The UX of office social distancing: getting back to work safely

As the easing of lockdown restrictions barrels ahead, businesses are keen to get things back to normal, but how can you safely get your employees back into the workplace… and do you even need to?

As the easing of lockdown restrictions barrels ahead, businesses are keen to get things back to normal, but how can you safely get your employees back into the workplace… and do you even need to?

Some offices that could not move their employees to home-working have continued to bring them in using social-distancing measures, and firms looking to re-open offices are thinking about following suit.

Some of these social distancing measures include:

  • Social bubbles: Employees’ desks are kept two meters apart and staff are put in ‘bubbles’ containing a handful of employees who you are allowed to interact with, so any infection can’t spread too far.
  • Staggered shifts: Shifts are staggered to keep as few people arriving and leaving at the same time as possible, and those entering or exiting are each allotted a different door to use.
  • Staggered breaks: Breaks are also being staggered to ensure there is little chance of staff being in close proximity in the coffee and canteen areas.
  • Traffic lights: Systems are being created to monitor occupancy in particular areas, such as bathrooms. People entering and leaving are counted using thermal cameras, infrared beams, pressure plates, motion sensors, and even manual switches. These are linked to audio alerts or traffic lights, whereby a limited number of employees are permitted inside the room before new arrivals are shown a red light or given an audio warning to keep clear.
  • Mobile apps: Apps and sensors are being used to keep distance between staff. Phones with the app or clip-on sensors vibrate when they get too close to each other, reminding people to move away.
  • Thermal cameras: These are being used to identify employees who have a high temperature. This is far from an exact science, however, as some people have naturally higher body temperatures or may have, for example, just had a run and a shower on their lunch break. This is rather worrying, given that some firms, like Amazon, are considering blocking employees from entering work if the thermal camera reads them as too warm.
  • Air conditioning: Perhaps even more concerning, some businesses are putting money aside to run air conditioning systems at a higher capacity to flush out airborne particles. I’m not sure if it’s more disturbing that this is expected to be effective or that it’s common practice to run air con at less than its potential to save money.

Of course, there are numerous ways the UX of this experience can be improved…

The UX of social distancing

Thinking about the first moments of returning to work, you’re going to want to make your team feel wanted. A ‘welcome back’ banner may sound cheesy, but it might raise a smile in a nerve-wracking moment and make what could potentially be a dangerous environment seem pleasant.

Indeed, open communication and taking feedback and ideas from your staff can make the whole experience feel more like teamwork overcoming adversity than being dragged into danger to pay the bills.


Don’t make the mistake of patronizing your employees, and assume they’ll put themselves in danger by not following rules. Your team would prefer lockdown was over, but also don’t want to risk becoming infected.

They know their own jobs and will probably have ideas for carrying out their work safely. Let them choose which risks to take and how best to take them.


This message of ‘we’re all in this together’ can be better conveyed by a human face. Be sure your employees communicate by video calls wherever possible, and send announcements and comms by recorded videos.

Just make sure you don’t send them a recording of you safely in your home office for them to watch at their desks. Quite the opposite, it will do some good for your employees to see management walking around the office and following the rules on a regular basis.


Inspire a community spirit with team-building exercises. Many employers are starting step challenges, where employees can log their daily walking distance and compete with other teams to help inspire exercise during lockdown.

Making work fun can help overcome the anxiety of going back into the workplace, but you’ll notice that most of the steps I’ve mentioned above can easily be instituted for remote workers.

In fact, the best way to safely get your employees back to work is… to just let them work from home.

The best way is to not

Companies have resisted flexible home-working since it became possible, despite the evidence that it’s just as productive as office working, if not more so. Yet even though lockdown has proven the effectiveness of remote working and most companies are planning to cut back on their office footprint, the hesitance continues.

Most articles covering the benefits of home working evidenced during lockdown contain the proviso that it isn’t for everyone and you need to be careful of the psychological ramifications for workers. However many surveys show that most workers want to continue home working from now on.

Global Workplace Analytics reports 77% of workers are happy and feel productive working from home, and want to continue doing so. “What about the other 23%, though?” I hear you ask, but bear in mind SHRM reported that the average employee satisfaction rate in 2017 was only 89% and a good portion of companies don’t yet have sufficient home working tools.

Not to mention, a lot of those employees are homeschooling their kids and working through a global crisis, but are still happy.

Otherwise, fears that broadband internet networks could not cope and employee families would be stealing and selling customer data have borne no fruit. Indeed, a Verizon study found that cyber security breaches involving employees had more than halved from last year to 2020.

It’s not actually for everyone of course…

There are, of course, businesses that can’t go online at all, but far fewer than would have been thought last year. Functions like factories and warehouses, restaurants and pubs, barbers and beauty salons, gardening and construction work are, by definition, impossible to carry out remotely.

However, online learning has been run by institutions like the Open University for many years, so the majority of teaching can go online, with the exception of courses like chemistry and engineering, which require practical learning.

Likewise, Ocado is a delivery-only supermarket and web-based clothing brands like ASOS and Boohoo are hugely successful.

Call centers can channel calls to laptops in home offices, and restaurants that were previously sit-down venues are now offering delivery. Personal trainers are hosting classes over Zoom and escape room experiences are opening in VR.

There have been largely unstaffed hotels in Japan for years; where you simply log in on a monitor, get a key card dispensed and use it to access your room without ever seeing a person. That would be easy to implement and the Premier Inn ‘Hub’ hotels are almost there already.

We were already on the way there

A recent Retail Economics study suggested 53% of sales would be completed online by 2029 and that was before we’d even heard of COVID-19. With the remote-working genie out of the bottle, it’s not only impossible, but also counter-productive to try to push employees back into an office space when there’s any alternative available to you.

Not only is remote working safer, it’s also what employees overwhelmingly want. So maybe the best way to offer a great user experience for going back into the office is to not.

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