At the time of writing, people were still being asked to keep two metres apart – although the Prime Minister was coming under increasing pressure to reduce this to one metre. For those who are opening their High Street doors to employees, clients and walk-in business, the challenge is to keep up with change.
When social distancing rules are relaxed, staff will be able to sit closer to each other, so agents may not want to make substantial changes to their branches just yet. Harry Simons, MPL Interiors.
“With guidelines constantly under review, an office needs to be able to respond quickly,” says MPL Interiors’ Harry Simons. “If and when social distancing rules are relaxed, staff will be able to sit closer to each other and interact with customers easier. Because of this, agents may not want to make substantial or permanent changes to their branches just yet.”
While cluster-style desks have been popular for some time – with employees sitting in teams within close proximity – these examples can fall foul of current social distancing. Hot desking is also off limits and this should be a consideration among agents who may implement a rota or shift system to minimize the number of bodies in branch.
Shopfitters are, however, coming to the rescue by working with agents to modify current desk set ups with transparent acrylic screens to effectively partition people off from one another – a good option if the office footprint doesn’t allow for a total layout rethink.
“We have seen clients ‘block out’ every other workstation with signage, so staff are not sitting next to or opposite each other. Our acrylic screens, which sit between desks – both on the sides and fronts – to enclose each staff member, are a great alternative,” comments Harry.
MPL is also re-planning some offices to show reduced desk numbers. “We can map out what can be achieved on paper without physically shifting any furniture,” says Harry. He does add that individual desks are easier to manage in the current climate, “as long as everyone has a set desk and chair only they use, and the desks are spaced apart correctly or screened off.”
How to handle reception areas
“Both the branch team and visitors to the office need to feel comfortable that the office environment does not present a COVID-19 hazard – and that is today’s immediate challenge,” says Jonathan Edwards at Excite Interiors. He says part of the answer is to reduce staff on site to an absolute minimum by allowing them to work from home, as in lockdown. Thus you minimise the number of workstations to allow social distancing.
If your pre-COVID reception area was rarely used, now may be the time to claim this back as desk space. It is sensible to store any sofas or fabric-covered seats and opt for a couple of easy-to-disinfect plastic chairs for pre-arranged appointments with clients. Wall-mounted bar areas with perching stools are another option – the stools can be spaced out or even fixed to the floor a set width apart, and the surface can double as a work station, if required.
Jonathan Edwards says to provide a quote to plan your office, they’d need photos of the office interior, desk quantity, desk sizes and a dimensioned sketch of the office, showing the entrance door. There’s a world shortage of acrylic for screens, he says, but Excite has a solution, and can supply in seven to ten working days from order. “Until prevention is available, the need for screening will exist,” Jonathan predicts.
HOW TO RE-PLAN YOUR OFFICE
It is amazing what is possible when you restructure of your office’s layout. It is best to work with a professional shopfitter to maximize your space, stay within health and safety rules, and future proof your workplace. You should:
- Take professional advice – accurate plans drawn up by experienced specialists – 2D layouts and 3D visuals – will ensure you get it right and avoid costly mistakes.
- Think about social distancing now and in the future – don’t make any drastic changes, as how close we can work together may change in the coming weeks and months.
- Be mindful of supplies – any reconfiguration of space needs to be done in tandem with power, data and light supplies to a ensure safe, practical and comfortable working environment.
- Retain flexibility – choose modular desks and reception seating as these options can be grouped together or isolated, as necessary.
- Create zones – you can easily denote public and private areas in your office with different floor coverings. Wood-effect vinyl or laminate in your front-of-house is practical and easily marked up with tape or self-adhesive distancing ‘spots’.
- Think about furniture mobility – storage units and fi ling cabinets on wheels will allow you to re-plan your layout without much eff ort, while it’s possible to commission drop-down or folding desks that allow space to be freed quickly.
Sign of the times
Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes. At the start of lockdown, the experts said fatigue would be an issue; people will lose sight of the importance of new social rules, while others may slip back into old habits. Hygiene and distancing reminders are important for staff and clients.
Kremer Signs has introduced a ‘Back to Work’ pack containing ‘social distancing’ options, including pavement signs, floor graphics, window boards, banners, desk shields… Tom Cummuskey, Kremer Signs.
Tom Cummuskey at Kremer Signs thinks social distancing will be part of our daily routine for the foreseeable future, with signage essential for safe reopening. “Kremer Signs has introduced a ‘Back to Work’ pack to help the property sector get back on its feet on the High Street,” says Tom. “The pack contains various ‘social distancing’ options, including pavement signs, floor graphics, window boards, bollard covers and banners, as well as desk shields, to ensure a safe working environment for staff and customers.”
Ensuring safety behind the scenes
Estate agent offices are not generally known for their spacious proportions and some of the tightest areas are in the back office, which can present problems. Communal kitchens are ‘high touch’ areas – think kettles, drawer handles and tea caddies – as are cloakroom facilities but an agent needs to balance risk with wellbeing and what is physically possible.
Encouraging staff to bring in their own cutlery and cups, or treating the team to a round of take-out coffees every day, is sensible, as is prohibiting clients from using WCs and not making visitors a drink.
IN-BRANCH ADVICE FOR AGENTS
The British Retail Consortium has recently released a set of guidelines, providing a list of recommendations for the safe re-opening of stores, shops and offices. Those applicable to agency branches include:
- Limiting the number of customers in a branch at any time
- Using clear signage throughout
- Using floor markings to comply with incumbent social distancing advice
- Considering one-way systems using floor markings and signage
- Scheduling deliveries and considering non-contact stock deliveries
- Prominently displaying hand hygiene and social distancing notices
Hands on, hands off
The process of logistically getting into an agent’s office currently presents a problem. Automatically-opening doors aren’t practical when it comes to security, or controlling the number and nature of visitors, so agents are left with traditional push/pull doors.
A good first port-of-call is a sanitization station – to disinfect hands after all visitors have touched a door handle and before they leave again. Motion sensor or foot-activated sanitization stations are now available, in both free-standing and wall-mounted options. Failing that, a smart occasional table with a pump dispenser will put customers at ease.
Other easy fixes for high-touch hotspots include motion detector lights that remove the need for switches, sensor-operated liquid soap dispensers and hand driers to replace fabric towels in cloakrooms.
There are, however, instances when touching is a good thing – perhaps if clients are disinclined to enter a branch. Steve Blackaller at InTouch Display has seen his touch screen usage statistics reflect healthy activity during office hours, even since the easing of lockdown. “Our touch screens are providing a great medium by which to search an agent’s listings, should prospective customers not wish to enter an office environment,” says Steve. “There are still a good number of weekly users for the touch screens and we’ve taken multiple orders since the beginning of June.”
Our touch screens are providing a great medium by which to search an agent’s listings, should prospective customers not wish to enter an office environment. Steve Blackaller, InTouch Display.
Steve is programming slides within the display carousel advising users to take precautions while operating the screens – encouraging the wearing gloves and washing hands, or using hand sanitizer directly after. “Our touch screens are no different to a self-service checkout or cash machine but we can produce non-touch versions, if required,” concludes Steve.