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Social Distancing and the Return to Office


Two women professionals social distancing in the office
Image: nenetus -
Even if the return to the office is being pushed back in many U.S. enterprises, plans may be moving ahead more steadily in other countries, and hopefully at some point the U.S. will manage to follow suit. So now is still a good time to consider what the office should look like when at least some employees begin returning to it.
The architectural firm Gensler recently conducted a survey asking respondents whether they would react positively, negatively, or neutrally, to many of the most commonly proposed measures for making workplaces safer. Gensler received the most positive responses for increased social distancing, increased work from home, and reduced number of shared workspaces.
Social distancing is what most of us think about first when we imagine how our workplaces might look different when employees return. But the authors of a Gensler blog on the topic, Mitchell Bobman, Carly Levett, and Frank Gibase, point out something many enterprises might be failing to consider:
“Most employers we’ve worked with have referenced the CDC’s recommendation of 6 feet of social distancing during their return planning efforts,” they write. “However, in many instances, we’ve seen that 6 feet may already technically exist between adjacent desks — especially for larger workstations and cubicles. A floor filled with 7-foot-by-7-foot workstations could technically occupy every seat and still meet the CDC’s distancing guidelines; however, employees may not feel comfortable returning to a fully occupiable workspace even under these standards.”
Indeed, it seems unlikely that most enterprises would push their luck by just telling everyone to go back to the pre-pandemic seating arrangement and density, and try to allay people’s concerns by noting that, technically, the layout meets CDC’s minimum guidelines. Indeed, enterprises are being conservative; most are planning to stage the return to office by bringing back, say, 25% of workers at first, then gradually ramping up to 50%, with the intention of scaling back again if there’s a caseload flareup in the city where the office is located.
Eventually enterprises will have to make a long-term plan that accounts for workers getting Gensler’s second-most-preferred option — not coming back to the office at all. The enterprise can then decide from there how to reconfigure the space for those who are returning — taking into account not just the reality of safety, but also its perception. It’ll be a constantly evolving challenge for enterprise IT, real estate/facilities, and HR leaders working together over the next several months.
That’s why I’m pleased that our sister brand, Enterprise Connect, is presenting a discussion around this topic as part of its upcoming Digital Conference & Expo. My colleague and the digital event’s program co-chair, Beth Schultz, will be holding a conversation with workplace expert Melissa Marsh on the topic, “Balancing Distributed and Office Work.” Melissa and her firm, Plastarc, are leaders in helping enterprises develop their workplace strategy, so this will definitely be a conversation you shouldn’t miss.
You can see a full agenda for the Digital Conference & Expo here. Much of the event is dedicated to the technology underpinnings of the future of work and collaboration, but nowadays no IT strategy for collaboration can exist in a vacuum, so just about all of the independent experts speaking at the virtual conference will be addressing the context in which these technology decisions are taking place. I hope you can join us for Beth’s and Melissa’s conversation, and any of the other sessions that may fit your focus.