Gartner Research

Maintaining Physical Safety in the Workplace

Published: 04 May 2020


As organizations start to reopen the workplace, HR leaders are responsible for communicating the return-to-work plans to employees. This article outlines the physical workplace modifications to consider so HR leaders are informed and prepared to communicate these protocols to employees.

Once the pandemic threat of COVID-19 passes, employees will return to work but they will not go back to the old normal. Most organizations will use a cross-functional committee to make the return to work decision, with HR involved in decision making at 82% of organizations.[1] Other key stakeholders involved in this decision include the CEO, Finance, Real Estate, Legal and business unit leaders. Once this decision is made, Real Estate and Security will be responsible for modifying the physical workplace to ensure it is safe for employees.

A recent survey showed that 58% of HR leaders believe their most critical role in the return to work is communicating the strategy to employees.[1] The role of the CHRO and other HR leaders will be to communicate guidance and new safety protocols to employees. This article outlines the physical workplace modifications the organization will make so HR leaders are informed and prepared to communicate these protocols to employees.

As organizations prepare for the return to work, one thing is very clear: social distancing will be a workplace reality for an extended period. More than 80% of real estate leaders project 12-18 months (or more) of social distancing in the workplace.[2]The length of time it will take to return to workplace conditions before the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to vary by region.

Organizations should consult with national, state, and local officials to determine whether and how many employees can legally return to work. Then, organizations will need to calculate the maximum number of people who can be in the workplace while maintaining social distancing and use that information to decide what the physical workplace will look like.

1. Determine the capacity of “chokepoints” in the workplace. Spaces that experience spikes in use over the course of a typical day can become chokepoints when trying to maintain social distance. For example, consider a building’s elevator capacity — the number of people the elevators can carry per hour. If only 1-2 people can ride the elevator in order to maintain social distance, capacity will be significantly reduced. For high-rise buildings, elevator capacity at peak times could limit the number of people who return to the office. Organizations may need to stagger the work hours of employees returning to the work based on elevator capacity. Other chokepoints that could limit the number of people who return to a physical workplace include the number of parking spaces, bathroom stalls, or workstation capacity.

Identify the chokepoints for each space and study the building floor plans to determine how many employees each chokepoint can accommodate. Use this analysis to determine how many employees can be in the workplace at any given time while maintaining social distance.

2. Plan for a staggered return. Once the capacity for a space is known, organizations should build scenarios for the return to work. For most, it will be impossible to transition all employees from remote working back to the workplace at one time while maintaining social distancing. Over three-fourths of organizations plan to stagger the return of employees to ensure smooth transition back to the workplace [1].

Social distancing can only be upheld by staggering the return — having some office workers remain remote while others return to work. There are many ways to stagger the return to work. Some are assigning a small segment of employees to return on a full-time basis in the first “wave”, with more employees to be added as conditions gradually return to a new normal. Others are bringing more people back sooner by dividing employees into groups and staggering the times each group can come into the workplace. The staggering strategy depends on the work and collaborative needs of employees.

Below are three ways organizations can divide time between groups:

  • Daily staggering — Open the workplace for 12 hours a day, with two six-hour shifts per day. Assign each group to one of the two shifts.

  • Weekly staggering — Assign each group a few days per week during which they can come into the workplace.

  • Monthly staggering — Allow groups to return to the workplace on a two-weeks on/two-weeks off rotation schedule.

3. Use data that informs a workplace strategy to determine workplace safety protocols. Real estate uses data to determine the organization’s workplace strategy and design. Many of these same data methods can be used when “redesigning” the workplace to meet safety protocols. This includes the following:

  • Attendance data — Badge systems tracked the frequency with which employees came to the office prior to COVID-19. This data will help HR and business unit leaders determine how many employees typically come into work and when. Legal should help determine whether individual or aggregate attendance data can be shared.

  • Utilization data — Walk-through or tracking technologies collect data that show the frequency with which spaces are used and illustrates how employees flow through space. Locations where utilization tends to peak are chokepoints to manage.

  • Survey data — Conduct employee surveys as part of the return to work strategy to gauge their preferences regarding remaining remote, where possible. Surveys can help identify how many employees organizations can expect to return to work.

Over the past 10+ years, workplaces, especially offices, have been transforming to enable new ways of working. Open plans, smaller workstations, shared seating, and huddle spaces for impromptu meetings are a few examples of workplace changes that enable more flexibility in terms of space to work. These same workplace strategies have made spaces denser, too; a “feature” that is now somewhat problematic in a time where social distancing is the priority.

These spaces should be modified so that social distancing guidelines can be upheld. Organizations should consider the following changes:

  • Reconfigure workstations to enable social distancing. This can be done easily by removing some chairs and monitors to increase spacing between desks. Shared seating, combined with staggered return, can also help reduce employee density in the workplace.

  • Restrict use of communal spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained. Use of spaces such as small huddle rooms, meeting rooms, scrum spaces, kitchen, cafeterias, and gyms will all change when employees return to work. Meeting spaces can be repurposed as one person offices. Communal amenities, such as gyms, may close in the short run. Cafeterias will need to be adapted to improve safety. This means that salad bars and self-serve stations will likely close, and plexiglass partitions may need to be installed for other food services.

  • Create and enforce protocols for maintaining cleanliness of shared workstations. If clean desk protocols can be enforced — meaning the business implements a clean desk policy, provides wipes for every shared desk, and requires employees to wipe down desks whenever they sit down and leave the space — then shared desks can be among the cleanest spaces.

  • Use wayfinding, signage, and other visual cues to encourage social distancing. Provide employees with visual cues that help define 6 feet (2 meter) distances, such as marking a 6 feet (2 meter) grid on the canteen floor using duct tape, or marking off a 6’ radius around each workstation chair. Arrows on the floor can designate a one-way flow for foot-traffic and prevent employees from bumping into each other.

Recommended by the Authors

As organizations reopen their physical locations and get back to “normal,” HR leaders will need to collaborate to re-open in a way that promotes health and safety to the workforce and consumer. This research outlines several principles to guide decision making around return to workplace plans.

Use the guidance and templates in this tool to build a framework for a reopening the workplace playbook, which supports the cross-functional planning initiatives for employees to return to work.

HR leaders can use this research to benchmark how organizations will decide to reopen offices as well as how the prevalence of remote work will change after the COVID-19 crisis ends.


[1] Gartner Managing Through Disruption Benchmarking Against Your Peers Webinar Poll (21 April 2020).

[2] Gartner COVID-19 Webinar Poll of Real Estate Executives (31 March 2020).


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