How to Design Safer Offices in a COVID-19 World

Covid 19 barrier

Preventing the spread of COVID-19 was the motivation behind sending employees home to work during the pandemic. And it will be the same driving factor for employees’ eventual return to the office. What design preparations can be made to your office for operating in the new normal? What common-sense safety measures can be adopted?

Given the gravity of the situation, some companies will need to have their offices retrofit, or undergo a more radical rebuild to keep employees safe based on CDC health guidelines outlining social distancing and hygiene practices. Changes to your office may be as drastic as installing new HVAC systems and widening corridors, to as minimal as adding partitions between departments and sneeze guards on cubicles.

Office fashion for decades has focused on open-plan working. COVID-19 has upended this mega-trend, leading to a closed-plan future or what is known as the “six-foot” office. No more communal desks, elbow-to-elbow seating or cafes where people congregate to chat, or recreational spaces to play ping-pong. Change has arrived in the form of a microscopic virus.

In the COVID-19 era, the office is anything but open. Physical distancing requires adding elements such as high glass barriers, also known in the industry as “sneeze guards,” between cubicles and in the reception area. Bleach-cleanable fabrics will be introduced to office furniture. With less travel, the workplace will need to provide better options for videoconferencing, perhaps dedicating a former conference room into a mini-theater. It could also mean more use of materials, like copper, that are less hospitable to germs.

In addition, the average office desk has shrunk over the years by nearly 25%, but a likely reversal is coming, as people won’t want to sit as close together. Desks should be staggered or set at 90-degree angles. We may also see offices begin using their outdoor spaces re-designed for business, weather permitting. Security windows may need to be replaced with ones that actually open for freer airflow. Where possible, touch-reducing amenities, such as double swinging push doors, and motion sensor lights, can be added to reduce the spread of the virus on surfaces in high-traffic areas.

COVID-19 is an airborne virus. Reconfiguring an office’s ventilation system to flow air from the ceiling down rather than the floor up, is safer from the viral transmission. This step may require a complete retrofit of the HVAC system. This is a major step, as is the demolition and widening of tight corridors and doorways. However, both are necessary for safety and possible legal liability in the event of a lawsuit from an infected employee since OSHA requires that employers provide a safe working environment.

Thankfully, some of the best design ideas are also some of the easiest to deploy: Reduce capacities of conference rooms, kitchens, and lobbies by simply removing and spacing out furniture. Make it easy for staff and customers to be socially distant by making it impossible for them to sit close together.

Communication is the key to prevention. Your office should post signage that will keep everyone mindful of safety: good respiratory hygiene, cleaning recommendations, social distancing, and symptom checks. The CDC has developed a series of printable materials and posters for use. Along with the signage, use tape on the floor indicating one-way traffic throughout the office to minimize cross-traffic, and six-foot circles around desks. Encourage the use of stairs over elevators and set a clear “one person per elevator” policy.

Cicero’s Development is here to help you and your staff navigate the challenges of this global public health issue. Should you have any design questions about preventing the spread of COVID-19 in your office, visit www.cicerosdev.com.

ABOUT CICERO’S DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION

Cicero’s Development Corporation is an established General Contractor specializing in commercial renovation for 50 years. Headquartered in Plainfield, Ill., the Cicero’s team brings decades of commercial renovation experience and is comprised of in-house architect and design teams, experienced project superintendents and foremen, and highly skilled craftsmen. Cicero’s superior workmanship, attention to detail, and project management leadership fuels the company’s complete on-time and on-budget project track record.

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