With COVID-19 restrictions slowly starting to lift and people returning to work, we’ve put together a definitive guide to reopening offices, all the way from safety recommendations through to looking after people’s mental health.
Social isolation restrictions are starting to lift, people are starting to think about a return to work, and businesses are thinking about reopening offices. But it is a new world that we’re coming back to, with social distancing and minimising the risk of transmission governing just about everything we do at least for the next 12 to 18 months.
Whilst there’s a raft of guidance on health and safety, it’s equally important for us to not forget the human element. So we scoured the internet to put together a holistic guide of everything we could find that’s related not just to how you can safely reopen your office, but how to look after everyone who works there.
We’ve catalogued all of our research into the following categories:
If you would also like a PDF print out of the key items below as a checklist, please request a copy from [email protected].
Disclaimer: This guide is intended for people who manage a shared or corporate office space, as well as those who work in one. All information presented is intended to serve as a starting point and is written to be objective and FYI, rather than prescriptive.
Caveat Emptor: Any links to products, tools, or external sources presented here are purely based on our research, and not paid endorsements. In referencing this guide, please consider what is relevant to your business and industry and do additional research as it pertains to your circumstances.
Are there other resources you want to add to this? Or if you want to licence or reproduce this article, please let us know on [email protected].
We’re going to start with the physical workplace, as this is the most pressing aspect of preparing the office for reopening. The guiding principle is simply mitigating the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus. In looking through all the advice from the internet, there’s several major categories to consider.
Firstly, do you strictly need to provide everyone who enters the workplace with PPE? Well, in reviewing all of the guidelines we found… not necessarily. In short, if preventative measures such as physical distancing, frequent hand washing and cleaning of high touch surfaces are effectively undertaken, the use of any additional personal protective equipment (such as face masks or single use gloves) by staff may not be required.
That said, having both good preventative measures and PPE can further reduce the risk, so perhaps a better question to ask is: “What’s a reason not to provide additional PPE in your office?” For official guidelines, check out Safe Work Australia.
This is essentially a shopping list of items that may not have been necessary in the old world, but is now worth having on hand to minimise risk of transmission. Here’s a potential shopping list, along with links to local Australian businesses and social enterprises (where we could find them. Again, please do your own research):
Does everyone need to be 1.5 metres apart? How many people are allowed to be inside a room? What if people can’t maintain 1.5 metres in an office? Here’s the key guidelines from Safe Work Australia to maintain physical distancing, but in summary:
However, it’s important to remember that these are recommended guidelines. Safe Work acknowledges that there are workplaces where this isn’t physically possible, and thus there is a broad recommendation to simply review how your practices and procedures, and adjust where relevant. For more specific guidelines for your business, Safe Work has quite a comprehensive and interactive tool.
To make life a bit easier, here are some other approaches that we found being undertaken by organisations around the world, both in terms of office equipment as well as layout:
Every workplace will be configured a little differently, which means it might be difficult to find the right piece of commercially available equipment for your office. Why bold those two words? Because if there’s a time to take advantage of the rise of custom fabrications, 3D printing, and small scale production, it is now.
Take Fab9 in Melbourne, Australia (see photo below). This is a space in which just about any type of equipment can be created at low volumes. Does your office need a partition that’s exactly 1.2m high and can be clamped on to a desk at a right angle? No problems. Or see through perspex guards for the reception desk, but the desk is an odd shape? Get it fabricated.
There are MakerSpaces like this around the world, and many of them have transitioned into creating PPE to support their local communities, from face masks to other protective furnishings.
Firstly, here’s the general resource pack from the Department of Health, which covers some of the basic information you may want to print and have on display. Safe Work Australia also has a printable checklist that’s worth reviewing. Beyond that, there’s a few other policies and protocols for your consideration:
Are air dryers safe? A few years back, there was a viral post showing how hand dryers and, in particular, Dyson Airblades may be spreading more germs around the bathroom. But do they really? This is what our research found:
However it should also be stated that the 2008, 2014, and 2016 studies were funded or supported in part by the European Tissue Symposium, whilst the 2019 study was funded by Dyson, so be extra wary of conflict of interest.
This 2020 article by Wired does a good job of breaking down some more of the nuances and conflicts, but we thought we’d end on this quote from Mark Wilcox, Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University of Leeds who supervised yet another international study in 2018: “The problem starts because some people do not wash their hands properly.”
The pandemic and lock down may have caught many people off guard, but we can learn from our experience to minimise disruptions in the future. As such, there are some big questions in the realm of risk mitigation that are worth considering proactively. We can’ provide any definitive answers as each business will be different, but consider these possibilities:
Here are some other resources we found that may be of value
If you’re looking for business-recovery strategies, please see our section on Leadership below.
We also found a few other considerations that are more relevant for larger firms during the pandemic:
However we would be remiss to not defer to the International WELL Building Institute, who have released a holistic set of strategies that cover everything from improving air quality, to maintaining water quality, through to championing community resilience and recovery. For any large organisations looking to re-design or re-configure their workplaces for the future, the WELL guide is a great starting point.
It’s been said that of all things that could have brought about a digital revolution, the pandemic is the actual catalyst that has drastically accelerated it. With social distancing forcing us to change the way teams work, how do we continue to manage people from an operational sense? What are some techniques, methodologies, and tools that can enable businesses and teams to continue to work effectively and productively?
This section covers the logistical return of people to offices, suggestions to improve work from home productivity, productivity and project management tools, and finally how to enable ‘creative collisions’, one of the biggest losers from social distancing.
Let’s start with the most tangible aspect, which is managing bums on seats, whether that’s in the office or at home. There are several approaches being considered around the world:
If a great deal of your workforce will be working from home for the foreseeable future, it could be a valuable investment to ensure that your team is equipped with the right tools to enable them to work as efficiently as possible, beyond having decent laptops.
Work From Anywhere (WFA) is an evolution, in some ways, of WFH and completely separates the ‘place’ of work from productive outcomes. The Harvard Business Review did some research on this that’s yielded some fascinating insights:
Are people really more productive when it comes to working from home? With companies like Twitter and Square announcing that people can permanently work from home if they want to, we thought it might be prudent to look into this a bit more.
Firstly, Citrix commissioned a survey of over 2,000 people to gain some insights. They found:
No brainer, right? Well… contrast it with this survey of 1,000 working age employees who have made the transition from office to home, which found:
So what’s going on? If we dig into the some of the qualitative comments, we can start to glean some deeper insights:
What appears to be happening is that when productivity is measured strictly through a ‘To-Do’ task on a manager’s screen, it can undervalue the effort that was put into getting the task checked off. For example, for parents with young children, the ‘To-Do’ task may not convey the challenge of balancing a crying child and developing a report, or a task that was done in the middle of the night as that was the only time free from distraction. This type of effort (aka Presence Disparity) is almost completely invisible to managers (especially those who are predisposed to micromanaging), but is a crucial component of managing a team’s mental health. For more, check out our mental health section below.
This MIT Sloan Management Review article also shares several nuanced suggestions on the importance of time management and time signals. Here are some key examples:
So with the logistics of people sorted, now on to the challenge of actually managing work across remote teams.
Above all, there’s one important rule to remember when it comes to methodologies and tools: “It’s not the methodology or the tool that matters, it’s the shared discipline of using them.” In other words, whichever approach, platform, tool, or methodology you use, make sure to spend extra time to ensure that everyone uses it in the same way. This Harvard Business Review article does an excellent job of conveying some of the challenges that can occur if a business only focuses on technology, without giving sufficient thought to process and communication.
No doubt most teams will already have in place regular check-ups and virtual team meetings, however one of the biggest losers from social distancing is the concept of ‘creative collisions’. These describe spontaneous, unplanned situations where people come together to come up with new ideas or create innovative solutions, a la ‘water cooler conversations’.
However, they also describe situations where people build meaningful connections with each other, whether it’s finding out about a shared hobby, or a personal check-in on an issue that one particular individual may not feel comfortable sharing on a group chat.
So how do you enable creative collisions in the world of social distancing?
This article by Fast Company shares some nuanced insights on how some of the big tech companies who embraced remote working prior to the pandemic have approached office designs. Atlassian, Basecamp, and Github consider the office purely as a meeting place, and thus have configured their spaces to specifically cater for that. In particular though, one insight stood out: “When you have employees who are local, who come into an office every day, their opinion of your office is the aggregate sum of many days—good, bad, and indifferent,” says Lara Owen, the director of workplace operations at GitHub. “With remote employees, we only have one or two days to get it right.”
This insight is fascinating as it implies that businesses should invest more on making your offices warm, engaging, and interactive, in order to make a good impression for staff. Or where in doubt, ask your staff what they would like to see in the office.
Maintaining positive mental health will be one of the most important aspects for organisations to stay on top of in the post-COVID-19 world; it’s certainly something that we here at ColourSpace are especially mindful of given it’s part of our raison d’être.
But rather than just listing various external services to outsource to, let’s start from a position of empathy. Let’s first think about what it’s like from a team member’s perspective, who is just returning from work. Then – because bosses are also human beings – let’s consider what it might be like for a leader or manager.
“What’s probably going to be running through people’s minds is: ‘Everything else has been disrupted, I just wanted the office to be like it was.’ Give people time to mourn the past, because you may not care about it, but they do.” – Ken Matos, Director of People Science at CultureAmp.
Whilst this may not apply to everyone, it can be useful to consider the different headspaces people can find themselves in:
Recognising the myriad of situations that could be affecting a team, the following is a list of interventions for organisations to take into consideration in terms of supporting the mental health of team members. Many of these interventions ultimately fall under the umbrella of ‘Wellness Programs’, however it’s important to first consider which challenges are faced by your team. Just as it is important to have these programs on hand, it’s equally important to understand when not to offer emotional support. There is no one size fits all solution for mental health, and when in doubt, remember to talk to people first:
Let’s also look at mental health from a leader’s perspective, because they’re also human beings. In addition to all the potential factors that could impact a team member above, these are additional challenges a leader may face:
Again, beyond the list of interventions for team members that equally apply for leaders, there are a few additional interventions to consider for leaders:
Finally, there are various mental health schemes, organisations, and support services available to the general public.
There will be a great onus on leaders to lead effectively during the pandemic. There are far more established authorities on leadership than us, but at the very least what we can do curate a variety of these perspectives as a springboard for you to consider.
We’ve categorised them by management (i.e. anything business related) and leadership traits (i.e. mindsets).
We hit up each of the big consulting firms and some leading industry bodies to check out their take on business recovery:
Bain and Co takes a ‘supply and demand’ type approach to strategic recovery, and have captured it in an ‘Advance, Retreat, Adapt, Repeat’ model to govern the recovery process. This quote in particular stood out:
For most executives, the task at hand will be less like restarting a business than like starting a business. They face some of the same questions that confront every business founder: What are the customer needs that I can serve? Where is the demand and how will we configure the business systems - supply chains, production and service operations, distribution - to meet it?
McKinsey takes a more holistic look at the broader environment that business will be operating in, from the influence of government, health, economy, and socio-cultural impacts. It’s perhaps aimed slightly more at government than at businesses, but it is still useful nonetheless to understand the operating environment that different businesses may find themselves in.
Accenture similarly takes a holistic approach to business recovery, but where McKinsey took more of a PESTLE analysis approach, Accenture within the organisation itself. Their in-depth article starts with Business Strategy, then works through the Workforce, Customers, Operations, Finance, and Technology, with each sub-section linked to an in-depth analysis.
The Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD)released an article on the role of Boards in overseeing recovery strategies, focusing on the need to transition from ‘crisis response’ to now taking a step back and: “…turn their minds towards recovery and not lose sight of their overarching role and responsibility for effective organisational governance, strategic direction and planning.”
Their article goes in-depth into updating strategic plans, business continuity, finance and capital structure, stakeholder relations, technology and cybersecurity, and recovery.
EY has identified five priorities for business leaders to consider, with many of these identified in from perspectives and experiences from China and other Asian countries where COVID-19 first impacted. Specifically:
The first four items are captured in this diagram below.
KPMG recommends focusing on strengthening long-term competitiveness in order to prepare and adapt for a post-COVID-19 world. Here’s their paper, but in summary:
SAI Global has developed a free Pandemic Plan template to protect employees’ health and safety, as well as keep business operations running. The template is based on guidelines from the WHO and CDC, and is designed to help organisations designate a pandemic planning team, undertake risk assessments, determine business impacts, and set responses. Whilst we’re past the initial wave of the pandemic as at time of writing, a Pandemic Plan could still be useful to have on hand.
CBRE takes a helicopter view of remote working, and highlights opportunities for an organisational approach to the remote working arrangements of the future. In particular, in the second half of their article, they see bigger opportunities on structural reforms to how teams work, from minimising unnecessary meetings to re-defining what an ‘empowered employee’ is.
Flying Solo - a leading resource for solo founders and business owners - share a terrific deep dive into how businesses can develop a COVID-19 recovery plan, breaking things down to 4 stages of recovery.
Finally, here’s a big list of how other employers around the world are responding to the coronavirus.
Deloitte has a great article focusing on resilience in leadership, and the type of mindsets to adopt, especially in a highly uncertain and rapidly changing environment that can often be out of a leader’s control.
Meanwhile, McKinsey takes a look at what it means to cultivate compassionate leadership, breaking it down into four qualities: Awareness, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion.
Executive leadership consultancy Korn Ferry weighs in on the special blend of leadership skills they believe will be necessary for leaders to adopt during recovery:
Bain and Co - in the same article as earlier - also has a neat model on maintaining a resilient mindset for a leader.
The Conversationencourages leaders to take care of their own self needs, specifically recommending leaders also be provided with emotional support, and to encourage role modeling (i.e. leading by example).
And finally, it is vital for a leader to continue to communicate. Boston Consulting Group believe that the most effective communication strategies will focus on:
And finally, this section focuses on the opposite but equally important side to leadership, that being followership. What can we do as team members to work with each other to support the overall organisation, especially during this period. This isn’t about blindly following instructions, but of taking individual leadership and responsibility, which includes standing up for doing the right thing. The aim is to create the optimal environment for recovery, whilst also allowing a leadership team to effectively lead.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that as an employee, you have an obligation under the OHS Act to cooperate with employers in implementing risk control measures.
You must take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure you don’t do anything that creates or increases a risk to the health and safety of yourself or others. In a pandemic situation, it is also reasonable to expect that your obligations will include complying with public health advice and any emergency measures.
For more information, please review the WorkSafe OHS guidelines to understand your legal duties.
Unfortunately, there is not much written about what it means to be a good follower in the post-COVID-19 world. So what we’ve done here - much like with the previous segment on leadership - is provided links to a few insightful articles on what it means to be a good team player.
Business News Daily penned a piece on being an invaluable team player:
Forbes has 15 tips from different business coaches on how to become a better team player, and workplace design consultant Anetta Pizag shares an employee-centric thought piece on ways we can make our own jobs more rewarding, productive, and fulfilling. She covers everything from personal time management, maintaining work life balance, overcoming challenges, approaching creative teamwork, and getting into the right headspace.
And whilst old, the Harvard Business Review has an in-depth article extolling the virtues of good followers and team players. The qualities they believe are important include:
Finally, if you are part of a team, it’s important to be respectful and empathetic of your other team members and leaders, especially as many will be in the same boat. This HBR article shares some insights on how you can empathise with others.
If you made it all the way through, thanks for checking out our guide. Some of you may be wondering what any of this has to do with ColourSpace and art, but the simple reason is that our broader purpose has always been about connecting people, and remembering our humanity throughout a challenging time. For us, art is but one way of keeping people connected. If you’d like to learn about how we can use art to bring your people together once the pandemic is over, please reach out here.
Otherwise, if you found this article useful, please pass it on. We want to help rebuild our community just as much as everyone else, and we hope this helped you out.
If you’d like to make a contribution to this article or want to get in touch, please email [email protected].