity for people returning and how best to keep people safe. This risk assessment should be done in consultation with workers or unions.
Employers have a legal responsibility to do everything reasonably practicable to minimise health and safety risks to their workers, while recognising that it is not possible to completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19. Consider also the capability and capacity of each individual to return to the workplace, including their transport requirements, and the Government’s safer travel guidance.
The risk assessment is a key tool to review the possible experiences and activities within the workspace to understand and identify potential hazards and to assess the risk of them occurring, so that mitigation measures can be put in place; it will therefore help you define not just how many can return, but how to manage this safely.
Social distancing requirements will likely mean that the number who can return to the workplace is dramatically reduced. To determine what the operational space is, you will have to consider not just the volume of space, but also factors such as access points and lifts, optimising flows and minimising bottlenecks.
- the latest UK Government guidance on social distancing can be found here
- the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has excellent advice on risk assessments; advice on controlling risks in the workplace can be found here, and an example risk assessment for an office-based business can be found here
- the preparing buildings for re-use section on this page has additional prompts for a range of measures that should be taken.
2. What is the workplace strategy? Who needs to be there and what does this mean for the space?
Once you know how many people you can accommodate, you need to consider who needs to be physically in the workplace and who does not. This will help to prioritise and organise the space into an attractive environment so that it can accommodate the right activities. You should consider the need for meeting rooms, the potential removal of desks, the addition of screens (transparent where possible to promote connectivity). Continuing the practice of ‘hot-desking’ will require regular and thorough cleaning of the workstation area, but this may enable better social distancing and be more hygienic than allocating desks to individuals. Where possible provide modular and flexible solutions so that people have different options to suit their needs.
In addition to planning the usual work space, based on an understanding of which activities need to take place and how it is best organised within the building fabric, you will also need to consider the needs of the many people, possibly a majority, who will continue to work remotely. They will need to be supported to create workspaces at home that are conducive to productive working. Key considerations for home workers include how to support them with the right hardware, including chairs and IT, as well as navigating a new working dynamic including breaks and concentration techniques.
Most workplace strategies will not settle for a binary choice of office or home working, rather they will provide additional options of remote working and ongoing flexibility about how and when work is done. Giving control to individuals over how and when they work, as well as providing them with what they will need to do that, allows them to balance their work life demands, minimising stress and anxiety, benefitting all.
Whatever measures or adjustments that you put in place must avoid putting disabled workers at a disadvantage, take account of your duties under equality legislation, and be mindful of the particular needs of any groups or individuals whose protected characteristics might expose them to different degrees of risks.
3. Essential engagement and communications with employees
The most effective workplace strategy will be informed by insight – you need to understand concerns about likely workplace scenarios to best identify and accommodate an optimal balance between individual and organisational needs.
Engagement is a fundamental part of any workplace strategy, including two-way communication and transparency about the implementation of practical measures, such as cleaning and distancing regimes, which will be top of mind for people returning to the office. Not everyone is going to want to return to the workplace and not everyone’s home situation may allow this either.
FMs should collaborate with HR colleagues to survey employees to understand their needs and key concerns. Not only will this help to decide what to prioritise in your space management, but what you can do better to support people in making efficient home working spaces while at the same time ensuring people’s wellbeing and connectivity. Good practice would see a regular survey taking place, especially in larger organisations to help keep track of teams and, for example, to compare different approaches.
Along with employee engagement, open and transparent communications about what the business is doing will be important to retain trust in the organisation – internally and externally. In addition, the Government expects every employer with over 50 workers to publish their COVID-19 risk assessment on their website. Furthermore, the ongoing review of best practice, alongside the engagement and communication, will demonstrate a commitment to creating a safe and healthy workplace.
If you manage a workplace in a building with multiple occupiers, you will also need to engage and coordinate with the different stakeholders so that everybody's health and safety is protected.
4. ‘Building’ response to the new workplace strategy
In addition to a people survey, analysis of space utilisation and general building use should inform the post COVID-19 occupancy footprint and other approaches, including cleaning protocols as the biggest concerns for people around returning to the workplace are maintaining social distancing and hygiene.
Increasing cleaning operations during the day and in high traffic areas will help maintain a visible presence. Measures such as placing sufficient sanitiser throughout the workplace, clear displays of health and safety information, and regular communication on measures being taken throughout the building so that occupants can see the efforts of the organisation to keep them safe are all important actions in promoting trust and confidence in safety.
The risk assessment should inform employers about the need for any appropriate PPE. Staggered arrival and departure routines should be considered as lifts (and stairs) will not be able to accommodate as many people at the same time. Visible and audible signalling should be used to indicate safe zones both in and outside the lifts, and the wider workspace, so that social distancing can be maintained consistently throughout. Employers should also consider their policies on testing people, and whether in addition to government testing where needed, an antigen test would be offered to people in the organisation.
In addition to providing a space-based response to the social distancing challenge, workplace and facilities managers will need to ensure ongoing compliance with health and safety to ensure the building is a genuinely safe workplace: PPM, lift safety checks, water systems checks, deep cleans, fire system checks, security, and so on, should all be reviewed well in advance of the return so they can be planned properly. Ideally, at least three to four weeks – possibly longer for multi-occupied buildings - should be set aside for this as the availability of suppliers for such checks might be strained both by demand as well as by potential sickness. The HSE will expect a building to be 100% compliant before (re-)occupation.
The section ‘Preparing buildings for re-use’ below includes a variety of prompts to consider. More information on testing eligibility and processes to follow can be found in the testing section below.
5. Staying flexible and leading the ongoing change programme for the next phase and beyond
Now is the time to demonstrate leadership in providing and implementing the solutions that workplaces need. While you are likely to already be working closely together with IT and HR to provide solutions you will need to work with other key decision-making functions such as communications and finance teams to enact your workplace strategy efficiently.
The initial return to work is only the first phase in a long transition to a ‘new normal’. It is therefore important to remain flexible in your planning so that you can adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. You should ensure solid business continuity plans remain up-to-date to manage a sudden return to home-working in case of a second lockdown.
Alongside this mid-term planning, you should start considering the long-term implications for your office space footprint alongside other workplace adaptations that will help to focus minds on the organisation’s long-term objectives. It is important that organisations do not plan to revert to business as usual without taking on board learnings from how they managed the change.
Furthermore, there is major opportunity to use this rethinking to return to a better workplace, offering greater flexibility and choice while working towards more ambitious sustainability goals. COVID-19 has taught us that sustainability has not disappeared off the agenda – if anything, quite the opposite. It is not only necessary, it is also possible to make a difference.