How SMEs Can Adapt for Social Distancing in the Office

It’s been a while now since the Government implemented lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, but the implications for the workplace are set to change for the long term—even when we return to the office.

John Ellmore Last updated on 12 November 2020.
How SMEs Can Adapt for Social Distancing in the Office

Many workers across the spectra of industries and sectors simply cannot work from home—or at least are severely limited if doing so—because of union contracts, infrastructure or the very nature of their role.

And when we do return to some semblance of normality, our workplaces are going to look very different, following the Government’s advice. Social distancing will be critically important, even when lockdown restrictions are eased somewhat.

Neil Pennell, Chair of the British Council for Offices Technical Affairs Committee, comments:

“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on how we work. While we do not know when we will all be back in the workplace, it’s important to start planning ahead.

“Adaptations can ensure that the risk of virus transmission is reduced and can accommodate our new reality, enabling us all to gain the real benefits that come from working in an office while ensuring we are safe."

What kind of changes might we expect to witness? We checked in with office design and business experts to get their views on the Government changes and how you might need to implement them.

Transport to the office

According to Intelligent Transport, a UK survey revealed that 62% of people wouldn’t feel comfortable using public transport after the coronavirus lockdown has ended. This means employers may need to consider additional storage solutions for bikes and parking spaces for motorbikes and cars. The British Council for Offices states:

“It is likely that more people will cycle to work to avoid using public transport, requiring expansion of facilities.”

When employees enter the building considerations should be made to implement rules on the number of employees that can use the lift at one time. Think about contactless entry to reduce the physical contact with door handles, locks etc. These spaces should also have hand sanitiser available on entry.

Scheduling shifts

We can expect to see an increase in flexible working and rotational shifts, to reduce work hours and decrease the number of employees on location at any given time. According to John Williams, Founder, SpaceInvader, comments:

“Two things are clear: home-working has worked well for a lot of employees and there will have to be lower occupational density in existing space for the foreseeable future to respect social distancing. Dividing up space by people and numbers is the easiest side of this.”

It’s also likely that more companies will implement staggered shifts, especially if work entails a certain number of customer service reps being onsite to handle particularly complex issues or other integral tasks. John Ellmore, Director and Co-founder at NerdWallet recommends that companies:

“Create a rota that allows half the team to work from home whilst the other half enjoy greater space on the office floor. This will ensure you do not have to drastically remodel the space, and will reduce footfall in communal areas.”


If multiple employees are required to perform similar tasks onsite, companies will need to consider rotating and pooling these tasks so some workers may operate remotely whilst others shoulder onsite responsibilities. Pooling may be achieved in tandem with flexible hours to further increase social distancing.

Meetings will take place virtually in all but the most exceptional of circumstances. Workers will therefore need access to laptops or other devices to conduct said rendezvous.

Employees should become conversant and comfortable with this software before committing to a meeting, especially with a client. If meetings need to go ahead you will need to put a process in place to ensure the meeting rooms meet Government guidelines. The British Council for Offices advises:

“The number of people allowed in a meeting room should be prominently displayed in order to prevent overcrowding. Table and chair layouts should discourage close proximity of attendees.

“Fresh air quantities should be enhanced to aid dilution of contaminants, and a ‘purge’ period of at least 15 minutes should be allowed between uses. This will also allow for all contact surfaces to be cleaned before the next room use.”

What’s more, it could be sensible to encourage no-visitor policies wherever possible, and allow only authorised personnel to be permitted onsite.

Workplace design

To ensure social distancing, reception areas, desks and workstations will be kept at least two metres apart. Furthermore, partitions may be used to raise the heights of cubicle walls—and if no such walls exist, dividers will create a barrier between employees to negate the spread of infectious droplets from coughs and sneezes. Dan Myers, Co-founder of Plastock, comments:

“Physical social distancing is still key, and this is reflected across office spaces as well as the consumer-facing industries, so we’re also working to supply offices with screens to be used between desks, as well as entry or reception spaces, to ensure employers can keep their teams safe and protected."

If a work area is especially cramped or congested, the company must do their utmost to maintain social distancing. This may entail alternate workspaces, which will complement the above mentioned practice of rotational shifts.

Of course, companies may be more limited in what changes can be made to their workplace if they operate in a coworking space, but they may liaise with the management of said workspace to see what transformations may be agreed upon and implemented. Cal Lee, Global Head of Workthere, comments:

“In the serviced office space market, the operators take care of this and we’re seeing them go the extra mile to ensure they’re spaces are as safe as possible, so businesses who are returning to the space can really focus on finding their feet again.

“This option is a particularly useful one for those businesses who don’t necessarily have the cash to invest in everything that is needed to return to an office and adhere to strict regulations.”


It's worth pointing out here that while perspex screens and masks may be a good solution for lots of different sectors, but they can result in people who are hard of hearing becoming isolated. Giles Tongue, CEO at ChatableApps comments:

“Business owners and employers will need to consider how to make the return to work as accessible as possible for everyone, but while introducing new measures such as dividing glass between desks, usage of facemasks, extra distance between colleagues and customers, they may also be adding communication obstacles for the hearing impaired.

“Action must be taken now in order to overcome these issues, whether using technological solutions like ChatableApps's universal hearing aid which can be used as a remote microphone to enable conversations over distance or physical solutions such as transparent face masks that allow people to lipread.”

Social customs

Despite human instinct, salutations will necessarily become non-physical. Handshakes, hugs and even fist-bumps must be avoided when greeting or saying goodbye to a colleague. More generally, awareness of the two-metre distance must be rigorously upheld and integrated into day-to-day social goings-on. Rachel Houghton, MD of Business Moves Group, comments:

“Some organisations may introduce physical markers to keep staff 2m apart; others may issue masks and visors. Some employers may experiment with segregated shifts and staggered breaks, whereas others will opt for thermal screening, taking workers' temperatures as and when they arrive.

“There will be businesses that invest in technology, such as sensors for doors and other touchpoints, to reduce tactile contact. While there are businesses considering using social distancing marshals to ensure the rules are being followed, others are thinking of implementing a monetary bonus for good behaviour.”

Food preparation

Encourage employees to keep food preparation to a minimum. John Ellmore, Director and Co-founder at NerdWallet comments:

“Bring in your own water bottle to refill, and keep the same coffee cup for the entire day (or week!). If you use the kitchen, take responsibility and clean as you go. Use antibacterial wipes after use, and do not leave any mess for others to clean up.”

The workplace will change

Social distancing will inevitably impact on an organisation’s culture, as well as on employee productivity and engagement. However, SMEs could be uniquely positioned to react to these changes and quickly implement these changes. Cal Lee, Global Head of Workthere, comments:

“One thing this has highlighted is the resilience and flexibility of the SME workforce, which will absolutely come into play as plans for returning to offices are drawn up.”

Coronavirus business support

Coronavirus business support and business loans are out there and, by taking preemptive steps to address potential obstacles by enabling managers to handle employee needs and developing a strong workforce communication plan, maladaptive effects of office changes may be minimised—or even negated entirely.

Disclaimer: This is not Government advice and NerdWallet is only sharing expert views on what the office of the future may look like. We are not advising people to return to the office when it is unsafe to do so.

About the author:

John Ellmore is a director of NerdWallet UK and is a company spokesperson for consumer finance issues. John is committed to providing clear, accurate and transparent financial information. Read more

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