Using behavioral patterns to maintain social distancing at the workplace
November 20, 2020
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Author
RC Victorino

Social distancing will reshape the look and feel of your workplace.

Six-foot bubbles and signage are just some of the significant and likely changes coming your way.

But so much of what you'll do to remain COVID-compliant relies on who returns to the office, when, and how they interact with your space. Most companies will implement a phased approach to their return to work — meaning not everyone will come to the office at once.

There are three obvious benefits to a phased approach:

  1. It makes social distancing easier to maintain. Fewer people means more space to work with.
  2. Some employees may not want to come back to the office yet. This gives those employees the option to work from home a while longer.
  3. Resources like cleaning crews aren't overwhelmed by a sudden influx of employees.

A fourth advantage that's less obvious but equally important is seeing how a few of your employees use your space following the pandemic.

Your employees' relationship with your workspace will likely not be the same as before the pandemic. They'll come back to the office with months (if not at least a year) of isolation, hand sanitizer, and face coverings weighing them down.

Behavioral patterns will be different. Employees may prefer to eat at their desks rather than the break room, for example.

Your employees' relationship with your workspace will likely not be the same as before the pandemic.

You won't know what these changes look like until you bring employees back to the office. By bringing in a smaller number of employees at the start, you can monitor these behavioral patterns without worrying about violating social distancing guidelines.

You can then use your findings to make larger-scale changes to keep your workspace safe — allowing you to confidently invite more employees to return to work.

What this phased approach looks like

Before a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available, setting an occupancy limit to 25 or 30% of your total office space will be standard — to allow social distancing.

Setting even smaller (albeit temporary) occupancy limits will give you time to safely analyze and adjust. In the first phase, aim for 10% capacity. Increase to 20% for the next phase, then 30%.

By then, there might be widespread immunization, allowing you to return to full capacity. But until widespread immunization, your phased approach will help you shape a personalized and scalable social distancing strategy based on how your employees actually use your space.

Dealing with unexpected bottlenecks

Bringing in fewer employees at a time makes it easy to space out workstations. But employees don't remain seated at a desk all day.

They come in through the front door. They walk to the bathroom, break room, and conference rooms. Is your workplace set up to maintain physical distance during these fluid moments?

Monitoring the walking behaviors of your early returners can identify potential bottlenecks throughout your space. Spaghetti diagrams are one way to measure these bottlenecks — though they require someone to physically trace the movements of employees. Occupancy sensors are a more efficient way to identify bottlenecks in real-time.

There are several ways to address bottlenecks, depending on where they occur.

If the bottleneck occurs at your entryway, consider staggered shifts. If the issue is by your break room, cafeteria or other common areas, prominent signs displaying a space's current occupancy could help (see the image at the top of this post).

If the issue is in a hallway, you may want to tape that section off and redirect traffic elsewhere.

Social distancing signage

Social distancing signage helps you direct foot traffic patterns safely and efficiently. Arrows and do not enter signs let people know where they can and can't go. Tape on the floor placed 6 feet apart makes it easier for employees to keep a safe distance — even while in transit.

At first, you'll rely on common sense and assumptions to determine the most effective approach to your signage.

But monitoring your early returners' walking patterns will help you identify areas that may need clearer signage, or that should be closed off.

Your employees' behavior patterns aren't the only ones you should monitor during these early stages of your return to work. How do contractors and on-site visitors interact with your space? Monitor their behavior to determine if you should include clear signage directed to their use cases.

Maintaining occupancy limits

Before the pandemic, you might have looked for ways to maximize office space (an open-floor plan comes to mind). But with social distancing, you need to give employees more space.

For managers of a 1-room office, this may not be so hard. But what if you manage an office with several rooms or floors? What if you manage an entire campus?

Assigning workstations and rooms can help limit room occupancy, but it doesn't guarantee it. Plus, what about those unexpected visitors like vendors and clients? Only Density can provide reliable, real-time data on how people interact with your space.

While you likely won't exceed safe occupancy limits with your early returners, you can identify and address troubling patterns early on.

Assigning workstations and rooms can help limit room occupancy, but it doesn't guarantee it.

For example, do you see more people congregate on the second floor than on the first floor? Consider reassigning teams or cohorts to the first floor to balance out your people density, then continue to monitor each floor to ensure you remain compliant.

Vacant and underutilized spaces

Your early returners will help you identify areas of your workplace that remain empty or underutilized.

You may have kept that third-floor break room open. But what if no one uses it? Do you close it off or is doing so a waste of perfectly good space?

One option is to repurpose it as a quiet room, then let employees book the space for calls or deep work.

You can also use it as a safe space for any employees who appear to have symptoms of COVID-19 — or who become sick during the day — and can't go home immediately.

Remote and flexible work

A phased-in approach will show you if your workspace is ready to handle a full return-to-work. You may discover more significant changes are needed (such as adding more office space so teams can work together safely). While you consider your options, extend your remote work policy and encourage flexible work hours. This is the easiest way to maintain ideal occupancy limits. Many of your employees will welcome the opportunity to work from home.

Adapt based on real behavior, not generic guidelines

You are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace. Part of that responsibility includes ensuring social distancing throughout the workday.

That means taking into account how your employees interact with your space. While at first, you may need to rely on logical assumptions, monitoring your employees' behavioral patterns will help you shape a more personalized social distancing strategy that keeps your entire workforce healthy.

Getting ready for a return to work? 

In Return to Work: A People-First Guide, we offer nine guidelines to help you bring your team back to the office safely and effectively. Download it here for free.

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