How will SMEs run their offices in a post-pandemic world?

The world is heading back to the office, but not back to normal. For SMEs looking to provide safe spaces for their employees in a post-isolation world, the big changes have only just begun.

A survey from research software company Qualtrics has found two-thirds of workers are uncomfortable heading back to the office – no matter the age bracket – and only about half say a vaccine or a viable treatment would make them feel safe upon their return.

Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in March, we’ve seen a rapid and previously unimaginable shift towards working remotely, and a massive surge in the use of video conferencing platforms. But Alex Abell, Head of Direct Property at APN Property Group, warns against the assumption that working from home is here to stay.

“We have to take a realistic approach,” Alex says. “The coronavirus has demonstrated that working from home is a viable short-term solution, but people are social creatures. We’re hearing from our clients that the isolation of remote work is taking its toll on their teams – virtual communication is one thing, but you just can’t build the same culture and come together to solve problems without that face-to-face connection.”

Instead of abandoning the office altogether, Alex says we’re likely to see a shift towards more flexible workspaces. And even in Australia and New Zealand, where efforts to flatten the curve and contain the coronavirus have been extremely effective, that means virus-proofing offices against future outbreaks.

“Hygiene has to be at the heart of how offices are run,” Alex says. “As employees return to the workplace, employers will need to reassure them that cleanliness is a priority.

“They can do that by increasing cleaning rotations, with a particular focus on high-touch surfaces like desks, sinks, countertops, toilets, doorknobs and elevator buttons; cleaning air conditioners and replacing air filters regularly; and placing sanitation stations throughout the office where people can access hand sanitiser.

“Similarly, oiled wood and other porous surfaces are likely to be avoided in favour of antimicrobial materials and surfaces that can withstand heavy cleaning.”

“People are social creatures. We’re hearing from our clients that the isolation of remote work is taking its toll on their teams.”
– Alex Abell

Assigned desks filled with employees’ personal items could also be a thing of the past.

“Private desks that are filled with photo frames and stacks of papers can be a problem for cleaners to access, so they become a hygiene liability,” Alex explains. “We’re going to see a preference for open desks and workstations that are free of personal items and can be thoroughly sanitised between shifts.”

In the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine, physical distancing continues to be a priority. This can be implemented through both ‘spatial distancing’ (separating people in space) and ‘temporal distancing’ (separating people in time).

Spatial distancing can be achieved through strict limits on the number of people who can share a room, from the lift to the boardroom, and by ensuring that employees are kept at least 1.5 metres apart from each other at all times.

“Signs and markings should also be deployed around the office, in a similar fashion to what we’ve seen in supermarkets, to create a ‘one-way’ flow for walking around the workspace and minimising the risk of transmission,” Alex says.

Temporal distancing, on the other hand, can be achieved by implementing staggered start times in a bid to limit overcrowding and avoid public transport peaks. Businesses lacking the office space to seat their employees at appropriate distances from each other may need to consider dividing their workforces and relying on temporal distancing instead, with groups coming into the office and working from home on alternating days, or following a seven-day roster.

Australia has been fortunate to avoid the worst of the pandemic so far, but there’s no going back to life before the virus. Business owners will need to place more of an emphasis on health and hygiene than ever before, and be proactive in protecting their most precious resource – their people.


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