Six Feet Office Beats Six Feet Under
How we can work within social distancing guidelines to make the office a safer space for workers
We’re now on week 417,628 of lockdown. Or is it week 417,629? I can’t quite remember. By this point, I’ve fully settled into my new Working From Home (WFH) lifestyle, with a home-office setup I’ve slowly tweaked to perfection over the months (see pic below).
Although I must confess, I’ve had it easier than many. After waving goodbye to my busy London office, I’m camped out at home with nothing but sweeping fields and rolling hills to see for miles. For that, I’m blessed, as I know plenty of friends and colleagues across the globe — with young kids and limited space — have reached boiling point.
Not to worry though. With lockdown restrictions easing little by little in the UK, the return to the office lots of you so desperately crave is inching closer by the day. Hurrah!
But exactly how will that return look? Just like retail workers who made their way back to the stockrooms and cashier desks of non-essential shops last week, and hospitality workers set to rush between kitchen and table in eateries across England come July 4th, office workers should expect an almost unrecognisable (and I loathe using this now used-to-death phrase) “new normal.” That said, it’s all in the aid of safety!
A couple of months ago, Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate agency leading “the development of best practices, products and partnerships to prepare clients for post-COVID-19 recovery and the eventual return to the workplace,” introduced what it’s calling the Six Feet Office.
Based on the 2-metre social distancing rule imposed in the UK and other countries (2 metres equates to 6 ft 6 inches), the conceptual idea has grown from an assumption that such a rule “isn’t going away any time soon” — or, at least, it shouldn’t be going away any time soon.
Cut to June 23rd with the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing controversial plans to scrap the 2-metre rule in England, replacing it with new 1-metre-plus guidance, saying that experts now believe the risk isn’t all that different once mitigating factors are taken into account. We shall see Boris. We…shall…see.
Anyhoo, Social Distancing 101 aside, the brains at Cushman & Wakefield are, for the most part, spot-on: in a majority of countries, the 6-feet rule ain’t going nowhere in a hurry. So, before the doors of bricks-and-mortar offices begin to revolve across the UK, employers need to make sure they create safe spaces in which the workforce can continue to observe this all-important guidance.
The Six Feet Office would allow just that — and in a cost-efficient way too — as long as various requirements can be met above and beyond the 6-feet rule itself. These involve people:
- Acting responsibly, with the wellbeing of others in mind, and washing hands or applying hand-sanitizer regularly.
- Sticking to the rules, which must be clear, and following the signs, which must be displayed visually on floors, walls and other surfaces.
- Following a distinct route around the office — one-way and clockwise if feasible, or whatever works in the space.
- Entering and leaving meeting rooms in a safe and orderly way.
- Replacing disposable single-use desk mats daily and keeping workspaces — situated appropriately and fitted with Perspex screens — clean and tidy.
Cushman & Wakefield has adapted its Amsterdam office to act as a working prototype of sorts, on which other companies can model their own spaces. The firm monitors employee movements using beacons — a choice, although underpinned by noble intentions, many will doubtless perceive as creepy. What do you think?
Watch this video where Managing Director Jeroen Lokerse offers a better idea of the concept:
Such measures mirror those already implemented in customer-facing environments like shops and garden centres and soon to be introduced in cinemas, pubs, restaurants, cafes and so on. They’ll certainly help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in enclosed office spaces, but they’re no match for allowing people to carry on WFH where possible. But in some cases, it won’t be possible, and people will be placed at greater risk. Now, there is risk in everything we do.
So, what else can we do to protect the health and safety of our people?
Well, the company I work for, EY, has also committed itself to getting people back into the workplace safely. Back in May, the firm announced the launch of its Physical Return and Work Reimagined framework for organizations post-COVID-19.
This broad suite of workplace and transformation tools goes several steps beyond the Six Feet Office concept, bringing together a technology-enabled, analytical, risk-based methodology designed to protect employees and enhance their experience in the physical workplace.
The Six Feet Office focuses solely on social distancing measures, which is great, but we need to go further than that. EY’s two-gear framework takes into consideration multiple factors, including:
- Figuring out who should be working from the office or home and when.
- Assessing workforce resilience, which entails monitoring health, enforcing social distancing rules and ensuring site safety.
- Using tech to help manage remote workforce capability, capacity and scenario management.
- Enhancing employee communications, training and engagement.
As part of this incredible effort, earlier this month, EY and Wolters Kluwer’s Enablon announced Project Emerge, a digital solution offering environmental health and safety support.
With regards to other ideas for keeping workers safe when they return to the office, in physical terms, some have also suggested office buildings require improved air-filtration systems. It goes without saying that I agree, but in rational terms, for me, the key is flexibility and trust.
Two weeks ago, I attended EY’s webcast, The Leaders’ Perspective: How the New World of Work Impacts Business (you can read my summary here). During the session, top business leaders from companies including Unilever, TSB and ASOS came together to discuss how to get people back into the workplace safely, productively and efficiently.
The consensus was that the nature of work has forever changed, meaning employers need to step up and be there for their staff, not only working hard to ensure a safe return to work, but also looking to remove the sort of rigidity and cynicism that has plagued traditional working arrangements for years.
It’s all about putting employees in the driving seat whenever circumstances allow for that, giving them the choice to either return to full-time work if they please or continue to WFH for some or all of the business week.
With all of the aforementioned measures, we can certainly mitigate risks for workers returning to the office, but we can’t eliminate risk altogether. In this sense, the virus is simply far bigger and stronger than us. The minute we leave the safety of our cocoons, we face danger, and so to remain totally protected, we’d have to hide away 24/7. Our workplaces and societies aren’t designed to work 100% virtually — for some jobs, you have to leave the house.
Also, such is the fragility of mental health that this simply isn’t a viable option for some, who need a place to go every day to connect with other humans and maintain the soundness of mind. For those people, employers must not only adapt the workplace but also their expectations and attitudes. Only then can we maximise the safety of the Six Foot Office and minimise the chances of workers ending up six feet under!