Returning to the Office: Back to the Future

Tom P By: Tom P

As architects, finding creative solutions to problems is at the core of what we do, especially those centered around the spaces we occupy and the interactions those spaces encourage. When faced with coming up with the safest plan for allowing staff to return to work, MMA Principal Tom Peterson and staff put on their problem-solving caps and got to work. In this blog post, we outline the careful planning process we undertook, the resulting plans, and the creative ways we’re reminding staff of the new dos and don’ts when working in the office. We hope you will find this as a useful resource when you’re determining the best strategies for a safe return to office while keeping your implementation fun and lighthearted.

It has been over 14 weeks since we closed our offices and asked employees to work remotely. While many of our employees could effectively continue working from home, some needed or desperately wanted to be back in the office. After careful consideration, with employees’ health and safety the number one priority, firm leadership set June 8 for a small portion of employees to return to the office (RTO).

But which employees? Where can they work and be safely distanced? When should they return?

Our immediate task was to metaphorically “take the temperature” of our employees about their current working situation, similar to the way we use Design Temperature Taking with our clients when we begin to plan and design a new project with them. We started by creating a survey of 16 questions, which included asking staff to self-rate their work-from-home effectiveness and their desire to be in the office or to continue working from home.

Following extensive research from Kim Hughes, our HR Director, we developed a RTO protocol document which outlined what the firm has done physically and spatially, such as replacing the kitchen faucet with a true touchless faucet and removing chairs from conference rooms. The protocol also included new procedures for disinfecting, movement throughout the office, and safety practices that we would ask of individuals while they are in the office, such as wearing masks when not at their desk, and washing their hands immediately upon entering the kitchen. The document was sent to all employees, and any employee wishing to RTO was required to agree to the protocol.

Some employees offered to keep working from home, which we welcomed. The fewer people returning to the office, the safer we can make the space for others. With the desire to be as fair as possible, we used all the above information to work out a new seating layout using time and space as separations between employees working in the office.

rethinking office space

Knowing that viral droplets hang around in the air or on surfaces is a factor that must be considered; we determined that having day-to-day shifts put 12-16 hours of separation between different groups of employees. A short 2-question survey asked if anyone had days they could not be in the office, and if they preferred consecutive days of RTO. This informed us that two groups worked best: some employees RTO on Mondays & Tuesdays, others on Wednesdays & Thursdays, with Friday remaining to accommodate special circumstances.


Our office is an open plan “workbench” layout, and while we sit 8’ apart at the workbenches, everyone faces inward, meaning they face each other. In the new layout, we wanted a minimum of 15’ between any employee workspaces occupied on the same day, which meant some people would need to be relocated. Some employees who volunteered to continue working from home also offered up their desks as areas for relocation. With all the rules and preferences now gathered, the 3D-chess game of “who-comes-in-when-and-where” began. The goal to solving this puzzle: minimal moves with maximum separation.


Two plans were developed, one for each group, and a diagram was then created showing our seating arrangement with headshots of each returning employee placed at their current or relocated workstation. The diagram also gives staff the ability to toggle each “day” layer in PDF on and off, allowing everyone to see their workstation locations, their RTO schedule, and who else will be occupying the office on different days. One member of firm leadership described the plans as “nice and sparse,” and success was declared!

Seeing Signs

A final task before opening on June 8 was to create new signage for the new protocols. We carefully measured all conference rooms and public spaces, and using 6’ distancing guidelines, calculated how many employees could be in those rooms and areas. Signs posted on doors or on stands would serve as maximum occupancy reminders to everyone. But we also needed directional signs for our new one-way paths, and some general-purpose reminders about distancing. But how do we remind people to pay attention to them?

If you’ve been in retail stores or other businesses recently, you may have noticed displays that come off angry or bossy with orders like “STOP!”, “SIX FEET APART!” or other exclamations. While returning to work during a pandemic is serious business, our office signage did not need to be. Mackey Mitchell is a fun group, and a little bit of humor seemed appropriate and beneficial. A sign that yells at you adds stress, but a sign that makes you chuckle a bit can help calm your nerves. Humor CAN engage people’s attention, enhance memory, and improve willingness to change behavior – which was exactly what we needed to do – so the plan seemed like a wise one!

After the signage concept was decided, we tasked our Marketing Coordinator Trey Bartsch with creating them and he ran with it. His theme was television shows and movies, using images and memorable quotes from the characters. They are a big hit!

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Click here for the full set of signage

If you’re considering signage for your office, you can download ours for your own use! They are generic enough for any type of office to use, and our graphic design is simple and intended to be printed on standard 8-1/2”x11” paper without any trimming.

These challenging times have shown us that we are all facing similar challenges, and the exchange of ideas and solutions is more important now than ever. We hope you will find value in learning about our new RTO protocols, and we hope you too will share the solutions you may have discovered. We’re all in this together!