COVID Insights, Perspectives April 28, 2020

Physical Distancing Brings Us 6 Feet Together

By Michelle Osburn, Workplace Practice Leader, Associate Principal
Confidential Technology Company

This story is part of our insight series around the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we continue to adjust to the impacts of the COVID-19 health crisis, we are also allowing ourselves to think about what a return to work will look like and how we can do that safely. There is still uncertainty around exactly how or when restrictions will be lifted, but we expect the next steps to be a period of cautious transition. We may return to our office environments, but not all at once, and the re-entry will be amid a series of enhanced infection control measures that will seem anything but normal. Companies will be challenged with putting together specific plans about who will come back first, how to make collaboration safe during the transition, and how to keep focused on why we are returning at all.   

Enthought, Austin, Texas

Raise Your Hand

It is essential to realize not everyone will be equally comfortable with returning to the office environment, even after permission and a plan are in place. The anxiety around health and safety will affect people inconsistently and unpredictably.  Of course, we do not know the full physical and psychological impact of our current isolation measures, but we cannot develop a phased return-to-work plan with the expectation that people will be equally prepared to return. Even those who want to return may not be able to because they are caring for loved ones, or because their own heath conditions put them at greater risk.  Varying levels of comfort and ability to return should raise a warning:  transition plans may unintentionally segregate the vulnerable from the less vulnerable.  It may further isolate those with health concerns and add to the guilt of those who need to care for others or otherwise can’t return for personal reasons.  It makes sense to phase the workforce back into the office slowly and voluntarily, with a clear message that there are no consequences for not raising your hand.

In the same way that we must show compassion to those who cannot return, we also need to understand the potentially large number of employees who will eagerly  raise their hands to come back into the office, and we may not be able to accommodate them all safely. Concerns about job security, frustration with a less than ideal home office, or a sense of isolation could be compounded if these employees  are not allowed to return as soon as they want.

There is no magic solution to balancing the simultaneous unease and eagerness to return to the office environment with the pressing need to reinvigorate  the economy.  Developing a caring, equitable, and well communicated process for phasing employees back into the office will be complicated but  vital to maintaining the heart and soul of any organization: its people.

Permission to Collaborate

While it may seem obvious, when we begin our phased return to work, we may not be able to accommodate the same number of people in our workspace as we did before.  Our workplaces are not built to keep people 6 feet apart, but rather to bring people together for collaboration, innovation, and celebration. This should continue even in our transition; our new challenge is to do that safely by modifying behaviors and how space is used.

During the transition phase we will need to take reasonable measures to maintain a 6-foot distance to help minimize disease transmission.  There will be planning exercises to distribute individual workspaces that are 6 feet apart, but the more challenging spaces are the communal areas that, as social creatures, we need now more than ever.  The meeting spaces, cafes and social spaces that are celebrated for their ability to bring people together will offer us relief from our assigned seclusion, but with some guardrails. Strategies that give employees permission to gather and still feel safe will likely combine  the following:

  • Managing a maximum capacity per office floor so that restrooms, pantries, and meeting rooms do not feel overwhelmed
  • Placing signage or other visual guidance on the floor or stationary objects like tables to demonstrate recommended  spacing
  • Enhancing disinfecting protocols in shared spaces Reinforcing the messages of what we can personally do to minimize risk: wash our hands, avoid touching our faces and use proper etiquette when coughing or sneezing,

Workplace strategies for the transition phase should not be designed to guarantee isolation. Instead, employers must consider how strategies can help minimize  risk as we gather?  We want to re-calibrate our idea of “collaboration” for the safety of our colleagues and still benefit from the welcomed proximity.

Atlanta Plaza, Atlanta, Georgia

What Brings Us Together

As we plan transitions back to the office environment, we also want to remember why we want to return.  There is a human impulse to see and interact with others, and the workplace fulfills an important part of that need.  There are emotional and even primal reasons, as outlined in this article early in the crisis, that points out why physical distancing is not likely to be our new normal. That said, it will be an integral part of our transition as we find new and creative ways to make the connections we crave.

The well-being of our colleagues is not just our top priority, it is our only priority. That includes creating spaces that give us permission to nurture our communal spirit.  A thoughtful return to the office can soften our newly minted, socially guarded behaviors and ease our isolation, even if we are doing it 6 feet together.

The importance of workplace culture is not a pre-COVID-19 idea that will be pushed aside to accommodate more barriers, less collaboration, and antiseptic environments.  While we have learned to connect digitally, collaborate remotely, and socialize virtually, a pervasive desire for workplace community will bring us back together.  In spite of the need to wear masks, wait for an empty elevator, wipe down our desks, or wave at our coworker from 6 feet away, we are social creatures. Ultimately, culture will win as we find new, safe ways to foster the community we need.