Returning to the Office

Social distancing at work: A long term, back-to-office strategy

As thousands of people return to the workplace, social distancing at work will likely be the first thing on most of our minds. After months of working from home offices, couches, and kitchen tables the idea of heading into the office may get even the best work-from-home employee excited — if a little apprehensive. After all, distancing has been the constant subject of conversation for most of the year. But once the newness wears off and we get comfortable with our new normal, that apprehension may ease.

What will social distancing look like in our workplaces, and how can we ensure we continue doing our best for ourselves and our teammates for the long haul?

Creating robust social distancing rules and protocols should also consider what happens over time. Where in the early days of our return to work, it may feel more natural to keep distance, with solid communication plans in place, offices can ensure that as things relax over time, staff will ease into the new normal of office life while still keeping mindful of the important health concerns involved.

Looking to map out a socially distanced floor plan? Robin Return can help. Get a demo today.

Reasons to continue social distancing (at every stage of your back-to-work plan)

For most offices, reopening will be a staged re-entry, with non-essential employees moving from a remote work situation and gradually increasing in-house staffing as state and local governments allow. 

At first, it may be quite easy to maintain social distance, given that most employees may continue to work from home at least part of the week. However, humans are social entities, driven by needs both concrete, such as food, money, childcare, security; and abstract, like the social outlets provided by work and peer interactions. While early social distancing efforts resulted in some progress against the transmission of the virus, survey respondents listed many of the reasons above when disclosing their social distancing practices in daily life.

In other words, while it may feel safer to keep to yourself on day one back at the office-what happens at the end of week one, or month one? 

As we move toward the next stage of “new normal,” it’s easy to become more comfortable in the space, trusting our co-workers and our organizations to maintain a safe and secure environment. It may begin to seem harmless to squeeze an extra attendee into a conference room or slide a few chairs together to work some project details. 

However, diminishing adherence to social distance guidelines — a natural progression after things begin to feel “normal” in the workplace — has some foreseeable consequences. Obviously, there’s an increased chance of transmission, should someone in the office contract the virus.

Beyond that: 

  • A presumptive or confirmed positive case will stymie the return to work for those who come into contact with the infected individual and must now quarantine at home. 
  • In the case of confirmed interoffice transmission, the immediate families of co-workers may become part of a cluster of infection originating from reduced office social distancing efforts. 
  • The farthest-reaching effects increase the possibility of transmission to the community at large, setting back local and regional goals of a return to some level of normalcy. 

All these possibilities are good reasons to remain committed to good social distancing practices, even after things start to feel comfortable in the office setting. Good signage and communication can be helpful in reminding us of the ongoing importance of social distancing.

For the employee: Social distancing options for individuals in the workplace

Social distancing in the workplace is a team effort. On one side, space and HR planners must implement strategies, rearrange floor plans, and accommodate enhanced cleaning protocols for every employee who will integrate back into the office.

However, there are many ways individuals can take the lead and stay proactive about social distancing in the office. Most require just a little planning and forethought and can make a positive impact on the overall health and workplace safety. Maintaining this commitment will allow everyone to keep enjoying the benefits a physical workplace has to offer.

1. Self-Assessment

Being aware and honest about your physical health is one of the first and best ways to reduce the spread of coronavirus. This starts with an honest assessment of how you’re feeling each day you’ll travel outside your home. While “presenteeism” was a big issue in pre-pandemic life, we now have every reason to stay home. 

While it could be “just allergies,” or a slight cold, if you’re experiencing any common symptoms of COVID-19, take the initiative to work from home:

  • Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue

When in doubt, best call out (Or work remotely for a day or two).

2. Wearing a mask

Wearing a mask should be a requirement when moving around an office setting, but even if it’s not, wearing a mask is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. Masking should take place any time physical distancing of 6 feet is not possible, or any time you will spend more than 15 minutes in close proximity to others (for instance, when you must gather in a conference room for more than a quick check-in).

3. Practicing good hygiene

Besides wearing a mask, practicing healthy hand and general hygiene is an effective way to slow the spread of the pandemic. Washing hands according to the CDC recommended guidelines, making frequent use of sanitizers and sanitizing wipes (used correctly for maximum effectiveness), and wiping down common items such as office equipment, desk items, and meeting spaces after use can limit the transmission of most types of pathogens. 

Note: one healthy hygiene practice which might need to go on hiatus — brushing after meals. Because the act of brushing can lead to the spread of microdroplets in the common bathroom area, it might be best to refrain from these practices at work for now. 

4. Thoughtful meal-planning 

The lunch-room. Once a spot for fantasy football predictions and water cooler catch-ups is one of the areas you may not frequent in the pandemic-era office. To limit the spread of germs and cut down on the traffic in dining areas, consider packing your meals to be prepared and eaten at your desk (or, weather permitting, outside in the fresh air). Also, consider using only disposable products for coffee and water, as these items transmit germs less readily than your favorite office coffee mug.

5. BYOP (Bring your own peripherals)

Another way to minimize the spread is to consider bringing personal computer peripherals to and from the office. A keyboard, mouse, mouse-pad, and writing implements can be easily transported in a backpack, and make it much easier to wipe down your work-station at the end of the day.

For the employer: Planning office seating for social distancing

Understanding the density of your office is the most important part of being able to provide an environment where your employees can effectively practice social distancing rules. Before you plan office layouts or consider converting former common area space into individual office seating, it’s important to evaluate the segments you’re trying to serve and whether a more flexible work option could help you properly social distance

  1. Does everyone in the office need to be physically present to perform their role? Are there teams or roles that might be equally effective completed remotely?
  2. For those roles that depend on physical interaction for good work performance, is there enough space as currently laid out to give everyone the working space they need? What percentage of reduced capacity does your office need to function at to abide by social distancing?
  3. If not, would a hybrid model of attendance (such as staggered shifts or designated in-office days) give you the opportunity to welcome people back to the office? 
Many offices are working at a reduced capacity with socially distanced floor plans to help keep their people safe.

Based on the answers to these questions, you will be able to make decisions on how much work you need to put into re-arranging the office. You may find, with a flexible approach, that you needn’t remove desk spaces or commit to remodeling or space re-designation to achieve a socially distanced workspace that keeps everyone healthy.

Other social distancing measures that can help reduce transmission

Staying distant from co-workers may be difficult in some settings, but it’s one of the top ways to reduce the spread of coronavirus. 

  • Separate teams into cohorts to reduce an employee’s interaction with other floors or departments within their building. Cohorting also makes contact tracing practices easier, as it limits the number of people who will have to self-isolate in the event an individual contracts coronavirus. 
  • Traffic flow considerations can reduce the spread of germs. First seen in the one-way aisle approach in grocery stores, this method of traffic flow can similarly reduce close contact when passing in hallways. Wherever possible within your office space, consider designating traffic flow with signage and on floors to help reinforce proper use. 
  • Designated visitor/vendor entrances are another way to keep transmission potential to a minimum. By reducing traffic through individual entrances, you can limit the transmission of respiratory droplets, and reduce the burden of contact tracing by separating non-customer/vendor-facing employees away from visitors.

Pulling it all together: Office checklist for a safe workplace

For the return to the office in the near-term, there are many ways to ensure that everyone can stay safe and healthy as they get back to business. As you prepare a plan to return to the workplace, you will want to consider the following office safety checklist to set your workplace up for success. More information about many of these topics can be found on the USDOL COVID-19 hub

  • A two-way communication plan (Email, Slack channel, etc.) 
  • A health screening protocol
  • A contact-tracing protocol 
  • Staggered scheduling (with a way to keep track of in-office attendance)
  • Office signage and traffic flow decals
  • Safely distanced seating strategies
  • Well-stocked sanitization stations
  • Conference rooms that support hybrid meetings
  • Touchless amenities

Using these resources as a starting point, you’ll have the tools and information necessary to formulate a healthy back-to-work plan and continue the communication that will keep everyone mindful as we get accustomed to being back in the workplace.



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