As businesses across the country brace themselves to return back to the workplace, it’s important to prepare properly. This list of must-do’s from office-planning experts can help.

Over almost a half century, Ware Malcomb has focused on designing offices and commercial buildings that reflect the company’s focus on “excellent client service and relationship-building.” Now, as brokerages across the country prepare to reopen in one of the most challenging economic environments in history, the firm has put its applied psychology-based theories of space design into practice for the post-COVID-19 workplace environment.

Cynthia Milota, Ware Malcomb’s Director of Workplace Strategy, has developed “A Common Sense Guide for Returning to the Workplace.” The guide is filled with actionable strategies, floor plans and layout suggestions for a variety of commercial spaces.

One of the themes Milota returned to again and again was communication. “While it may be difficult for employees to prove that they contracted the virus at work, the reputational risk is great for organizations to not provide the safest work environment,” she said.

“Employees cost 10 times more than office space, thus companies should be motivated to positively manage communications, expectations and perceptions of workplace safety for their most important assets.”

Via email, we asked Milota for her thoughts on what brokerages should do to make the transition back from work-from-home to “open for business” much smoother.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for managing brokers as they prepare to bring folks back into the workspace?

Making the office safe for employees to return post COVID-19 requires workplace modifications that can be accomplished with time and resources.

We see managing employee expectations as a larger challenge than the physical workplace modifications. Ware Malcomb’s applied psychology research has found that the real wild card in the return to the office will be shifting employee perceptions, anxiety and uncertainty as to what is safe and if their workplaces (employers, landlords and facilities teams) are implementing the highest and best practices.

Employees will be asking:

  • What evidence will be provided that the office is really clean and healthy for return?
  • What is the motivation for employees to show up at the office, after this extended work from home period?
  • What mechanisms are available to employees to express dissatisfaction on perceived lack of safety at their workplace?

How can communication reassure nervous agents and staff members?

Since the work-from-home orders, there has been a new sense of transparency in the massive amount of communications across multiple channels, building new levels of trust across the organization. Communications are targeted from organization to employees on their personal, mental, financial and company health; team-to-team; and manager-to-employee.

To maintain this level of trust, corporate communications have broadcast often weekly and sometimes daily from the companies we interviewed. We anticipate that this increased level of trust building communications will continue as employees gradually return to the office.

How can we reassure the public that it’s OK to meet in real life again?

In the office, face-to-face communications is essential for innovation and organizational growth. Workplace physical distancing protocols will enable people to engage in person, formally in conference spaces or informally in open collaboration spaces.

Our clients are working hard to reopen their corporate workplaces and gathering spaces, using best practice health and safety protocols. However, it will take time and a sense of trust for employees in the workplace to want to walk over to the conference room for that meeting, rather than taking it on Zoom from their desk.

Do you have advice specifically for property showings, home inspections or other aspects of the real estate process?

I can share what we are doing on the commercial real estate side, and many of those concepts could cross over. Ware Malcomb is partnering with building owners and managers to offer virtual corporate office tours, using a building modeling information software program. It enables potential tenants to tour spaces, as open, not improved, and spaces that are built out and furnished.

Site visits remain essential for the practice of corporate interior workplace design. We have developed guidelines and protocols for conducting visits to building sites to verify existing conditions and to construction sites to observe the construction process.

Highlights from the report

While the guide lists a lot of helpful information for those transitioning back to the office, these are some of the main points to consider.

Safety protocols

  • Screening procedures for employees, visitors and contractors may include infrared fever scan systems and health assessments.
  • Staggered work times and days or four-day workweeks can reduce the number of employees in the office at the same time. Staggered lunch and break times help as well.
  • Centralized trash and recycling bins can slow disease transmission.
  • Besides hands-free faucets and dispensers, consider no-touch doors, badge readers, and garbage/recycling bins.
  • Workplaces will need to consider whether to provide personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, and possibly goggles.

Communications and training

  • Consider openly advertising protocols for visitors, social distancing and housekeeping to establish a sense of trust.
  • Establish back-to-the-office change tours and instructions for using the space.
  • Consider providing documents and resources like “frequently asked questions” posts and “stay-safe etiquette” guides.

Reception areas

  • Consider temporary plexiglass “sneeze guard” screens at reception or check-in points.
  • Rearrange or remove seating to manage social distancing.
  • Remove magazines, corporate promotional materials and pens, and keep hand sanitizer dispensers in plain view.

Workstation areas

  • Indicate workstations to be occupied in order to accommodate six feet of social distancing.
  • Remove chairs and/or computer monitors to discourage unoccupied workstation use.
  • Consider reorienting workstations so employees don’t face each other.
  • Employee personal items should be removed for thorough nightly work surface cleaning.

Collaboration areas

  • Post signage indicating the maximum number of people allowed in each conference or meeting room. Use large meeting spaces for chair storage to remove the temptation to hold larger gatherings.

Housekeeping and cleaning

  • Touchless hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes should be available from every vantage point.
  • Increase housekeeping throughout the day, maintaining a visible presence to reassure employees.
  • Consider options like electrostatic cleaning, nanoseptic door handles and desk products, and UV phone sanitizing stations to optimize bacteria and germ loads.

Christy Murdock Edgar is a realtor, freelance writer, coach and consultant with Writing Real Estate. She is also a Florida Realtors faculty member. Follow Writing Real Estate on  FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.

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