To continue, please use a supported browser.

Chrome Logo
Firefox Logo
Microsoft Edge

Preparing the office: 3 priorities for companies returning after COVID-19

office layout, return to work
Danielle Aihini
Published on

Recently, we brought workplace experts from different industries, ranging from 20 to 10,000-person companies, together for our " Desk Management for Day 1 Back & Beyond " webinar. They shared strategies for the return to office after COVID-19, and after an extended (but thoughtful!) hour of Q+A, it was clear we're all facing the same things while taking steps to get ready today.

While every company's unique needs mean that no two transitions will look exactly alike, there were three themes that stood out across organizations and workplace leaders:

1. Social distancing guidelines: What does floor plan management look like in a post-COVID-19 pandemic workplace?
2. Communication: What's the best strategy to open up communication across the company?
3. Sanitation: How can facilities folks emphasize cleaning in high-touch places?

In their roles at Robin, Brendan O’Neil (Workplace Marketing) and Nirvanna Lildharrie (Enterprise Account Executive) work firsthand with workplace experts across the world facing these issues. Listen to them talk through how some companies are answering those questions in the video clip, or read the transcript below.


Brendan: What are people starting to think about as they begin drafting a reopening plan for their offices and look to welcome workers back in the coming months?

Nirvanna: So, I would say there are a couple of themes, maybe three major themes. The first obvious one is sanitation and safety measures.

So, facilities folks are asking, "how do we emphasize cleaning in areas that are touched often like elevator buttons, doorknobs, those sorts of places", and also talking about adding more sanitation stations throughout the office space. Places where people can access hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, etc.

B: Makes sense. Everyone is going to need to feel like they can trust that the workplace is clean in order to head back and work from the office confidently.

N: Exactly. And I'd say the second theme that I'm noticing is around social distancing. Sounds like it's here to stay for a little while at least. So lots of organizations are talking about what they're going to do. Some companies are going to operate at a lower capacity like, maybe 17 percent of the office comes in at a time or letting people come in shifts.

Say, some people come in on Mondays and Wednesdays and some people come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, kind of like an A/B schedule similar to what you see in like middle schools and high schools, that sort of thing.

B: Yeah, I can see that as well as another big topic for employee safety: where are office workers going to sit when they come back? Once people are coming back are they holding put, sticking to an assigned seat, or would they be switching seats?

N: I mean that varies depending on how much space an organization has. So if you're lucky to have one-to-one seating available (a desk available for each employee), then maybe you want to stagger people out, maybe have people sit in every other seat, for example.

But if space is more of a concern and you don't have as many desks as people, then maybe you want to have two or three people use one desk and have them switch out which days they're in an office environment. Which, of course, means you should emphasize the cleaning there.

B: Yeah, I can see that. I mean, there are a bunch of other elements of the office which are identified as shared too (kitchen area, lounge seating, phone booths, printers, break rooms, etc) and the cleaning methods are probably going to have to echo what those shared elements of the office are down to the desk, which may not be considered personal anymore. But yeah, I can see that happening and rolling out changes to address that.

N: Beyond cleaning, what makes the plan possible to have people work in shifts every other day is the fact that in February, 3.4 percent of the U.S. workforce was completely remote and now it's close to 100 percent. So we've seen that this can work. It's not unrealistic to move into a plan where some people don't come in every single day.

B: Got it. So for the sharing desk aspect, I'm imagining there are a lot of people concerned about that or worried about the word "hot desking" in this climate - what have you heard?

N: Well, I would say even before COVID-19, that was one of the major concerns as to why people didn't try out reservable seating charts. Nobody likes sharing germs like you said before. But. there are lots of resources in the office, like bathrooms, kitchens that are shared, and those places are definitely cleaned more often than the places that aren't shared. So, I mean, there is a little bit of that to help comfort the fact that those areas will be cleaned more. But of course, you know, I would refer to guidelines from the CDC, from WHO, and to consult with your sanitation companies about what could be possible for your office.

B: Got it. Any other tips that you've picked up on over the last couple of weeks?

N: I would say so. Going back to my three themes. There's sanitation, there's proper social distancing and then the last piece of this is communication. So I'm sure every person who's on this call has been communicating with their teams frequently due to COVID, and that shouldn't stop when it comes to bringing people back into the office. I would say a lot of the workplace folks I've spoken to, they're talking about their strategy for how to get people back into the office right now. Now they're just starting to think about the strategy.

Next, it's going to be planning logistically. How is this going to work? And then finally, we're going to need to have a communication strategy in place. So if you've been talking to people through channels like Slack or having executives email everybody, I'd say continue to do that. But then maybe also open up the communication to your team, make it a two-way conversation, get some surveys out there to figure out how people are doing at home. It's going to be different for everybody. But all that is going to help them feel like they're part of the conversation that's going to help with the change management.

B: Got it. All right. I love that. I love the three themes. I think that that makes everything a little bit more digestible.

Tips for the top three back-to-work priorities

1. Social distancing best practices for the return to work: 

  • Remove chairs so only the intended capacity of people can sit in a given room based on its size.
  • Use signs or decals to indicate where to be in the room to maintain distance.
  • Update the meeting room name in Robin to show intended capacity so it’s clear how many people are meant to be in the room. 
  • Ex: Greenwich -> Greenwich MAX 3
  • Encourage only one or two employees to physically attend a meeting while all other attendees call in from home or a desk for a hybrid meeting experience.
  • Physically remove chairs and desks from the floorplan to only account for intended reduced capacity. 
  • Block off desks or chairs that aren’t mean to be sat in with signs or tape.
  • Use Robin’s distance planning tool to easily map out seat assignments that follow social distancing guidelines.
  • Have employees book their desk in Robin based on the socially distanced floorplan so it’s clear to employees where it’s safe to sit while also informing admins of office capacity.
  • Physically remove furniture or shared resources (ex: printer) that shouldn’t be shared. 
  • Take resources that aren’t meant to be shared offline in Robin so it’s clear to employees what’s okay to use and what’s meant to be avoided for now.
  • Display a map of your office in common areas so employees can easily see where they’re meant to sit and meet to expedite wayfinding and minimize wandering around the office. This is especially important now to decrease unnecessary interaction.

2. Communication best practices for getting back in the office

  • Communicate what your return to office phases will look like with the caveat that safety comes first. Incorporate the best available information from the federal and local levels into your projections as a basis for your planning. 
  • Hear concerns with compassion. While the timeline is ultimately a product of discussion between stakeholders (internal and external), creating a space for staff to have meaningful conversations about the return-to-work plan is important for morale. 
  • Understand and support difference: While some workers may be ready and even excited to move back in, others with health concerns or who care for vulnerable individuals may be less enthusiastic. Alleviate concerns where you can, and consider alternative arrangements where appropriate. 
  • Be specific about the new or amended plans and policies that have emerged from virus response. Share information about cleaning and safety procedures, flexible work policies, employee support channels (such as EAP or mental health/telehealth options), etc.

3. Sanitation and safety tips for returning to work 

  • Encourage good hand-washing and respiratory hygiene guidance within your office.
  • Discourage presenteeism in the office - consciously create an office culture where it is “okay” to work from home or take the day off when you’re feeling ill. 
  • Keep supplies stocked and readily available. Make sure supply cabinets are well marked.
  • Place wipes, sanitizer, paper towels, and waste bins (for easy disposal) at strategic spots in high-traffic areas.
  • Make space-hygiene practices a regular part of corporate communication.  
  • Get your office workers into the habit of pitching in - proactively wiping down surfaces they use (even when they’re healthy), making recommendations on cleaning practices, supply levels, or areas in need of attention, etc. 
  • Provide a channel for the above improvements and service requests, either through a formal ticketing system or simply an email with a dedicated gatekeeper. 
  • Consider automatic or “touchless” office upgrades.

Looking to bring your team back to the office? Robin Return can help. Get a demo today.

featured report

Return to Office Report 2024

Does your office collaboration need a reboot?

Find out if your workplace strategy is a hit or a miss.

office map
an employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshot
Does your office collaboration need a reboot?

Find out if your workplace strategy is a hit or a miss.

office map
an employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshot