Returning To Work: The New Office

Facility management teams are central to providing a safe, productive workplace.

By Anne Cosgrove
From the June 2020 Issue

There is a plethora of resources that facility executives and their teams can access to prepare their buildings for occupancy during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Every aspect of facility management has been impacted, and while the industry has learned much over the past several months, the road to readjustment remains. Facility management in office environments are focused on re-entry of their employees, visitors, and others. As the industry moves forward, we are sharing excerpts from a number of resources available to facilities and real estate professionals. We’ve also shared one company’s reboot of their office. Visit these organizations’ sites for expanded resources.

COVID-19 return to work
In its Netherlands office, Cushman & Wakefield introduced its Six Feet Office concept to help its clients prepare for their employees to return to the office. The black edging around the desks serve as visual reminders for distancing. (Photo: Cushman & Wakefield)

Multi-Stage Pandemic Manual

The Pandemic Manual from the IFMA Foundation is a 100+ page document published this Spring and sponsored by ABM, IFMA, Planon, Global Workplace Analytics, and others. It offers facility management professionals guidance on pandemic planning, response, and recovery.

The Pandemic Recovery section includes this advice: During the recovery phase, the organization will begin to relax the procedure and policies determined during the Planning/Preparation and Response Phases. Business practices will eventually return to normal. The Pandemic Team will develop and implement a Recovery Plan to return the company to normal working operations. Note that in some cases, a new or revised policy or process may become incorporated into normal company practices.

Six Readiness Essentials from IFMA Foundation’s Pandemic Manual are:

  • Prepare the Building: cleaning plans, pre-return inspections, HVAC and Mechanicals checks
  • Prepare the Workforce: Mitigating anxiety, policies for deciding who returns, employee communications
  • Control Access: protocols for safety and health checks, building reception, shipping and receiving, elevators, visitor policies
  • Create a Social Distancing Plan: decreasing density, schedule management, office traffic patterns
  • Reduce Touch Points and Increase Cleaning: open doors, clean desk policy, food plan, cleaning common areas
  • Communicate for Confidence: recognize the fear in returning, communicate transparently, listen and survey regularly

The IFMA Foundation Pandemic Manual is available for download here.

Recovery Readiness

The “Recovery Readiness: A How-to Guide for Reopening Your Workplace” from Cushman & Wakefield is a comprehensive guide for real estate tenants and landlords on reopening workplaces as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. This follows the creation of the firm’s Recovery Readiness Task Force (RRTF) and the launch of its new social distancing product Six Feet Office.

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Creating separate seating spaces, erecting dividers such as movable walls and acrylic screen dividers on worksurfaces, and social distancing reminders are key to employee awareness. (Photo: Vari)

The Six Feet Office is the firm’s conceptual idea to help its clients prepare for their employees to return to the office. The concept consists of these six elements:

  • 6 Feet Quick Scan: A concise but thorough analysis of the current working environment in the field of virus safety and any other opportunities for improvement.
  • 6 Feet Rules: A set of simple and clear workable agreements and rules of conduct that put the safety of everyone first.
  • 6 Feet Routing: A visually displayed and unique routing for each office, making traffic flows completely safe.
  • 6 Feet Workstation: An adapted and fully equipped workplace at which the user can work safely.
  • 6 Feet Facility: A trained employee who advises on and operationally ensures an optimally functioning and safe facility environment.
  • • 6 Feet Certificate: A certificate stating that measures have been taken to implement a virus-safe working environment.

The Recovery Readiness: A How-to Guide for Reopening your Workplace, and more on the Six Feet Office is available online .

Re-entry Guidance

JLL has released its “(re)entry Guidebook” addressing how and when people should begin to return to space. The eight categories listed here are included in the document.

Objective re-entry triggers

  • Government mandates re-opening and occupancy.
  • Building, employee, and tenant spaces are safe and equipped for reuse.
  • Employee return-to-work plan confirmed.
  • Prepare protocols for re-closing.

Stagger return to office

  • Identify who will return to the office in the near-term—some employees may require extendedremote work due to underlying personal factors, transit challenges and/or school closures.
  • If possible, create shifts based on social distancing in the workplace
  • Number of shifts depends on company headcounts and space capacity.
  • Maintain separation between teams returning to the office.

New behaviors

  • Communicate new protocols around cleanliness and gathering in common areas, as well as return-to-work timing and scenarios.
  • Impose travel restrictions on early returns.
  • Implement one-way circulation patterns to help manage foot traffic
  • Limit the number of employees allowed in certain spaces.
  • Assign desks and make them reservable ahead of time to manage employee volume in the office.

Office reconfigurations

  • Redraw floor plans and reconfigure furniture (some of which may be required by new government mandates put in place).
  • Incorporate more touchless technologies for restrooms and trash receptacles.
  • Define cleaning and transition protocols for any shared workspaces.
  • Consider repurposing any underutilized spaces.
  • Limit any desk sharing in the near term in facilities.

Leverage technology

  • Assess existing building technology that could help in providing and monitoring access and occupancy.
  • Consider new products in areas such as support for remote work, health screening, robotics, or touchless technology.

Spatial distancing strategies

  • Limit on-site meetings with clear guidelines.
  • Use videoconferencing and other virtual meeting technologies.
  • If holding in-person meetings, limit the number of attendees and maintain social distancing.
  • Plan for and manage congestion in common areas like elevator banks, cafeterias, and gyms.

Limited common area/amenity access

  • Limit occupancy using clear guidelines and shifts.
  • Manage higher demand and sanitation for microwaves and other equipment.
  • Encourage workers to bring food to the office or have lunch delivered in prepackaged containers to eliminate trips outside the office.
  • Limit congregation in any communal spaces, such as cafeterias, lounges, and fitness.

Enhanced data collection

• Track space utilization and identify potential risks for contamination with digital tools

Download JLL’s (re)entry Guidebook.

Guidance Document From AIHA

The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) offers COVID-19 resources for a number of facility settings. One of these is “Reopening: Guidance for General Office Settings.” This excerpted portion of the document addresses general office space configuration—Prior to re-occupancy, perform a detailed review of the configuration of your workspaces:

  • Consider eliminating reception seating areas and requesting that guests phone ahead or install a plastic partition at the reception area.
  • Review floorplans and remove or reconfigure seats, furniture and workstations as needed to preserve recommended physical distancing in accordance with guidelines.
  • Reconfigure workstations so that employees do not face each other, or establish partitions if facing each other cannot be avoided.
  • Temporarily replace amenities that are handled with high contact frequency, such as water coolers, coffee makers, and bulk snacks and replace them with alternatives. Examples include: touchless sensor water dispensers; requesting workers bring in their own water bottles/coffee mugs; providing individually wrapped snacks.
    • Consider using signage to deter use of such amenities.
    • If vending machines are used, provide and require cleaning and disinfectants to wipe down after each use.
  • Reduce tasks requiring large amounts of people to be in one area. Design work to reduce or eliminate trade stacking in the same area.
  • Employees should be encouraged to use virtual meeting tools, including phone and virtual teleconference, in lieu of in-person meetings, whenever possible.
  • If in-person meetings are essential, consider limiting meetings to 10 people or less depending on local, state, and federal guidelines.

Download the Reopening: Guidance for General Office Settings document.

Vari: Workplace Firm Makes Change

Headquartered in Coppell, TX, provider of flexible furniture solutions Vari (formerly VARIDESK), has a culture of its offices serving as a living lab for the products it designs for the workplace. When the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the company responded.

Jason McCann, Vari’s CEO, reached out to the company’s offices in Asia to discover strategies and practices that might be employed in the U.S. office, and for the company’s clients as well. “Our team members in Asia were about 10 weeks ahead of us in terms of response, so I spoke with them to find out what was happening there. There, people were being spaced apart, acrylic dividers were being added, and checking temperature was occurring in more types of settings, such as restaurants.”

facility executives
At its headquarters facility in Coppell, TX, furniture solutions provider Vari, has reconfigured its 80,000 square foot office to respond to the global pandemic. (Top) The collaborative culture of the company featured a very open floorplan. (Bottom) Today, the office features separation, and this includes movable partition walls. (Photo: Vari)

At Vari’s headquarters, McCann and his team set to work to re-imagine the 80,000 square foot facility—an office that had designed for collaboration and to encourage “collision points.” With the staff working from home, the facility was clear for reconfiguration. What resulted has been a workplace redesigned with social distancing spacing, partition walls, acrylic screens on tables. McCann notes that common space square footage was reduced, but not significantly.

Measures already part of vari that have carried over into its workplace include day cleaning (with heightened frequency and protocols) and touch free restrooms.

The vast majority of Vari’s 350 employees have now returned to working in the office. And the work they’ve one on their own facility has informed the services Vari is now providing to its facility and real estate clients.

Evolving Needs For The Office

Whether you’ve welcomed back building occupants, or are currently working toward that reintroduction, the industry resources available are plentiful. With those in hand and speaking to facility management peers, you will play an important role in navigating your organization’s actions in the new workplace.

facility executivesCosgrove is Editor-in-Chief of Facility Executive magazine. She can be reached by email at

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  1. Hey Anne, These workplace setups are Very useful and informative. I really like your blog. Thanks for sharing!

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