Getting back to work involves more than just unlocking the doors

The "new normal" requires helping employees and customers feel at ease

May 11, 2020
Manufacturing Retail COVID-19 Business strategy

As some parts of Canada see signs that they have started to bend the curve of reported COVID-19 cases, businesses are having conversations about when they will be able to reopen. Beyond the factor of when businesses are legally allowed to resume operations, how do companies ensure employees and customers feel comfortable coming back to the office or going out shopping? Given that current estimates show that social distancing because of the new coronavirus will be necessary for the next two to 11 months, it’s very important to create a sustainable model for operating in the new normal.

The new normal isn’t just about masks and temperature checks, but making employees and customers maintain their distance and feel at ease. Below, we look at a few business environments and how they may have to adjust operations in the future:


Grocery stores have remained open as shelter-in-place orders have been in effect around the country and present a good model for how most retail establishments will need to adjust. Many grocery stores have made their aisles one-way for foot traffic to reduce congestion, and other types of retail establishments will need to adjust their layouts and potentially create one-way configurations as well.

Grocery stores have also had to reduce the overall capacity of shoppers, which has created lines outside stores in many instances. Due to social distancing, these lines often go around the building as people wait to enter. Expect grocery stores and other higher-volume stores to allow for shopping reservations, which would allow shoppers to skip the line and shop at a predetermined time.

Additionally, the retail checkout process will need to be adjusted. Some grocers have already installed plastic shields between the cashier and customer, and each retail establishment will need to determine the best method for checkout. In addition, the payment processes will likely change. Increasing the use of touchless transactions—often using Apple Pay, Google Pay or other apps—will reduce the back and forth between the cashier and customer as well.


Process changes will also need to happen inside the warehouse environment. Often, drivers arrive with paper in hand that needs to be signed, picked up or otherwise used by warehouse employees. The process needs to be modified to readjust driver and employee interactions, including defined responsibilities for both the driver and warehouse personnel.

Some warehouses that have remained open have asked their employees to eat lunch in their car as their lunch room was not equipped to maintain social distance. Lunch and rest areas, along with bathrooms and office space, will need to be evaluated to help ensure employees are able to safely maintain distance.

Finally, while auto-opening doors are becoming more common in warehouses, upgrading strategically placed doors within the warehouse will also improve employee comfort.


For many years, the density of office space has continued to rise. Often, cubicle rows line the floors and the height of cube walls has been lowered to create a more open layout. The open layout inherently poses challenges to helping people feel comfortable moving forward.

Just as in the grocery store, office floors will likely have one-way walking paths as well as separate entry and exit doors where feasible. Employee interaction with everything in the office space—door handles, light switches, countertops, copy machines, TVs, coffee makers and all other communal items—will need to be rethought.

Conference room size will need to be reduced, while small team or huddle rooms might be converted into offices. Small phone call rooms might need to be closed entirely. Potentially, some cubes may be blocked to create more distance between employees. Shared offices or workspaces will need cleaning procedures and a system for employees to know those spaces have been cleaned. Lunch rooms will likely have chairs removed, and thinking through what lunch time looks like in the building will be important.

Most challenging will be common spaces, which are often controlled by the management company. Preventing backups, determining where to stand while waiting for an elevator and how many people can go into each elevator will all be issues that need to be addressed. What may result is a coordinated effort to stagger arrival and departure times of bigger office buildings to reduce the likelihood of logjams.

Federal, provincial and local authorities will dictate whether temperature checks are necessary, face masks are required, and how many people can meet together. However, individual companies will need to figure out how to implement those requirements in their workplace and, more importantly, how to make employees feel comfortable coming back in order to work.

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