Improving productivity in a time of social distancing

May 1, 2020

Social distancing reduces efficiency and productivity. Business and organisation leaders are looking for ways to recover and optimise productivity in these circumstances. Go beyond compliance to maximise safety and optimise productivity. Simon Ancliffe talks about solutions to the current challenges faced by businesses.

Improving productivity in a time of social distancing

We have heard that hot-desking will most probably be a thing of the past, lifts will need to be kept half empty and staff canteens could be closed indefinitely. Companies will need to keep 2 metre safety measures in place and potentially stagger work shifts and start/finish times to comply with social distancing measures expected to be put forward by the Government later this week. Every company in the UK with over five people will need to produce a risk assessment and keep it updated regularly.

So what do businesses need to do now and how can data and technology best support what safety and process measures need to be implemented?

1. Go beyond compliance to maximise safety and optimise productivity

Every organisation’s primary focus is to ensure the safety of their staff and visitors or customers. The first step is usually compliance with the local guidelines from government or an industry body, e.g. the UK Construction Leadership Council guidance.

However, even the best guidance doesn’t show in detail how the safety objectives can be achieved in your specific office, building or place environment.

We also know from our design and operations work on infrastructure and large assets, such as transport hubs and stadiums, that compliance with guidance is not usually sufficient to achieve high safety performance nor optimised for efficiency.  

Accordingly, we believe every organisation should pursue a bespoke approach that goes beyond 'do minimum' to achieve improvements in both safety and productivity.

2. Two components of social distancing

Social distancing can be considered to have two components: “static” and “dynamic” social distancing. Static social distancing includes people working while seated or standing and it is easier to consider; dynamic social distancing, when people are moving around, is more challenging. 

Consideration of design principles and procedures to achieve dynamic social distancing will achieve a better result for your school, workplace or any place where people visit.

It is straightforward to determine the number of desks that can be occupied to maintain static social distancing and easy for staff to implement. When people are moving around, it is more likely that social distancing will be compromised, even if temporarily. The more people there are in the workplace the exponentially harder it will be to avoid social distancing conflicts as more people move.

For example, when someone is walking through a corridor or up or down stairs, typically there will not be enough space to allow social distancing in two directions. The solution may be to implement one-way systems, partitioning and/or control the flow of people into the corridor. The longer the corridor and the more people using it the more likely that social distancing will be transgressed and here will be increased virus transmission unless people follow strict movement procedures.

In preparing to re-open your workplace, production line or site, you should consider the operation of circulation spaces and the flow of people through these and other spaces within the facility. 

3. Social distancing reduces productivity/area and the reduction will vary for different assets or their components

Reducing asset value: it is evident in share prices that the value of assets that rely on high people occupancy or people flow have reduced – airports, airlines, offices, stadiums and arenas to name a few, until new business models and operations have been developed or the challenges of Covid-19 have been addressed. Interestingly the variation in social distancing between countries (see Social Distancing guidelines around the world) may have implications for different asset values.

A next level effect is that the reduction in productivity/area changes between components of an asset: for example, many offices will be occupied at 20 or 30 percent of their previous capacity. However, lifts serving that office may only be operating at 10 percent of their previous practical or floorplate capacity (they are different), and in practice their stopping patterns will have to be changed. The “productivity” of the office floorplate and the lift will have decreased and by different amounts. This will in turn change the space requirement of each activity or building component involving the flow and occupancy of people.

The balance of spaces in a building or place will have to change to make the asset as productive as possible.

The challenge for asset owners and operators of long-life assets is whether to undertake that reallocation and redesign when the duration and impact of the ‘new normal’ is unknown. Clearly, flexibility is at a premium. This then lends itself to a change in business workflows and process as well as temporary layouts but very soon there will be some hard decisions about permanent changes to space allocation. In the longer term it may influence whether new design standards are needed – for example in metros and rail stations.

We can help you develop an integrated design-process-behaviour system solution for your asset to support what processes and procedures you need to implement in your business to adhere to safety measures and keep productivity to a maximum. Please contact us.