Returning to the workplace after lockdown

After nearly two months of lockdown, the euphoria building up within the city as we anticipate partial easing is tangible. We stopped moving, kept quiet, crouched down, and listened to see where the noise was coming from, and have ascertained some very useful information, which has enabled His Excellency the President to consider partial easing of the lockdown.

A very useful analogy to be applied in life moving on. Amid the euphoria, however, are any questions which don’t seem to have firm answers, and we are all trying as best as we can to look into the future and sketch a vague picture of what it will look like.

One thing that is certain, however, is that life as we knew it, will certainly not be the same again, at least not for the next 18 months - timeframe being given for the Covid-19 vaccine to become available.

My main area of focus today is our office workspace, and what that will look like post-lockdown, but still in-Covid. Working from home has been great and a new experience for many, but the office cannot be done away with completely. It will continue to remain an integral part of where we work, albeit a different office and work environment. Defining and agreeing the new policies, protocols and cleaning regimes is critical now, so businesses are prepared for the return and staff are reassured that the workplace will be safe.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is advising that social distancing (two metres apart) should continue as we return to the workplace, a model that is already being adopted in China. However, adapting office environments to best facilitate collaboration, whilst also ensuring safe working practices and limiting the risk of Covid-19 is a difficult challenge.

Knight Frank has developed a framework to provide an important first step for businesses to safeguard against the spread of coronavirus. We will need to adapt to a new normal, at least for the foreseeable future, which combines both the importance of collaboration, social interactions and conducting business whilst mitigating fear and protecting the workforce. So what does this mean for the office?

There are two categories of change that will need to occur in the workplace. Environmental changes include those mitigations that are not driven by behaviour such as increased airflow, changing AC filters or enhanced cleaning regimes. Behavioural changes, however, require the workforce to do things differently, such as applying strict clear desk policies to ensure workstations can be cleaned and social distancing respected within the workplace.

Environmental changes are easier and straightforward, but behavioural changes will take time to develop, with the help of training and, most importantly, communication.

With regards to behavioural changes, we need to evaluate the need for change with the areas you have the least control over. For example, building owners need to pay attention to the following:
- Building access: How will accessing the building by employees, visitors and vendors change during the re-population?
- Building common areas: How will common and shared spaces like receptions, elevators, amenity spaces, washrooms, canteen etc. be cleaned and maintained until things return to normal (post Covid-19)?

- Cleaning protocols for cleaning staff: Are cleaning staff trained on safety protocols and cleaning methods? Will they wear masks and protective gear while cleaning? Will they change gear between tenant spaces?

- Cleaning specifications: If you need additional cleaning services in your demise, how will those be provided?
-Air filtration: Will air filters be changed and will filter material be upgraded to higher filtration and efficiency?

With regards to occupancy capacities, we need to consider how to use space to accommodate the workforce in the office with distancing recommendations. Businesses are encouraged to develop an occupancy strategy. A comparison can then be drawn between the size and functions within an office and the number of people that are expected to be in any given office space.

This can then determine which areas can be used safely. Key areas of the office which will need to be evaluated and adapted include conference / boardrooms, meeting rooms, workstations, pantries, cafeterias etc. to name but a few.

We cannot underestimate the importance of a well-executed return to work protocol as this can make a huge difference in containing the spread of the virus or ramping up of cases within days. On April 26, Ghana announced 271 new cases in one day, a week after lifting lockdown. As we return to work, please let us continue to stop every now and again, be quiet, and trouble shoot where the problem areas could be, and address them quickly.

The writer is a chartered surveyor and managing director of Knight Frank Uganda.
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