How To Design Safer Offices In A COVID-19 World

Companies may need to retrofit their offices, or undergo a more radical rebuild to keep employees safe

By Sam Cicero, Jr.

Preventing the spread of COVID-19 was the motivation behind sending employees home to work during the pandemic. And it will be the same driving factor for employees’ return to the office. What design preparations can be made to your office for operating in the new normal? What common sense safety measures can be adopted?

safer officesGiven the gravity of the situation, some companies will need to have their offices retrofit, or undergo a more radical rebuild to keep employees safe, based on CDC health guidelines outlining social distancing and hygiene practices. Changes to your office may be as drastic as installing new HVAC systems and widening corridors, to as minimal as adding partitions between departments, and sneeze guards on cubicles.

Office fashion for decades has focused on open-plan working. COVID-19 has upended this mega-trend, leading to a closed-plan future, or what is known as the “six-foot” office. No more communal desks, elbow-to-elbow seating or cafes where people congregate to chat, or recreational spaces to play ping-pong. Change has arrived in the form of a microscopic virus.

In the COVID-19 era, the office is anything but open. Physical distancing requires adding elements such as high glass barriers, also known in the industry as “sneeze guards,” between cubicles and in the reception area. Bleach-cleanable fabrics will be introduced to office furniture. With less travel, the workplace will need to provide better options for videoconferencing, perhaps dedicating a former conference room into a mini-theater. It could also mean more use of materials, like copper, that are less hospitable to germs.

In addition, the average office desk has shrunk over the years by nearly 25%, but a likely reversal is coming, as people won’t want to sit as close together. Desks should be staggered or set at 90° angles. We may also see offices begin using their outdoor spaces redesigned for business, weather permitting. Security windows may need to be replaced with ones that actually open for freer airflow. Where possible, touch-reducing amenities, such as double swinging push doors and motion sensor lights, can be added to reduce the spread of viruses on surfaces in high-traffic areas.

COVID-19 is an airborne virus. Reconfiguring an office’s ventilation system to flow air from the ceiling down rather than the floor up, is safer from viral transmission. This step may require a complete retrofit of the HVAC system. This is a major step, as is the demolition and widening of tight corridors and doorways. However, both are necessary for safety and possible legal liability in the event of a lawsuit from an infected employee, since OSHA requires that employers provide a safe working environment.

Thankfully, some of the best design ideas are also some of the easiest to deploy: Reduce capacities of conference rooms, kitchens, and lobbies by simply removing and spacing out furniture. Make it easy for staff and customers to be socially distant by making it impossible for them to sit close together.

Communication is key to prevention. Your office should post signage that will keep everyone mindful of safety: good respiratory hygiene, cleaning recommendations, social distancing, and symptom checks. The CDC has developed a series of printable materials and posters for use. Along with the signage, use tape on the floor indicating one-way traffic throughout the office to minimize cross-traffic, and six-foot circles around desks. Encourage use of stairs over elevators and set a clear “one person per elevator” policy.

Cicero took over as president of Cicero’s Development Corporation in 2012 after a 35 year career working in all departments of the company—including construction and administration. Today, he oversees the daily operations of the business and is involved personally with each project. Having been mentored by his father, Sam ( holds the key values and leads the team in the traditions that have made Cicero’s a respected leader in the construction and commercial renovation industry, and has played a significant role in keeping Cicero’s at the forefront of quality and innovation.

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  1. You’re right that the offices must have a glad barrier installed in their offices because this will promote physical distancing. Well, I also agree with you that the companies have a great ventilation system because this will help prevent the bacteria from spreading. If I were them, I would make sure to hire a commercial disinfection service that will keep the whole place clean.

  2. Amazing post. Post Covid19, we really have to rethink how our offices are designed. In my opinion, it may revolutionize the way we adhere to safety norms and how we work. There may be more times we disinfect HVAC systems as well as making more closed work spaces. Thank you for sharing this article.

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