The current pandemic has had profound effects on how and where we work. Around half of the UK’s employees worked from home amidst the pandemic. And while employees are slowly trickling back, they’re not going to be reporting to the same office they left half a year ago. “Fewer people will perhaps be one of the most evident things when you enter your office for the first time,” says Helen Berresford of architecture and design firm Sheppard Robson.
For facilities management, this shift means a constant reinvention of strategies and operations. Companies are bringing back their employees at different paces and schedules. Some split their workforce between in-office and home-based staff. Others have employees reporting in shifts, by availability, or as needed. These hybrid and changing conditions mean facility managers need to stay flexible in order to maximise daily operations.
There’s no silver bullet that will apply to every organisation. Instead, facility managers and teams will need to rethink their existing spaces and systems and use data to pinpoint problem areas.
Previously, space planning largely revolved around maximising productivity. Now, a more important factor has come to the fore: distancing. As per government guidance, individuals have to be 2 metres away from each other at all times. Meeting these guidelines will inevitably necessitate some reshuffling.
Desks may need to be faced away from one another. Or, removed altogether. The pandemic workforce will be smaller and need fewer amenities but also more space. Tables will also need to be cleared of any unnecessary items to make sanitation quicker and easier.
COVID-19’s droplet and aerosol based transmission means every surface is a potential vector for disease. A virus on a single doorknob can spread to half of your office in just hours. While regular disinfection is crucial, avoiding contact when possible is preferable.
The shift requires a radical redesigning of high touch areas and surfaces in the office. Fortunately, technology is at a level that can help. Sensors that can open doors, sanitisers that dispense automatically, and auto-flushing toilets are just some ways businesses can eliminate unnecessary contact in their facilities. Regular maintenance checks are a must to ensure motion sensors are working.
Before COVID struck, open office was the norm for many workplaces. In the UK, where sky-high property rates have businesses trying to utilise every metre of space, half of offices are open plan. This makes preparing for a pandemic that travels through contact all the more challenging.
That doesn’t mean we’ll be going back to the high-walled cubicles. Companies can leverage workarounds for common areas. For instance, instead of gathering at the office kitchen or canteen for lunch, employees can have their food delivered to a designated collection point in the office. Alternatively, you may also designate one person to deliver food to tables to minimise contact around the office.
HVAC systems will be important tools for facilities amidst the pandemic. Higher rates of cycling airflow can help flush out a virus that spreads through aerosolised droplets. Humidity levels of 40 to 60 percent indoors can also help control transmission, according to some HVAC experts who recommend switching out standard filters for those with a higher efficiency rating.
HVAC operations will also need to be reevaluated for cost-efficiency. Fewer occupancy may mean cutting back in some areas to avoid useless spend, or to adjust around the comfort of smaller teams.
Upholding sanitation and healthy social distancing will be a matter of careful coordination around desks, schedules, and amenities. Scheduling software, not only for employees but also for rooms and desks, will help inform the staffing situation for the day. For instance, a booking system for desks can let employees know when to come in, or when to stay at home when the office is at full capacity. Visibility into who is sitting where can facilitate faster contact tracing should an employee fall ill.
Booking data can also help inform cleaning personnel which higher traffic areas need more frequent sanitation. Since regular cleaning rotations are no longer sufficient, using tracking software for your facilities can let the cleaning staff know in real-time when and where they’re needed.
Until a vaccine is found, there will be the ever-present risk of contracting COVID-19, regardless of how careful your employees try to be. Constant tracking is necessary for minimising contamination and spread in the event that one of your people get sick or develop symptoms.
Equipped with the proper measures, your facility should be able to tell you where an affected employee moved through the office. Log-ins, meeting room reservations, and door access swipes will be crucial information, not only for preventing the spread of the virus in your office but for tracking contacts if someone has tested positive.
The early months of the pandemic saw panic-buying that created shortages for cleaning products. While the mania has died down, the cleaning products industry–which usually operates on a “just-in-time” approach is still struggling to predict demand. Traditional buying patterns may no longer work for facilities, especially as the UK’s employees commute back to work.
Usage data will be important for ensuring a continuous supply of toilet paper, disinfectant, alcohol, and sanitisers. Factoring pre-ordering and bulk buying in your plans will help keep your materials supply uninterrupted even with the limited capacity of suppliers.
Each day back into the office amidst this pandemic will bring new challenges for facility managers. To keep employees safe, businesses will have to be proactive, flexible, and data-driven in their strategies.