Several weeks ago, my colleague Renee Murphy and I hosted a complimentary webinar for those in local, state, and federal government responsible for planning their agency’s return-to-work protocols. We had hundreds attend the webinar, and they asked dozens of questions before, during, and after.

I wanted to share some of the most common questions and our answers for the benefit of everyone across industries planning the details of their return-to-work strategy.


Q: What are the current guidelines for social distancing in an office setting? Is it 13 feet, or is it six feet?

A: The recommended guideline for social distancing continues to be six feet. This means for many organizations, depending on the square footage of your facilities and the distance between desks/cubicles, you’ll have to bring employees back to work in shifts. You’ll also have to determine the maximum occupancy for conference rooms. For many conference rooms, this could mean 50% less capacity. For example, a conference room designed for 4–6 individuals must now be limited to 2–3 people. But this still depends on the exact configuration of the room. In addition, in the US, federal guidelines prohibit meetings of 10 or more individuals.


Q: For open offices where workers are sitting in close proximity, do you suggest maintaining social distancing and keeping an alternative work plan? If so, for how long before this restriction can relax?

A: Similar to our response above, organizations will need to come up with alternative work plans for employees that sit in close proximity in order to maintain six feet of distance. This can include bringing employees back to work in stages but also having them work in shifts. For example, there is a shift that works in the office Mondays and Tuesdays but then works remotely the rest of the week. By reducing the number of individuals in the office, organizations can reconfigure work spaces and desks to increase physical distance between individuals or develop approaches in which employees sit at every other desk. Until a vaccine is widely available, there is sufficient community immunity, or government efforts at testing, tracing, and isolation dramatically reduce infection rates, organizations should expect to have to maintain many of these pandemic management protocols.


Q: How should we consider controlling external forces or behaviors outside the workplace (i.e., use of public transportation) to follow similar required safety precautions?

A: Journey mapping for your employees and customers needs to start from the moment they leave their home. For example, for employees, are there ways to enable greater parking options or biking options so that people can avoid public transport? Organizations should also consider altering shifts so employees can travel during nonpeak times and continue to support flexible work options so that employees can both work from home and the office to reduce risk. We’ve seen some employers in the private sector also offer subsidies for parking/tolls so employees can drive to work and avoid public transportation. This might not be possible in large urban centers, but for offices on the edges or outskirts of urban areas, asking employees to drive to work is an option.


Q: Where does contact tracing by personal device (mobile phone, etc.) fit into the best practices for easing the restrictions?

A: Governments at a state and local level are currently considering contact tracing approaches and solutions as a matter of public policy. In countries like Singapore and South Korea, extensive testing coupled with contact tracing and isolation have proven effective at containing the spread of the virus.

In addition, as part of their commitment to creating a safe workplace and ensuring the health of employees, individual organizations are considering the deployment of their own contact tracing solutions. These solutions would enable employers to contact employees who had contact with an infected individual. When considering these organizational-level solutions, it’s important to select solutions that preserve the anonymity of employees as much as possible — many track locations but limit location tracking to the organization’s facilities and use a separate employee identifier. Employees’ identity and location data are pseudoanonymous until it’s necessary to identify and notify employees who have been working in close proximity with a coworker infected with COVID-19. The data is then periodically erased. As with any technology, when it comes to privacy, we recommend that organizations define strict limitations on its use, collect minimal data, protect anonymity as best as you can, and keep data for the shortest period possible.


Q: Personal protective equipment (PPE) is both a challenge to source and to enforce individuals to wear. Do you have insight into how other agencies and departments are sourcing PPE equipment? Are there certain incentives we should provide to employees to wear PPE in the workplace? Who is ultimately responsible for cleaning individual areas in the workplace and shared residences (individuals such as tenants and employees or cleaning companies)?

A: There has been a shortage of N95 respirator masks and surgical masks; however, these are not the type of masks that organizations outside of settings such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, and clinical labs are currently considering. For the typical government agency or other organization, simple cloth masks and face coverings are suitable. The goal with cloth masks is to help slow the overall spread of the virus, even if they aren’t as effective as N95 or surgical masks. Some organizations are working closely with local suppliers to source cloth masks. In addition, employees can make their own or source their own. The CDC offers good guidance for making cloth masks. To help incentivize employees to wear masks, organizations are organizing design contests. Organizations are also taking a balanced approach to the mask requirements, meaning they require that employees wear them whenever they are not able to guarantee appropriate social distancing. So you can take your mask off at your desk that is six feet away from other desks, but if you get up from your desk, you have to wear your mask.


Q: Are there any recommendations for installing larger partitions in areas that are now open spaces to allow for better social distancing (as in the case of call centers or large claims processing centers)?

A: Manufacturers have installed plastic partitions between workers, but this is in addition to taping the floor at six-foot intervals as a visible reminder to help workers keep the required distance. We’ve also seen essential employers, such as grocers, pharmacies, etc., install plastic partitions to protect checkout clerks and other employees and to help maintain social distancing between employees and customers. However, organizations should not use them as an alternative to social distancing. They should only use them to help enforce and promote social distancing. Crowded call centers and claims processing centers where employees sit in close proximity to each other for extended periods of time in rooms with poor ventilation have been the source of significant outbreaks in multiple regions. Ideally, most of these teams, like other functions, can work virtually and can continue to do so even as state and local governments ease restrictions on returning employees to work. If these employees must return to the office, redesign seating plans for social distancing, have employees work in shifts, ensure proper ventilation and other appropriate HVAC maintenance, etc.


Q: When employees are able to return to work, are there certain procedures or best practices we should consider implementing for common spaces such as elevator banks and kitchens?

A: When it comes to common spaces such as kitchens and break rooms, it’s best to close these areas off entirely for two reasons. First, it can be difficult to ensure that employees are maintaining appropriate social distancing in these areas, and second, in order to ensure they don’t become a source of infection, they would need to be cleaned on a very frequent basis — particularly the hard surfaces. If this is untenable for some organizations, they should institute some of the same protocols for kitchens and break rooms that local restaurants and eateries must follow as they reopen: appropriate signage recommending social distancing and best practices, taping off seating and other areas to ensure physical distancing, disinfecting all high-contact surfaces frequently, providing hand sanitizer at entrances/exits, putting limits on the number of people in these areas, mandating masks, etc. As local restrictions ease, these protocols can be eased, as well. For elevators, hand sanitizer should be placed at every elevator bank and cleaned/disinfected frequently, and the limits should be placed on the number of individuals who can use the elevator at once.


We continue to do research as organizations experience and learn from returning to work in real time. We’ll be writing about lessons learned in the near future, and in the meantime, my team and I are currently working on two follow-up reports — the essential technologies for pandemic management and the legal, regulatory, and business risks of your return-to-work strategies.


For a deeper dive, you can watch the full on-demand webinar at your convenience.