COVID-19 series: Ensuring a safe workplace through office layout and design

by | Jul 3, 2020 | Blog

Pandemic-proofing offices could involve short-term fixes, new working patterns and long-term design upgrades that put hygiene at the heart of workplace planning.

As the UK starts to cautiously make its way towards relaxing lockdown rules, many of us are starting to envision a time when we can stop working at our kitchen tables and return to the office. In the absence of a vaccine, many aspects of the modern workplaces will have to change if employees are to safely return to their desks. 

Jamie Cowen, the Director of Bright Office Interiors is our expert on the ground when it comes to working out what combination of short-term fixes and longer-term design upgrades and modifications are needed to boost employees confidence and put hygiene at the heart of workplace.

He has kindly shared his knowledge with us to help you with what to consider when reviewing your workplace layout and design. His recommendations are outlined below in the first of our guest blog series focusing on changing and adapting workplaces as a result of COVID-19.

Taking the First Step

The first phase of resuming office life will involve making basic changes to keep employees safe and alleviate fears.

To do this, Jamie suggests that each employer should undertake a specific risk assessment to work out what changes are required and what is possible in each space. The main aim of this is to create a workspace that offers the most protection and separation of 2m where possible. The guidance from Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is a good reference point to use when starting to do this.

In the first phase, Jamie recommends implementing a few quick wins. These include:   

  • Purchasing hand sanitiser and protective gloves or masks (where applicable) which can be provided for people to use regularly.
  • Creating clear signage for both employees and visitors. These need to be clearly displayed in key areas such as reception, kitchen, and office spaces.
  • Using floor tape or paint to mark areas to help keep to a 2m distance.
  • Creating strict cleaning measures in all areas and asking both employees and visitors to increase the frequency of hand washing.
  • Purchasing protective screens that fit on existing desks (these screens can be made of cardboard, plastic or glass depending on budget) and free standing screens that can be put on the end of each pod or desk to create a safe corridor for passing employees.
  • Ensuring constant management of the workspace and that all risks and control measures are shared with employees. This responsibility could be given to your Health and Safety or HR Manager. It is important for you, and your employees to know that everything has been done to keep everyone as safe as possible and the supporting documentation is in place.

Longer Term Changes

All of the solutions mentioned above are temporary to solve a problem and bring employees back to the office to resume some sense of normality.

However, longer term, it is important to step back and see what can be done to adapt your workplace to help mitigate risk and minimise the impact of a future outbreak.

In the second stage, Jamie recommends implementing some bigger changes that will help with keeping employees safe. These include:   

  • Reviewing the office layout and processes to allow employees to work further apart.
  • Using back-to-back or side-to-side working, rather than face-to-face whenever possible.
  • Reducing the number of people each employee has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ (so each employee works with only a few others).
  • Limiting the number of employees able to work in the office at once. With the 2m distance rule in place, staggering departments coming into the office on alternative days with strict cleaning in between maybe a good option.
  • Re-configuring breakrooms and canteens to allow social distancing in high traffic areas where the risk of transmission between employees is the highest.
  • Re-thinking the use of hot desks and non-designated work areas. In offices where this is not an option, essential and thorough cleaning must be done between occupants including shared equipment such as monitors and keyboards.
  • Regularly assessing the safety face-to-face work with a larger group over sustained periods. Where possible, this should not resume for the time being, but it is understanding in some instances this is not an option.  

By applying this guidance, employers should be mindful of the particular needs of different groups of workers or individuals.

  • It is breaking the law to discriminate, directly or indirectly, against anyone because of a protected characteristic such as age, sex, disability, race, or ethnicity.
  • Employers also have particular responsibilities towards disabled workers and those who are new or expectant mothers.

Moving Forward

Whatever happens in the months ahead, and even if a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, it seems likely that the experience of living through a pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the way we work and how our workplaces function.

By implementing a combination of both the short-term fixes and longer-term design modifications recommended, your business will have a strong way of moving forward in the current conditions. With these adaptive measures introduced, employees will start to feel comfortable returning to the office and with any luck, things will slowly start to go back to the way they were before lockdown.

If you need any advice or support implementing the solutions Jamie recommended above, feel free to contact him or a member of his team by visiting

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