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Physical Space Modifications: Adjust the Workplace to Make Work Safe

Consider how changes to your company’s physical space could enable social distancing, reduce health risks, and promote safe workplaces.

Now that you know how to clean and sanitize your facility, let’s move on to address the physical space itself with suggested modifications to support healthy workplace protocols. While it may not be possible to implement some practices below due to structural limitations at a facility, the more companies can do to adjust the spaces in which people work, the more likely those workers are to feel cared for and safe while performing their jobs.

Manage Workplace Entry Points

If they don’t exist already, institute tight controls on workplace entry and exit areas. Here are some best practices to consider:

  • Erect Directional Signage: Actions would include clearly marking where people should enter a facility. Some companies even provide on-the-ground indicators with tape, paint, or cones, or rope off pathways to tell people where to stand in relation to others, where to walk, and which doorways are expressly for entering or exiting.

  • Make Space for Risk/Health Assessments: One-fourth of Fortune 200 companies surveyed in April 2020 by the Employer Health Innovation Roundtable said they were considering some form of testing at worksites they plan to reopen in the next month. Among them, 58% will use self-reporting of symptoms and thermal screening at the worksite entry upon return-to-workplace. With findings like these, and others like them, workers and visitors can expect a delayed entry into a workplace, where staff will be trained to question them about potential risk exposures and their current/recent health condition.

    Such actions will require some rethinking about staffing at entryways and what should occur there. For example, if your facility already has security checking identifications and worker badges at the door, as well as logging visitors, that same personnel could use a risk assessment questionnaire to make sure those coming to the door should be allowed in (i.e., they are authorized to be there and aren’t symptomatic). Visitors and workers would self-report any symptoms and be asked to leave the premises depending on their answers, or be forwarded to a person performing temperature checks if the business institutes this additional safety protocol. Considerations here include ensuring proper training of personnel about how to use the questionnaire, maintain privacy, and supply security or reception workers with the tools they need to perform risk assessments. (See our “Temperature Checks FAQs” to learn more about what to think about when workers/visitors don’t pass an initial health screening and how to run them properly.)

    (Note: Screening time can be compensable. Make sure your company has addressed what impact the additional time needed to clear a building’s entrance will have on pay for hourly workers. Document and communicate your policy clearly.)

Control the Flow of People

In addition to slowing the pace at which people enter a facility, companies need to consider traffic flows inside. Here are some pointers that can lead to positive outcomes:

  • Limit Visitors : Start with a simple communication to your facility’s workers, requesting that they limit the number of visitors who come to see them – at least for the near future. A recent Challenger, Gray & Christmas COVID-19 HR Executive Survey found that 59% of those surveyed plan to limit or exclude workers from their sites.

  • Stagger Work Shifts: Adjust arrival and quitting times to limit traffic flow through facility entrances, reduce the number of people on elevators at a time, etc.

  • Promote One-Way Traffic: Businesses currently open, like grocery stores, have placed directional indicators to promote one-way only traffic throughout their building. Companies can do the same beginning right at the entrance. Again, whether with tape, roping, or physical signs, indicate pathways you want visitors and workers to follow. Such changes may mean it takes longer for a person to reach their destination; however, controlling traffic in this way ensures proper physical distancing.

Modify Workstations

Next, consider the spaces in which people work and think about ways to make those environments safer for everyone. Here are some suggestions:

  • Desks and Cubicles: Where feasible, physically separate desks workstations by three to six feet. Also, discourage workers from using each other’s workstations, computer and telephone equipment, and tools unless there’s no way around

  • Shared Workspaces: If your type of business means people congregate in a shared space (e.g., labs or manufacturing facilities), consider marking off spaces on the ground to maintain physical distancing. If workers share spaces at different times, institute disinfecting protocols between shifts.

  • When Spacing Isn’t an Option: For businesses that can’t create physical separation by moving desks and workstations, alternatives could include every-other-desk seating arrangements (tape off or remove seating you don’t want workers using), requiring face coverings, staggering shifts, providing flexible working hours, or providing physical barriers like snap-on partitions between workstations.

Limit Access to Common Areas

The overall goal when it comes to COVID-19 and common areas in the workplace is to minimize contact among workers and promote social distancing. This means that areas once enjoyed for breaks, conversations, meals, training, and team meetings must be altered so the work can still get done, and people can still engage with one another – but in new ways.

  • Partitions: Place temporary dividers or partitions throughout open floor plans to prevent workers from congregating in large groups. Such an effort should include meeting spaces and areas like the cafeteria or break rooms, as well as large hallways.

  • Furniture: Limit and/or space chairs accordingly in common areas (3-6 feet apart). You could also remove furniture or rope off seating in common areas to ease social distancing concerns.

  • Stagger Lunchtimes/Breaks: Create schedules or sign-ups that restrict the number of people taking a break or eating at a given time. The goal is to thin crowds in break rooms and cafeterias.

  • Avoid Non-Essential Gathering: Consider locking meeting room doors or restricting their access and lean on virtual communications and telework where possible. Companies with on-site gyms may also want to prevent or otherwise limit access to such facilities.

  • Rethink High-Touch Surface Areas: If you haven’t thought about how many people touch bathroom faucets, doorknobs, or light switches in a facility, now is the time. For example, replace latch-based doorknobs or handles and install kickplates so people can push open a door with their foot. Alternatively, barring any security needs, prop open doors to avoid having to touch handles or take doors off their hinges altogether.

Update Plans Continually

No matter what your company does to get ready for the eventual return to work, know that this is an evolving process. The COVID-19 pandemic brings about workplace challenges many of us have never faced, meaning flexibility and agility are key. Be aware of your spaces, seek input from workers on ways to continue modifying areas, and get creative. Anything you do will positively contribute to worker satisfaction and help maintain the integrity of your workplace. As you build out your plan, here are some additional resources to consider:

Also, reach out to your AGS Program Executive to share how your company is modifying its workspace. The more we can share ideas and best practices, the more we can help each other!

Note: This article is forward-looking, assuming health and government agencies will eventually lift stay-at-home mandates. Be sure to follow their guidelines as you plan.

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