How to plan for social distancing in the workplace
Now that offices are reopening and people are returning to work, employers need to address new safety demands and questions in order to inspire confidence in their teams. Amid all the uncertain pandemic-incited variables, every employee returning to the office should feel they are stepping back into a socially distanced workplace where all precautions are being taken.
Although the pandemic showed the resilience of employees—who uprooted and worked from home without suffering a loss in productivity—offices and the collaborative culture they generate are not a thing of the past.
“A majority of our clients, nearly all of them, are not giving up the office,” says Peter Van Emburgh of CBRE. “I think if anything this pandemic has helped reinforce and prove the importance of place and importance of the office.”
Offices are spaces where relationships are fostered and teams are able to innovate. But we’re not returning to the offices of 2019. A new set of challenges awaits as we reassess the spaces we work in and navigate strategies for safely returning to the office that includes new social distancing protocols, staggered schedules, and overall workplace experience.
The good news? With the right data, it’s possible to reimagine your office in ways that incorporate social distancing without sacrificing collaborative potential or negatively impacting the workplace experience.
Using data to create safe spaces and smart strategies
Solving the unique demands required to create an effective return-to-office strategy is unprecedented. But that doesn’t mean it should involve guesswork or haphazard planning. By using data and space analytics, implementing a strategy for resuming in-office work can be founded on concrete and tactical knowledge. As a result, you can create spaces and thoughtful strategies to reassure employees that they are returning to an improved office designed to keep them safe and productive.
How hybrid work can support social distancing
One of the first steps to welcoming employees back to the office is to create schedules that support social distancing. Shifting to a hybrid work model can, by design, keep office occupancy levels lower.
Household names like Citigroup and Microsoft use a 50% hybrid split between remote work and time in the office, with employees coming in about 3 days a week. Lockheed Martin transitioned to a 40% hybrid work model—up from only 3% of their workforce being remote pre-pandemic—with a major emphasis on training their managers to lead in the new social distancing era.
While hybrid models are useful in safely bringing people back to shared spaces, the right balance will be based on your individual office. To implement hybrid scheduling that minimizes safety risks and maximizes office efficiency, you need to understand your space, and importantly, how employees are using it.
Remember, hybrid work isn’t a panacea. Data indicates that most hybrid employees who come to the office post-COVID will do so specifically to meet and collaborate with colleagues. Collaboration means more people assembling in confined spaces like conference rooms and shared offices.
Simply put, hybrid scheduling will lower overall daily occupancy levels, but to make the most of what an office provides, people will still be working in close quarters. To make those collaborative interactions as safe as possible, leaders can use Density data to create effective in-office social distancing policies. With Density, teams can:
- Create and monitor safe capacity limits
- Show employees which spaces are safe to enter
- Measure the effectiveness of your Return-to-Work strategy
- Adapt to changing employee behavior
Create and monitor safe capacity limits
There’s always a risk to social distancing when people gather in enclosed spaces. However, with fewer overall people allowed in a given space, adhering to distancing measures becomes much more realistic. This is where capacity limits come into play.
Often, large spaces tend to be underutilized, and, in reverse, small areas are prone to high traffic. One central place where these types of questions arise is conference rooms. Conference rooms are the collaborative heart of many offices and, therefore, are at the forefront of social distancing safety concerns. In a time where sharing space can be a high-risk activity, how do we begin using conference rooms so that people feel they can “put their heads together” without compromising their well-being?
To put it into context, here is how you would calculate the safe capacity limits of a 4-6 person conference room based on square footage.
The minimum size of a 4-6 person conference room containing a 4’x6’ table is, on average, 168 square feet.
Suppose you use the CDC recommendation of 6-feet social distance as a standard. In that case, every employee in a conference room needs what amounts to a 3-foot bubble of buffer space around them (or a 28 square-foot allotment per person).
Doubling this allotment to approximately 60 square feet to account for variable room configurations, implies a socially distant capacity of 2-3 people for this 4-6 person conference room, or a capacity reduction of approximately 50%.
With that context, we analyzed more than 10,000 hours of meetings over six months across 60 conference rooms.
What we learned was:
- Conference rooms are occupied by only one person 36% of the time
- 85% of meetings had fewer than seven attendees
- 6% of meetings had ten or more attendees
- 2-4 person rooms were 2x as likely to be at overcapacity as 5-person rooms
While these numbers reflect pre-pandemic behavior, they serve as a valuable benchmark for designing malleable and custom capacity limits based on understanding space use.
For a small conference room like the one mentioned earlier, where the size of the space is the main limiting factor, defining a safe limit is rather straightforward. It’s a separate space designed for a single purpose and thinking about occupancy in terms of square footage makes the most sense. Additionally, ensuring a capacity of 2-3 people can be done easily with a quick count. At the same time, a 2-person face-to-face is not exactly a conference, and what once worked for 85% of meetings, may now increase an already high single-person setting. More than likely, this means that in order to create spaces where group innovation can thrive, meetings may move out of small rooms. In short, bigger multi-use spaces will now be needed to house meetings that once fit in a 4-6 person conference room.
Here is where square footage-based capacity limits fall short. To keep people safe in larger spaces that will inherently have more people in them, capacity limits need to reflect things like traffic (both in terms of location, time of day, and day of the week), desk usage, and monitoring head-counts that will require more than just counting 2-3 people.
With Density’s space occupancy data, you can set capacity limits based on where people are in real-time.
Keep in mind: a big part of the desire to return to the office is spontaneity among employees who are going to be using your office in new ways. That means patterns will change, desirable areas will shift, and keeping people socially distanced needs a more nuanced approach.
Density enables workplace leaders to see how people are interacting with their environment throughout the day. This is invaluable information when, as it often does, something like a last-minute meeting needs to take place. Knowing in real-time what rooms and floors are, or are not, available removes the guesswork and eliminates wasted time wandering around looking for a room to use.
Of course, not everything is last minute. That same data can be used to identify patterns and create predictive models based on staggered schedules and high-traffic areas. When it comes time to plan a larger meeting, you can use these models to effectively plan where and when to host it, without worrying about hitting capacity limits while your whole team is onsite.
Display occupancy levels to show employees which spaces are safe to enter
While meetings and conference rooms pinpoint potential risks, day-to-day solutions are just as important.
What happens if an employee wants to enter a busy space that once had a 250-person legal capacity that has since been limited by 50% post-pandemic? Without accurate data, there is no way they will be able to know if there are 115 or 130 people inside. That employee will be forced to make an uncomfortable decision: Either enter the room and put their own safety and the safety of others at risk, or turn around, find somewhere else to go, and lose their momentum, focus, and drive.
You can prevent that anxiety through clear communication. Showing employees the real-time occupancy of every space lets them know when a room is nearing its safe occupancy limit and enables them to self-regulate.
This tells employees and visitors when it’s safe to enter.
Below is a screenshot from Density’s dashboard, showing one of our customer’s Display settings. This particular client uses Density’s platform to manage more than a million square feet of real estate, setting, monitoring, and displaying safe capacity limits for rooms nationwide (we’ve hidden their name to protect their privacy).
As seen above, the customer designated a safe capacity limit of 100 for this space. The Go graphic on the right represents what employees approaching this space see on a display hung outside this space.
Our platform also notifies you if a space exceeds your target safe capacity so that you can address the issue in real-time. For an employee who may be at higher risk of COVID complications, knowing that their team leaders have this ability and are acting on it, can make all the difference as they begin their time back in the office.
Measure the effectiveness of your strategy
The most telling metric to determine the effectiveness of your strategy is space utilization vs. safe capacity limits. In other words, how does actual usage compare to the limits you’ve placed?
Some teams rely on badge swipe data to measure space utilization. But this produces incomplete information. Badge data doesn’t tell you how long an employee has stayed in a space or what they did while they were there. It doesn’t discern between the engineer who works for 8 hours and the salesperson who stopped in for a quick call. This has always been a problem with badge data, and that problem is even more profound in the COVID era where real-time occupancy measurement matters.
Density’s real-time, comprehensive data fills in those gaps with continuous information. You can understand the fine distinctions of your spaces with more detail than just badged entrances. Knowing which teams are utilizing what spaces, and how and when they use them, lets you make informed decisions around things like allocation, expansion, and scheduling.
The screenshot below is from one of our Fortune 500 customers (we’ve blocked out any sensitive information).
The image shows data captured by our Entry sensors that monitor the entry points of a workspace.
This customer’s space can legally hold 240 people. They’ve determined that 74 is a safe capacity limit
to account for social distancing and other COVID guidelines. They use Density to measure occupancy against these limits. In this particular use case, occupancy has been safely within our customer’s capacity limits—the most people to occupy that space in July was 48 (vs. 74 safe capacity).
What can you do with these insights?
When you know the context behind space utilization, you can make smarter decisions like:
- How and when to stagger employee scheduling
- Which teams to reassign to new spaces
- Which meeting spaces are underused and can be repurposed into something like a quiet room that employees can book for calls or accomplish deep work
You can also make decisions with more significant implications (such as shifting to hybrid work or adding satellite offices to your portfolio), knowing you have data to point to. For our customer above, these insights tell them that their workplace is well below safe occupancy levels. If, however, they identify another workspace that exceeds (or nears) safe occupancy limits, they can reassign teams or employees accordingly.
What happens when employee behavior shifts over time?
Your employees’ relationship with your workspace will not be the same as before the pandemic. And, their relationship with your space one year from now will not be the same as it is today.
Real-time space utilization insights will help you monitor these inevitable changes so you can adapt your workplace strategy as it grows.
Open Area, for example, measures open space like lobbies, lounges, coffee bars, and soft seating. Customers use insights from Open Area to measure and predict the evolving behavioral patterns of their employees.
- Know when and for how long people use each room, desk, and any space of interest
- A-B test workplace amenities and technology, and use insights to continuously optimize the employee experience
- Analyze foot traffic patterns while protecting employee privacyOpen Area’s heatmaps feature, shown below, captures and illustrates employee behavior over time, so you can make smarter, more agile workplace decisions.
The more you can address these questions with real data (rather than blanket square footage guesstimates) the better equipped you’ll be for this new normal, and the more agile you will be as your workplace continues to shift and grow.