MacFarlanes Office Design and Fit Out

How to facilitate a gradual return to the office

On 19 July, the remaining COVID-19 restrictions in England were lifted, with Scotland and Wales following suit shortly thereafter. But with COVID cases on the rise, the return to the office looks set to be a gradual one for many companies. After 18 months of working from home, many employees may feel apprehensive about returning to the workplace. In this blog, we share our top tips for supporting a gradual and safe return to the office.

Work bubbles

Most of us will be familiar with the concept of forming COVID bubbles with our families. But some businesses are now looking to create ‘work bubbles’, also known as ‘cohorting’. Work bubbles limit the number of people each staff member encounters by asking small groups to come into the office on a particular day/s. This helps employees come back into the workplace, without the prospect of being face-to-face with an office full of people. Over time, you can expand bubbles to include more employees when it’s safe to do so. You can then gradually increase the number of people in the office until you have a full house.

Work bubble in action

Workspace configuration

While social distancing is no longer mandatory, many employees may feel safer returning to the office if it is in place. Thankfully, this doesn’t necessarily mean a complete re-design of your workspace. Something as simple as repositioning desks for back-to-back or side-to-side working (instead of face-to-face) can provide some much-needed distance between employees. If you have desks close to a walkway or communal areas, you could install Perspex desk shields to provide protection. As office design and fit out specialists, we have a number of tricks up our sleeve to help you optimise your existing space and get your teams back to work safely.

Perspex desk shields

Ventilation and sanitisation

Good ventilation can help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, so you may wish to consider air flow in your office. For some businesses, it might be as simple as opening the windows and letting in the fresh air. Where this isn’t possible, improving mechanical systems may be necessary. If your office has been a desk-sharing one in the past, or you have an ambition to move to desk-sharing, you may want to put this on hold for now and assign workstations. If this isn’t possible, ensure you have a vigorous cleaning schedule and provide sanitisation stations. This will really help to put staff members at ease.


Some staff, particularly those that have been furloughed and haven’t worked for some time, might find it difficult to adjust to being back in the workplace. The CIPD has produced this useful guide to support employers with furloughed workers returning to work. But one idea we really like is a re-induction to welcome staff back to the company. As well as covering any changes to your business as a result of COVID-19, this is a great opportunity to reinforce your company culture. It will really help to make it clear to employees that they’re an essential part of the team.

Workplace values reinforce office culture

Consultation with staff

Ultimately, even with the above measure in place, some staff members still might not feel comfortable returning to the office. It might not be the workplace itself, but public transport that employees use to get to work that is causing concern. It is important that businesses engage with their people to understand how they feel and where issues lie. Line managers have a critical role in ‘translating’ corporate messages and listening to the concerns of their team members.

No matter how you choose to facilitate a return to the office, make sure you keep talking to your employees. Be prepared to consider their needs and be flexible where you can. If you keep employee wellbeing at the front and centre of your decision-making, your return to the office should be a smooth one.

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