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While the pandemic may seem a distant memory to many businesses, variants of COVID-19 continue to emerge and other infectious diseases pose a continuing threat to health and well-being in the office. 

That makes it important to implement return-to-work guidelines, maintain vigilance and take practical measures to minimize the risk of infection spreading, as well as respond effectively if an outbreak occurs. The rigorous procedures that were set in place during the pandemic can form the basis of an action plan for monitoring health, reducing risk and responding, so it’s important to update these procedures according to new COVID-19 safety regulations. 

As well as implementing the right policies and procedures, it’s also important to use technology to manage and monitor access to buildings and different areas of the office.

This article provides COVID-19 office guidelines for employees, office protocols for COVID-19 and office reopening guidelines. Also included are policies and procedures that can help maintain a healthy working environment, and the technology solutions that can reduce risk while maintaining the highest level of security.

Understanding changing employee attitudes when considering return to workplace guidelines

Although pandemic restrictions are no longer in place in most workplaces, safety concerns still remain for employees. That makes it essential for everyone in the office to understand and comply with COVID-19 office guidelines and protocols.

According to a 2021 study by Welbot, 80% of respondents stated that fear of contracting COVID-19 was their main concern when returning and commuting to the office. One of the major outcomes of the pandemic was the realization that working from home was a practical and popular solution for many employees, and employers found that productivity remained at acceptable levels with flexible schedules. 

Offering flexible work methods can also improve productivity. A number of recent studies back up this claim, with productivity increasing between 6 – 8% on average for employees offered remote or hybrid work models. Many employees liberated from long commutes and travel have found more efficient ways to spend that time, enjoyed greater flexibility in balancing their personal and professional lives, and preferred to work from home rather than the office at least one day per week.

As a result, many businesses have adopted a hybrid working model, allowing employees to set their own working arrangements. Some employees prefer to return to the office full-time, while others work full-time at home or come to the office periodically for specific reasons, such as meetings. 

Of people who can work from home, more than 50% of employees in this survey from the Stanford Institute of Economic Policy Research would prefer to continue working from home at least a few days of the week.

Returning to the office with COVID-19 protocols

The changing pattern of work and the attitudes of employees and employers are changing the nature and scope of the workplace. Despite the preference for home or hybrid working, the office still has an essential role.

However, as COVID-19 office reopening continues and employees return to a very different version of a workspace they occupied prior to the pandemic, it has become clear that effective space planning, management and modification will be essential as part of new COVID-19 office protocols to optimize space utilization and provide the right working environment for the new work model. 

While opinions vary on the future role and value of the office, most agree that the office is here to stay, but in a different form. Property experts believe that while the initial view in the industry was that demand for office space would shrink, in reality, many businesses find they need more space to comply with social distancing and other return-to-work guidelines and employee preferences. 

The aim is to create a safe, healthy employee-centric working environment that will support in-person, hybrid and remote work. According to research by Gensler, businesses will encourage 20% to 80% of their staff to return to the office over time, but accept that working from home will remain a reality for many.

This new pattern of usage is likely to change as reopening continues, so flexible worksites are important. Businesses should focus on creating a chameleon workspace, an office that adapts easily to new regulations and becomes a collaborative hub. It would have more huddle spaces for small ad-hoc meetings and larger meeting rooms where groups can collaborate safely while following the COVID-19 office reopening guidelines for geometry, density and division.

The new normal’ workplace guidelines for employees

The changing pattern of work means that many workplaces no longer have to accommodate fixed numbers of employees, but must be flexible enough to adapt to changing occupancy levels. 

This change has affected both occupancy levels and office layouts. Because numbers of employees on-site vary daily, desk space must be available for both full-time and visiting employees. A desk booking system can ensure that accommodation matches occupancy. 

During the pandemic, office layouts changed in response to social distancing requirements, with fixed distances between desks in open plan offices and limits on the number of desks in a specific space. However, with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, many businesses have seen a move away from open-plan layouts, as employees look for privacy or a quieter working environment. 

As a result, the structure, scope and nature of the work environment is changing, bringing together remote and office-based workers in a collaborative environment. The challenge is to reimagine the traditional office and all its spaces to create a safe and healthy environment that can dynamically adapt to changing patterns of usage.

The entire work environment, including lobbies, elevators, executive briefing centers and event areas, must become a single safe space to meet COVID-19 office protocols. Offices must also adapt to provide COVID-19 compliant break rooms and meeting rooms. Here, sensors, touchless technology and high levels of automation allow controlled interaction, access and movement. The new environment will leverage sensors for checking temperatures and temperature control, monitoring flow and movement, and contact tracing using touchless technology and automation to minimize risk.

Controlling and monitoring building access

While the flexible office is designed to accommodate changing numbers of employees, it’s essential to maintain numbers below the safe capacity. Commercial access control systems play an important role here by providing real-time data on the numbers of employees on-site at any time.

Access control systems at building entrances manage entry by enforcing the use of valid credentials. While all employees are entitled to hold the same valid credentials, it may be important to differentiate the credentials of office-based and hybrid employees. 

By integrating the access control systems with capacity management systems, security teams can monitor capacity levels and take measures to control access if numbers become critical. An integrated solution also makes it easier for office managers to schedule time in the office for remote employees on a day-to-day basis. 

Access control is essential, but it also presents a risk. Infectious diseases like COVID-19 can spread through touch, so eliminating as many touch points as possible is important. Access control systems offer three types of touchless access, which can be used to minimize the risk of spreading infection through contact-based systems, such as card readers or touchpads: 

  • Proximity solutions. There are three types of proximity solutions that use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to capture users’ credentials. Key card entry systems with RFID technology allow users to present credentials without swiping when they are close to a reader, making them a simple, convenient form of access for high-traffic areas. Smart cards or smart fobs can be issued to users who need to access restricted areas. Security teams can incorporate additional unique credentials, which increases security while retaining convenience. 
  • Mobile solutions. Users download an app to their smartphone or other mobile device. The app includes a feature to unlock a door, which users activate when they wish to gain access. Security teams can issue credentials through apps to authorized users, as well as temporary or one-off access credentials to specific areas for visitors, contractors or service staff. Given the wide availability of smartphones, mobile credential solutions are a popular and convenient credential. 
  • Biometric solutions. Biometric solutions, such as iris scanning, as well as voice and facial recognition can be used to manage access to higher-security areas and eliminate the risk of identity theft. Biometric solutions can be used in conjunction with other credentials for the highest levels of security.

Minimizing contact and social distancing measures

One of the most important COVID-19 office and return to work guidelines for employees was to minimize unnecessary contact. Touchless access technologies can be used throughout the building and individual offices to reduce contact. Access control systems at office entrances or at doors to secure restricted areas, such as conference and meeting rooms, should incorporate contactless entry. 

Meeting room management systems improve the flow of meeting spaces and monitor usage. By synchronizing the management system with employees’ calendar, internal meeting schedules and planned customer visits, property managers gain full visibility of space availability and can handle booking more efficiently.

Desk management software is essential for hybrid offices, where demand for workspaces varies from day to day. Employees can book workspaces in advance for planned visits or search for vacant desks if they have to make an ad-hoc visit. Data from the software can be used to analyze usage and plan capacity to optimize the use of office space. 

One of the critical, high-risk areas is elevator doors and controls. In smaller elevators with confined space, it is important to maintain restrictions on the number of people boarding an elevator. Elevator buttons pose an additional risk. Where possible, replacing buttons with a touchless elevator system will reduce the risk. User credentials should be customized to include elevator access to certain floors to reduce unnecessary use of the elevator and to maintain an effective level of security.

Controlling environmental conditions

While touchless access control systems reduce the risk of infection by contact, it’s also important to maintain a safe environment in the office. 

The viruses that cause COVID-19 and other infectious diseases spread between people more readily indoors than in outdoor areas. Improving ventilation is an essential task that can be used as part of a strategy to reduce the concentration of viral particles in indoor air and the risk of virus transmission. A well-maintained ventilation system is particularly important in any indoor workplace setting. When it works properly, ventilation is an important control measure to limit the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. 

Key measures include ensuring that heating, ventilation systems and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are operating in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and design specifications. It is also important to conduct all regularly scheduled inspections and maintenance procedures, as well as maximize natural ventilation in buildings without HVAC systems by opening windows or doors when conditions allow. 

Smart office technology can take this process a stage further by monitoring and automating the control of environmental elements that impact the quality of the workplace, from lighting to heating and air conditioning, to ensure a safe, secure workplace. 

A smart HVAC system is a common component of a smart building system that automates the control of heating and air conditioning systems, adjusting temperatures in line with occupancy levels and weather forecasts, reducing energy costs and ensuring a comfortable working environment.

Environmental sensors monitor air-based and sensory changes, such as levels of carbon monoxide, humidity or particle pollution within the workplace. This helps maintain a healthy work environment, as well as reduce the risk of absence through illness.

Smart lighting solutions use sensors to turn lights on or off based on occupancy. As well as controlling the level of lighting, automation also minimizes the reduction of transmission by contact. Lighting controls can be integrated with automated blinds to maximize levels of natural light and reduce lighting costs. Daylight sensors adjust the dimming of the lights to match the required level of light at different times of the day.

Planning a safer office with COVID-19 and return to workplace guidelines in mind

Making the transition to a safe hybrid workplace and retaining the ability to adapt requires careful office space planning. With technology, offices can maintain a high level of agility by using data, insight and control to enable faster, more accurate decision-making when it comes to implementing changes in line with new safety policies.

Data on space usage can be collected by monitoring access control systems or from room booking systems to enable better facilities planning. However, it’s essential to consolidate multiple monitoring and control systems to get a single view. 

The rich data available helps operators understand the entire work environment and how it is used. Unlike normal limited data on occupancy and energy usage, data from smart and integrated technology can utilize feeds from security and access control systems to provide insight into employees’ behavior in a building, including when they are using the office, how they move around and how much time they spend in different spaces.

Checklist for adapting office return to work and COVID-19 protocols

While the strict COVID-19 office protocols for employees are no longer in place, it’s useful to keep procedures updated, so that they can be implemented quickly in the event of a future outbreak. 

These are some of the key elements and COVID-19 reminders for employees that are returning to in-person work and should be included in workplace policies:

Education, training and wellness for COVID-19 office safety

  • Educate your employees about the ongoing risk of infection. Provide briefings to employees on any current risks, including signs and symptoms of COVID-19 or other infectious diseases per CDC guidelines.
  • Remind employees about safety precautions, good hygiene and preventive measures. 
  • Monitor workplace health regularly and consider requiring wellness verification forms for on-site employees if infection levels are high to prevent spread. 
  • Frequently disinfect high-touch surfaces or objects, such as door handles, phones, and shared workstations.

COVID-19 guidelines for office layout, technology and access

  • Follow sensible social distancing guidelines by reorganizing desks or workstations, or providing private spaces for employees. 
  • Determine capacity limits for each space and inform employees of occupancy limits. 
  • Ensure only employees with scheduled office hours can access the building by implementing smart access control management and desk booking software. 
  • Ensure hybrid or flex employees have the technology to collaborate effectively when working remotely, with secure and reliable access to file sharing and communication tools.
  • Conduct office building security assessments to ensure all workspaces are keeping a record of employee access for contact tracing efforts. 
  • Invest in cloud-based and remotely accessible building and security systems for flexible management. Look for functions like remote door unlock, mobile video monitoring and real-time notification systems.

Automating and enforcing office reopening protocols

  • Integrate access, commercial video surveillance and building management systems to enable remote operations for all locations. 
  • Consider investing in desk-booking software or apps that automatically integrate with employee credentials. 
  • Leverage mobile visitor management tools to limit guest interaction, while maintaining a system of record of visitor activity and improving guest experience. 
  • Set custom alerts for when video system heatmaps detect high occupancy or abnormal activity so building managers can respond accordingly.
  • Update your systems immediately to protect your facilities from any vulnerabilities. Systems that can facilitate automatic cloud updates can minimize downtime, and ensure your platforms are always up-to-date.

Following COVID-19 office protocols for a safer workplace

COVID-19 office reopening continues to progress, but it’s essential to maintain caution and have contingency plans in place to minimize risk and respond rapidly in the event of an outbreak of any infectious disease. 

While COVID-19 workplace guidelines for employees remain essential, it’s also important to use technologies, such as touchless entry systems and smart environmental controls to minimize risk and ensure a safe working environment.

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