Returning to the Office in a Covid-19 World

May 27, 2020

In response to the Covid-19 crisis, Freeman French Freeman closed its physical doors in March and transitioned to all staff working remotely. For anyone outside of the IT department, shutting down the office was relatively easy: pack your bags, grab some files, and lock the door. 

But reopening the office presents a whole new set of challenges: What modifications to our floorplan will we need to make so that employees can return to work safely? What protocols do we need in place to comply with government regulations? What changes to our daily routines will we all need to make moving forward?

We have been thinking about these issues a lot lately, and have developed our own phased plan to return to the office starting in June. The lessons from a small office like ours should be relevant to many Vermont businesses, so please use our plan to inform yours. 

How We Are Reopening in a Covid-19 World

1. Communicate the policy

Perhaps the most important topic in times of change is good communication. Be sure you develop a clear policy on staff expectations and ensure everyone understands the message. At Freeman French Freeman, we developed a phased “Return to Work” plan that was shared with all employees and followed up with one-on-one conversations to go over any questions or concerns. We then used that feedback to refine our plan. We are adding signage throughout our building to remind employees and visitors to wear a mask, wash their hands, sanitize touched surfaces, and maintain physical distancing. The sign locations can be seen on the following diagrammatic plan.

2. Establish physical distancing rules

Our office is broken into design studios, each housing four to six workstations. Our return plan limits studios to 1-2 people, so employees are no closer than 10’ from one another when working at their desks. Each studio is developing its own schedule so that these ratios are maintained. We have found that simple floor plans like the one below are an effective way to communicate social distancing rules.

3. Continue to meet virtually

Conference rooms are made for gathering. Just not right now. Our own conference room can squeeze in 15-20 people if necessary. With social distancing guidelines, that number is reduced to two. This means that most meetings will continue to take place online, even as some employees return to the office. 

4. Limit and track office visitors

Visitor registration is standard practice at many larger institutions, where building security is paramount. We will be instituting our own visitor registration process as we reopen, but for a different reason: contact tracing in case of an outbreak. Keeping even a simple log of visitors can help slow the spread of Covid-19. By keeping that data handy, we can easily inform others should one of our own staff or visitors become ill. To help stop the spread of the virus in the first place, we are installing a simple “sneeze guard” at our front reception desk. We will also have a floor indicator representing where a visitor should stand to maintain a safe distance.

5. Develop protocols for cleaning and hygiene

Freeman French Freeman will provide hand sanitizer, gloves, and disinfecting wipes that will be used at common area surfaces, bathrooms, and doorknobs when touched. We are asking each employee to provide their own mask for use in any common areas or when moving throughout the building. All of our employees have also completed the online workplace training provided by the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

6. Improve air quality

Good air flow has always been critical to maintaining a healthy workplace. Now, with Covid-19, fresh air is even more important. We are following the CDC’s advice of opening windows to increase air movement. If you don’t have operable windows at your workplace, now may be the time to upgrade mechanical systems or add windows. Give us a call if you need help with this one.

7. Control kitchen and food access

While we considered closing our kitchen entirely to prevent the spread of germs, many of our staff rely on the kitchen and appliances daily for their lunch. Therefore, we will allow kitchen access to one person at a time, and will provide cleaning wipes so the areas can be sanitized between users. We won’t allow eating in the kitchen — that will need to be outside at our picnic table or at our desks.

8. There is still a lot we don’t know about Covid-19

Living through a global pandemic is a new thing for all of us. We are still learning a lot about the virus and the best ways to fight it in the places where we live and work. Our goal is to provide updates on best practices as we collectively figure this out. Below you can find links to the sites and advice we’ve found most useful. And as always, we encourage you to reach out with any questions you may have. We’re all in this together!

Resource Guides

Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration – VOSHA

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – Businesses & Workplaces

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – Parks & Recreation

American Institute of Architects (AIA) Reopening Guidelines

Design Strategies for Work and Life Following Covid-19 – HOK

10 Considerations for Transitioning Back to Work in a Post-Covid-19 World – Gensler

Boston Society for Architecture Covid-19 Resources

State of Vermont Buildings & General Services Covid-19 Recovery Resources


Signage – Creative Safety Supply

Signage – Brady

Signage – free download from Entro

Signage for Public Spaces – Arconas

Foot operated door opener – stepNpull


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