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Good planning: The key to a safer and smoother return to the workplace

The following article was developed through the collaboration of several Arup experts: Trent Lethco, Eric RiversMike Ernst, Vincent Riscica, and Gideon D’Arcangelo.

Public health experts and policy makers agree that minimizing COVID-19 transmission in the workplace is crucial to helping us prevent disruptive and costly future outbreaks. In the previous article in this series, The future of buildings will be healthy, we discussed how to augment building systems to reduce the likelihood of contagion without compromising long-term business goals. Here, we explore how comprehensive planning can help businesses and building owners successfully tackle their most pressing operational challenges and pave the way for a safer and smoother reentry to the workplace.

How to successfully adapt to the new operational reality

Today, many cities are embarking on the first phase of reopening. Having spent months eagerly awaiting a return to the workplace, businesses now face the challenge of rapidly facilitating a safe reentry, even as they grapple with unanswered questions ranging from “What’s the maximum number of people my lobby can safely accommodate” to “How should I layout office floors to reinforce social distancing?” And “What new technologies can help me improve safety and efficiency during this uncertain time?”

A successful reentry will hinge on a business’s ability to answer these questions and adapt their operations accordingly. Developing a well-informed operational plan tailored to the unique needs of your business is the most effective way to achieve these aims.  

Office diagram Office diagram

Three foundations of successful planning

1. Harness the best available knowledge

Businesses and building owners need to be familiar with local, state, and national public health authority COVID-19 prevention guidelines. It is particularly important to be well-versed in new social distancing requirements because these standards will determine the available capacity within critical areas of the building, such as lobbies and elevators. 

Despite the temptation to cut corners to enable more rapid reopening, decision-makers should keep in mind that social distancing is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future and the changes we make now will have long-term operational consequences. 

2. Identify metrics for success

To deliver maximum value, each business’s operational plan must be informed by a range of criteria, including relevant public health standards, capacity requirements, building layouts, elevator systems, cost considerations, and business model requirements. 

3. Focus on users

The effectiveness of any COVID-19-risk reduction measure will ultimately depend on the user’s ability to understand it, recognize its value, and adhere to it. It’s therefore critical to center the needs of users from the outset of the planning process. Operational plans that include strategies aimed at a broad range of user types — from employees and visitors to delivery people and people with disabilities — stand the greatest chance of success.

Critical areas of focus

New social distancing requirements should be used to inform everything from office layouts to circulation routes in high-traffic areas, like corridors, restrooms, cafeterias, and break areas. However, their impacts are likely to be felt most strongly in building entries, lobbies, and elevators at peak travel times.

Finding ways to support social distancing in these spaces during the morning, lunchtime, and evening rushes can be challenging. A host of factors must be considered, including the maximum number of people expected at a given time, the size of the lobby, the availability of outside space for overflow queuing, and the capabilities and capacity of the building’s elevator system. 

Harness technology to deliver a safer, smoother user experience

Leveraging technology can help building managers provide a more seamless entry-to-seat experience. Contactless entry devices, digital signage communicating new lobby protocols, visitor registration via smart phone, and other approaches can help deliver information in a timely manner, manage queues more effectively, and quickly respond to incidents like high levels of crowding, while minimizing the need for face-to-face interaction.

Office lobby with elevators Office lobby with elevators

Pedestrian planning
Social distancing impacts a space’s capacity to manage pedestrian flow and can result in longer wait times and bottlenecks in the system. Arup’s agent-based pedestrian modeling software, MassMotion, can help clients manage these issues by identifying strategies to improve flow and efficiency. 

Boosting the safety of office layouts
Arup's Space Explorer brings together intelligent modeling and simulation of people’s movements with new data about how the novel coronavirus travels and disperses in covered spaces. Space Explorer can help clients develop a plan for safe operations based on the precise shape, layout, and head count of a given space. 

The fundamentals of good planning

While each business’s operational plan will contain a tailored combination of strategies, all should be aimed at reducing the risk of contagion in the following ways:

Provide adequate space for queuing and circulation in building entries and lobbies
Estimate the level of traffic at peak times and ensure processes are put in place to maintain social distancing. In instances when overcrowding cannot be safely managed or results in extended wait times, consider introducing staggered arrival and departure times.

Establish contingency plans in the event of overflow
Because commuting patterns are in flux, contingency planning will be critical to building operations. Establish procedures to manage periods of high demand at building entries, turnstiles, and elevator lobbies and designate overflow waiting areas that allow for adequate social distancing. 

Institute systems to manage rates of entry
To ensure spikes in traffic don’t compromise social distancing or the user experience, consider monitoring populations and metering how people enter the building in key locations so building staff can address issues in real time. Monitoring populations can be done by staffing people in key locations to watch and communicate back to other staff, or through the installation of more sophisticated systems that allow dynamic counting via CCTV or sensors. 

Define safe office layouts
Office layouts should be reshaped to support social distancing based on criteria including how many people can be safely accommodated in a given space, how seating arrangements impact team cohesion and productivity, and which desks fall in the path of high-traffic areas and might put occupants at higher risk. 

Designate circulation routes to maintain social distancing on office floors
Map out employee movement throughout the day. In areas where two-way traffic makes social distancing difficult, consider one-way flows.

Working with a multidisciplinary team can help business and building owners identify the operational strategies that are best aligned with their guiding principles, budgets, and spaces. At Arup, for instance, our integrated planning team uses data analytics, user experience design, and pedestrian modeling and simulation to develop comprehensive and adaptive reentry plans.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, designers are actively looking for ways to harness existing tools and resources to create innovative solutions that improve safety and help restore people’s confidence in indoor environments. 

Office layout Office layout

Environments that communicate
People are understandably concerned about the level of risk they face in returning to the office. To help alleviate these concerns, Arup’s experience designers are exploring new ways to communicate real-time environmental information to building occupants.

Sensor technology already allows us to collect and track data about indoor environmental conditions such as CO2, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, daylight levels, noise levels, and vibration. Typically, this information is only made available to facilities managers. Our goal is to develop data visualizations, dynamic displays, and user interfaces that make environmental information accessible to all. These tools could be installed in areas like lobbies and conference rooms to provide staff and visitors with more peace of mind. 

When complications arise, do a risk/reward analysis

Because existing building layouts and systems were not designed with COVID-19 in mind, it is not always possible to maintain efficient operations while fully adhering to social distancing standards. To determine how to move forward, decision-makers will have to determine how much risk they are willing to tolerate to improve efficiency and functionality. 

Take, for example, a business with 350 employees, all of whom typically arrive between 8:30 and 8:45am and rely on a bank of six elevators. Each of these elevator cars once held 10–12 people, enabling them to move freely through the lobby, access elevators quickly, and arrive at their desk within minutes. To maintain social distancing inside these elevators, the building operator may need to reduce the capacity of each car to just four people, significantly slowing down the “entry-to-seat” journey and leading to overcrowding in the lobby.

The way different businesses approach this challenge will be influenced by a range of factors, from building system capacity and floor plans to the services they provide. An organization serving vulnerable populations, for example, may deem social distancing on elevators to be a critical priority and institute approaches such as staggered arrival times to alleviate overcrowding. Whereas a company whose hours of operation are dictated by external market demands may opt to raise the capacity of each car to 6–8 riders and require everyone to wear masks to get people to their desks on time, reasoning that with proper safety protocols the risk of contracting the virus during a brief elevator ride is relatively low.  

Office diagram Office diagram

The key to successful implementation

Adapting to new ways of doing things is always challenging and it will be more so in a time when many people are anxious about returning to the public realm. The key to making your operational plan a success is clear and consistent communication. 

To promote broad adoption of new operational policies and procedures, staff at all levels will need to understand what is changing and why, as well as how these changes impact them and what their role is in upholding them. Introducing high-quality wayfinding and signage will be essential to reinforcing these behaviors. 

Decision-makers will also want to remind people early and often that these operational changes are designed to safeguard their health and welfare. Those leading the training and education effort can help counter resistance by making it clear that if something is not working well, they will take steps to address the issue or clarify its necessity.

Lastly, as the employee and visitor’s first points of contact in the building, greeting and security staff set the tone for the overall user experience. Those entering the building will depend on these staff members to orient them and look to them for assurance that they are entering a safe, well-managed environment. Arming greeters and security personnel with the knowledge and tools they need to begin doing this on day one of reopening is critical to facilitating a smooth reentry.