As we head into winter with the pandemic still raging, we wish our entire COA community health and safety. We know that many of our organizations provide essential services and have quickly implemented practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19. On behalf of the staff and board of COA, thank you for your continued service to your communities. We are inspired by your dedication and flexibility in this extremely difficult and ever-changing environment.

As organizations shift into and out of in-person work, the decision to move one way or the other is made even more challenging by conflicting guidance, mandates that vary across communities, and the unique challenges posed by virtual service delivery.  Our hope is that this roundup of guidance from the field will help you make better informed decisions about how or if to return to conducting in-person work. We also hope that you’ll add your feedback and tips in the comments section to share your experiences and help our readers continue to adapt to this challenging time.

US Government Resources

Website of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA)

From overview information to daily tips and updates, OHSA has an enormous amount of information about in-person work in the time of COVID-19. Find the latest guidance on hazard recognition, COVID-19 standards, medical information, and tips on control and prevention, as well as a number of other resources. Some materials are available in Spanish as well as English.

Visit the site here.

Website of OHSA’s Whistleblower Protection Program

This is the place to go to report unsafe working conditions, including unsafe conditions as they relate to COVID-19. You can also find information on the applicable law, COVID-19, how to create an anti-retaliation environment at your organization, and what to expect during a whistleblower investigation.

Visit the site here.

US Department of Labor COVID-19 Webpage

This site hosts a number of practical, nuts-and-bolts resources around workplace safety; wages, hours, and leave; unemployment insurance; and more, all as they relate to COVID-19. You will also find guidance on preventing the coronavirus at work, how to return to work during the pandemic, and how to keep the workplace safe until we can get a vaccine.

Workplace safety information is available in a number of languages, including Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, Burmese, Chin, Chinese Simplified, Chinese Traditional, Croatian, French, French Creole, Hmong, Korean, Kunama, Nepali, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Thai, and Vietnamese.

Visit the site here.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Website

This site is especially useful as a resource for everything PPE, or Personal Protective Equipment. They have general tips on keeping staff safe, as well as information on the status of PPE supplies, what respirators are testing best, and crisis strategies on what to do if PPE runs low–a situation we saw at the beginning of the pandemic. There is also specific advice and strategies around navigating COVID-19 in schools, as well as how to reduce the risk of violence when having to confront clients who refuse to wear a mask or practice social distancing.

Visit the site here.

Center for Disease Control (CDC) Coronavirus Website

Of course, no government resource list would be complete without including all of the information available from the CDC. Here you will find helpful tips about wearing masks and which kinds of masks are most useful; the latest on COVID-19 symptoms and testing; the latest data and trends on cases; guidelines around quarantining and travel; and business-specific guidance and communication resources. Assistance in multiple languages is here as well.

Visit the site here.

Other resources

Returning to a Pre-Pandemic Workplace Resource Roundup from the Council on Nonprofits

The Council on Nonprofits walks through the factors an organization must weigh before returning to in-person work, and then provides their own list of resources for helping you with that decision. Some of our favorites include:

Find their full list of resources here.

Reopening our Workspaces: A Playbook from Leading Edge

This playbook from the Leading Edge Alliance for Excellence in Jewish Leadership also takes on the considerations around returning to in-person work (or not) from a philosophical point of view. It walks through the many things an organization must weigh, including what impact their decisions will have on diversity, equity, and inclusion; team culture; organization values; and the opportunity that COVID-19 provides us all to “re-dream” what we could be doing.

The playbook contains decision trees to help leadership teams make careful, informed decisions about next steps in the face of the pandemic, as well as a wealth of practical tips and considerations on transitioning back to in-person work. The back half includes day-by-day checklists to help ease that transition.

Find the PDF of the playbook here.

HR Forms and Blog Posts from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)

SHRM tackles the thorny HR issues that COVID-19 can surface and that staff may experience as they come into and out of the workplace. Their Coronavirus Resource page hosts back-to-work checklists, screening and notice forms, FAQs, COVID-19 culture quizzes, and more. Their blog posts offer troubleshooting advice on an array of issues such as social distancing, contact-tracing, and payroll. They also have articles that will help keep you up-to-date on what other companies’ HR departments are doing, providing inspiration and insight that might help your own organization.

Visit their Resource Page here. For more from SHRM, check out their helpful list of other reliable resources for workplace issues related to the coronavirus.

COVID-19 Return to Work Playbook from Kaiser Permanente

Kaiser Permanente’s all-in-one, clickable playbook offers tips on everything from the details of modifying workplace safety plans and COVID-19 screening to big-picture concerns such as the impact of the virus on the social drivers of health and emotional well-being. It even includes a section on specific guidelines for those who work in public services, which will be of special interest to the COA community.

Visit the playbook here.

What other resources have you seen or used that have been helpful? What re-opening tips and experiences would be helpful to other organizations like yours? Please share them in the comments below! Remember that you can always keep up-to-date on COA’s operational status during the pandemic on our COVID-19 Resources Page here

“I want to make the world a better place. I want to help vulnerable people in my community. I want a career where I feel like I’m making a difference.”

Are any of those sentiments familiar to you? They are to me and to many of the social workers I know. After all we were drawn to this profession for those reasons.  After completing school, many of us found work in social services and therapeutic clinical settings. We take the skills we’ve acquired in life and in school out into our chosen field of practice – schools, non-profit organizations, mental health clinics – and we employ our strengths-based, person-in-environment framework to engage clients and communities in meeting their goals and improving their circumstances.

When we look at what we call our environments, however, our focus as social workers leans heavily on our social environments, and looks less at our natural environmental landscape and the impact that nature has on us as human beings and on our communities at large.

As a result, historically, social work has mostly seemed to leave the work of environmental justice to others. We’re doing so much already, we’re not superheroes! If we shift our thinking a bit however, and begin to examine the connection between the natural environment and our clients’ well-being, there is a strong case to be made that the environmental justice work that’s being done is more related to our mission as social workers than ever before.

Environmental justice

The concept of environmental justice isn’t new, but in my experience, it’s not something that is discussed very often within the framework of social work. Here’s a quick layman’s overview pulled together by this laywoman. The Environmental Protection Agency has defined this concept as “The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

From the social work perspective, the Council for Social Work Education developed a nuanced definition emphasizing not only the equal involvement and treatment of all people, but the right of all people to high levels of environmental protection: “Environmental justice occurs when all people equally experience high levels of environmental protection and no group or community is excluded from the environmental policy decision-making process, nor is affected by a disproportionate impact from environmental hazards. Environmental justice affirms the ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, respect for cultural and biological diversity, and the right to be free from ecological destruction. This includes responsible use of ecological resources, including the land, water, air, and food.” By emphasizing not only that all people have the right to be treated equally, but that all people have the right to be treated well, the focus is not only standing for equality. Its also standing up for all of us and our quality of life on earth.

When you begin to look at the connection between the natural environment and climate, and how this matters to social work, and the communities we serve, it’s pretty straightforward. Consider these scenarios: oil spills, air pollution, hurricanes and then of course Flint, Michigan.  Way back in 1987, when some of us were in diapers and some of us were in hair bands, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States showed that race was “the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited in the United States.” In the years since this study, mounting evidence has developed around the connection between environmental issues and racial and socio-economic justice issues and awareness of the intersection between these areas has grown. We now know that “people from marginalized and underserved communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change, drought, and pollution.”

The bottom line: this is another factor negatively impacting the communities we work to serve.

Nurturing through nature

So, that was a bummer. On the flip side though, I think it’s important to highlight that not only are the communities we serve disproportionately impacted when the natural environment is polluted, but that there are many potential benefits that can be gained from interacting with the natural environment. That is, of course, another reason for us to fight to preserve it.

The benefits of exposure to nature are real and spectacular. Whether it is walking in the forest to lower blood pressure or increasing ability to focus, or as this National Geographic article, This is Your Brain on Nature discusses, spending time outside to improve problem-solving, the benefits of exposure to the natural environment have been well documented. The field of ecotherapy for example, explores the therapeutic value of exposure to nature as an alternative tool for improving mental health. Programs like the Fresh Air Fund and Outward Bound provide opportunities for participants to gain skills and experience interacting with nature through immersive programming. And for those interested, COA’s research-based standards for Wilderness and Adventure-Based Therapeutic Outdoor Services outline best practices for implementing services based on this premise.

Social workers are natural helpers

Most of you reading this are probably aware of the unique skill set of social workers, but nevertheless, let’s take an opportunity to remind you (#notsohumblebragalert): social workers are known as strong empathizers, communicators, advocates, and organizers. Those skills are critical in not only traditional social work settings, but valuable in almost any work setting — traditional or non-traditional. And so while we often examine the concept of person-in-environment, (this blog has discussed the impact of built environments), how often do we specifically include our ecological or natural environment? If we choose to use these skills in the environmental justice realm, think of the power that could have to shape not only our built environments, but our natural environment as well. In that regard, a relatively new field, being referred to as Green Social Work, has developed around the emerging realization of the connectedness between our natural environment and our quality of life.

For social workers, how exciting is it to think about how we can use those advocacy skills to fight for access to clean drinking water? We can use our communication skills to break down what can feel overwhelming and hopeless (what if we looked at the way people use aversion of fear as a form of denial not only in our clients’ personal lives, but in regard to these global environmental concerns as well — hello, coping skills 101). And we can use our social justice lens to examine the need for equality not only in regard to social equality, but in regard to natural resource equality.

It’s worth looking at the following statement within the context above — “Social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments. Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice.” That’s the NASW Code of Ethics in regard to Social Workers’ “ethical responsibilities to the broader society.” It goes on to say that in regard to social and political action, social workers “should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully.” It’s hard to argue that clean water, air, and land are not part of that tenet.

Team green: How your organization can make a difference

So, what should we do? Take a hike? Well, in the literal sense, YES! In the figurative sense, NO!

As social workers, as leaders of our organizations, as human beings on this planet — starting from our favorite strengths-based perspective — are there ways your organization already takes steps to reduce the environmental impact of its daily operations? Examples might include instituting a recycling program, using environmentally friendly products, and/or reducing water and energy consumption. This is a great start! Give yourself a goldish-green star. To formalize this, if you haven’t already, you might consider creating a Green Team of interested employees who want to work on environmental initiatives for staff inside and outside of the office. Many benefits of this can overlap with those of an employee volunteer initiative, if you have established one of those. Speaking of which…we already discussed the benefits of having an employee volunteer initiative when we explored ways the principle of corporate social responsibility (CSR) might be applicable to social service organizations on this blog. If this is something that you have implemented or are thinking about doing, it’s great to consider the opportunities to partner with environmentally-focused organizations. It switches it up from your day-to-day work, and might lead to future collaboration. At the very least, it exposes your staff to environmental activism and provides support in a needed area.

More broadly, CSR programs often encompass “a company’s sense of responsibility toward the community and environment (both ecological and social) in which it operates.” Viewing your for-profit or non-profit organization through this lens, as an entity with responsibility for the community and the environment in which you operate, it’s important to consider all ways in which you operate within, and have an impact on, the broader environment. While it may not be the ideal motivator, there is certainly a case to be made that there is an overlap between some of these efforts and your financial bottom line (hello, lower paper and energy bills). As a social service provider, you are already contributing to educational and/or social programs. Are there ways you can examine your impact on the environment as well?

The end of the rainbow is green

The point of this isn’t to scare you, overwhelm, or green wash you. The hope is that this emphasizes perhaps a new, personal connection between two traditionally disparate areas of justice, and makes us think about some ways in which they truly intersect. There is a case to be made that social workers are uniquely equipped and also ethically bound, to include environmental justice in our framework, even if it means expanding our purview of what it means to be social workers. Because at the end of the day – what are we fighting for, if not a better world, in every sense of the word.

P.S. One final note: if all of that isn’t moving you to take action, if you, like me, like brunch, maybe this will.

In the high-intensity, resource-scarce universe of human services, the service environment itself often gets overlooked, or else overshadowed by compliance concerns. Against the backdrop of serving families at risk, individuals in crisis, and struggling communities, all while trying to keep the doors open, space planning concerns like layout, furnishings, lighting, and décor can seem trivial. Facility design might sound like a luxury, but in reality it has a presence in almost every aspect of service delivery. The evidence is clear. The physical environment can have a profound impact on behavior, mood, perception, and accessibility. When designed intentionally and strategically, your facility can support the work and mission of the organization. Left unexamined, it can limit or even undercut your impact.

Whether you’re opening a new site, considering a relocation, planning a renovation, or just looking for ways to refresh your facility in a way that improves the effectiveness of your services, here are some important issues to consider:

Safe space

The most fundamental concern for every organization is safety. Every facility has to comply with building codes and regulations aimed at protecting occupants from hazardous conditions. Features like emergency exits are specifically designed to promote safety by influencing behavior in the event of a critical incident – such as evacuating during a fire.

Serving vulnerable populations, however, often means preparing for and responding to critical incidents stemming from distress, conflict, and harmful behavior. In recent years suicide prevention has become a focal point for facility planners and is emerging now as a powerful example of how the built environment can be leveraged to save lives. Organizations serving populations at risk for suicide are embracing the imperative to scrutinize all architectural features, fixtures, and materials in the service environment for their potential to become an instrument for harm – specifically as an anchor point or ligature. Shatterproof glass, round-edged doors and tables, breakaway curtain and closet rods, and tamperproof power outlets are just a few examples of features that have been designed to be suicide-resistant. The layout of the service environment can also play a role in reducing opportunities to self-harm; placing staff areas in close proximity to high-risk individuals allows for consistent yet non-intrusive observation.

A trauma-informed approach tells us that identifying and addressing triggers or trauma reminders is key to preventing and de-escalating crisis situations. Organizations must examine both the physical and psychological safety of their facilities and keep in mind that the built environment itself can be a trigger or stressor. An enclosed, restrictive space can often be triggering for individuals with trauma histories or individuals with certain mental disorders, such as schizophrenia; this is often addressed by foregoing corridor layouts and installing glass doors that enable individuals to get a clear view from one service area into the next. Planners also often avoid using the color red to avoid associations with blood, fire, and emergency lights that can trigger a trauma response. Individuals coping with anxiety or PTSD can be overstimulated by patterns, brightly contrasting colors, or other visually complex designs; neutral or softer colors with more subtle transitions are therefore generally more appropriate for therapeutic environments.

While safety is imperative, there are plenty of other ways the built environment intersects with organizational goals and priorities. Now that we’ve looked at how the physical environment can reduce suicide, harmful behaviors, stress, and aggression, we can turn to how it can reinforce and encourage positive behavior and promote better client outcomes.

The client experience

A well-planned facility should complement your organization’s work by ensuring that individuals and families feel safe, supported, and in control while they are receiving services. To learn more about how organizations use the built environment to support their work, we spoke with Children’s Institute, Inc. (CII) in Los Angeles, a COA-accredited organization that provides a broad array of mental health, early care and education, child welfare, family support, and youth development services to children and families – who are also currently in the process of relocating one of their sites and constructing a new campus.

A client-centered approach informs many of the crucial decisions CII has made in identifying and designing their new facilities. “We thought about how it would affect the client’s experience, being on one floors or two,” says COO/CFO Eugene Straub. CII has been careful to ensure that their facilities are welcoming to both clients and staff. “The goal is building a sense of trust and security. The last thing you want to do is make anyone feel uneasy.” Improvements have also been made to existing sites where the space was not meeting families’ needs. “We had a nice lobby and waiting areas but there were no activities, and we looked for ways to change that and make the space more inviting and inspiring.” Now CII’s once-empty waiting areas include a lending library and creative space for children and families to use.

What are some ways that your organization could find inspiration and ideas when planning facilities?  Your service recipients, staff and community are a great resource for ideas and a great place to start. Organizations should always look to their service recipients and their communities for ways to enhance their service environment, and tailor their facilities to the unique needs of the service population and to their service model. For example, a residential facility for individuals with schizophrenia can provide some relief to residents coping with paranoia by orienting beds and desks to face the door. A youth development program for children with autism spectrum disorder, who often struggle with spatial navigation and wayfinding, should consider applying visual cues to transitional spaces. Every organization’s approach to designing an effective and supportive service environment will be unique and depend on their scope, service population, service model, and culture. But there are a few universal design features that facility designers and environmental psychologists agree contribute to a calming, welcoming, and therapeutic service environment:

Nature equals nurture

Studies have consistently shown that access to nature, whether physical or visual, has a calming effect. Treatment facilities often situate themselves in a natural setting for this reason, but any organization can look to existing assets to bring to their full potential, such as a small outdoor space that can be converted into a courtyard or garden, or installing windows to take advantage of a good view. Organizations that are truly limited can still make enhancements by incorporating plant life into the decor and displaying nature and landscape art, which have also been demonstrated to have a positive and calming effect on mood.

Let the sun shine 

Sunlight triggers the release of serotonin, which boosts mood and focus. Research also indicates that the ability to identify time of day through observed sunlight is conducive to re-establishing perception and natural thinking while minimizing disorientation. Natural light also makes small spaces appear larger and more open than they are. Organizations should ensure that they’re maximizing and not obstructing their natural light, such as by moving furniture away from the windows, using window coverings that filter rather than block out sunlight, and opening up any doors and windows that would allow natural light to pass through the facility. Transom lights (windows built into the space above a door) and skylights are also examples of architectural features that maximize sunlight while still preserving privacy.

Power to the people 

A client-centered and trauma-informed approach to services stresses the importance of giving service recipients opportunities to have a voice in their service plan and at each stage of service delivery. For survivors and individuals coping with past trauma, opportunities to take control and make their own choices are important exercises in self-empowerment and essential steps on the road to recovery. Current best practice regarding residential facilities stipulates that residents should already be encouraged to personalize and decorate their own space. However, when possible, personal choice should also be extended to the environment by giving service recipients the power to customize lighting, temperature, acoustics, or furniture arrangements. To balance flexibility with safety, facility planners often choose furniture that is too heavy to be thrown or used as a weapon, but that can still be moved around and reconfigured, which gives individuals (or groups, in communal settings) autonomy to situate themselves where they feel safest.

No place like home

Experts typically agree that a safe, therapeutic, non-institutional and homelike environment is the best setting for residential treatment. Some strategies that designers employ to make a facility more warm and inviting include using upholstered rather than hard furnishings to invoke a softer, cozier feel, and mixing and matching a cohesive array of furnishings to avoid a uniform, institutional look. Given that “home” is a cultural construct, cultural competency is vital to ensuring that your environment meets the definition of “homelike” for your service population. 

Of course, “home” is about more than just furniture — it’s also about people. When designing or evaluating a facility, organizations must consider not only the service recipient, but their support network. Because an engaged and committed support network is one of the most important contributing factors to positive client outcomes, service environments need to promote and facilitate their ongoing involvement. Organizations should be mindful that an imposing service environment can discourage or inhibit the service recipient’s support network, and evaluate whether their facility accommodates and encourages visiting family and friends as well as any collaborating service providers. Is it intimidating for visitors to access or navigate the facility? Are there welcoming spaces for residents to spend time with their visitors, or to have private conversations?

Supporting your staff

Getting your space to work for your service recipients also means ensuring that it works for your workers. As with service recipients, the environment influences workers’ behavior, mood, and functioning – which in turn impact performance and productivity, and your organization’s effectiveness. In human services, an ineffective environment undermines not only your bottom line but your mission.

The human services field also faces significant workforce challenges – namely recruitment, retention, and secondary trauma. Qualified workers are in short supply, in no small part due to poor funding and stigmatization of the service population. Staff shortages and the difficult nature of the work, which often manifests as secondary or vicarious trauma, lead to burnout and to high rates of turnover. Finally, worker turnover negatively affects client outcomes.

These workforce challenges have been at the center of the design and planning process for Children’s Institute, Inc.’s new offices. With the aim of promoting collaboration and “addressing the adverse effects of the work itself”, CII decided to eliminate cubicles in favor of a communal, team-driven open plan layout that will allow staff to support one another, celebrate their successes together, and foster staff resiliency. Straub observed that the cubicle layout often forces staff “to go from meeting with clients to sitting at their desk by themselves” and process their experiences in isolation. The intent of the new layout is to encourage workers to “have more of a shared experience and focus on wellness and self-care both individually and with each other”. The new offices also feature “decompression zones” – calming work-free spaces for staff to recover, including through meditation and yoga, as well as larger common areas, kitchens, and breakrooms. Evolving workplace norms mean that “the younger workforce wants an office space that fosters support and feels less corporate and more collaborative,” Straub explains, making these amenities not just “perks”, but rather, vital resources that will promote staff wellness and strengthen recruitment of valuable staff.

CII is also allocating space for “drop-in” staff – workers from other sites who are out in the field will be able to use nearby CII offices as a landing spot in between client visits. Straub envisions that this increased “cohabitation” will stimulate knowledge and resource-sharing and enhance linkages for families and continue to build the culture of the agency. Emphasizing the importance of “collaborating with the end user,” CII has also been careful to engage staff in the facility planning process, bringing all staff to tour the new space before signing the lease and soliciting feedback about the environment as part of annual employee surveys. Continuous assessment of a new or revamped workspace is not just good quality improvement practice, it also ensures that the organization identifies and addresses any unforeseen effect on employee functioning. For example, in an evaluation study of behavioral health facilities, researchers discovered that staff in a new facility that had been designed to promote client-staff engagement were experiencing greater burnout in response to the increase in client interactions.

Strategic plans to building plans

Creating a safe, effective, and supportive service environment requires the organization to approach the physical environment as part of its mission. It calls for not only commitment and investment, but also a shift in attitude — away from “being happy just to get the space”, as Straub says, and towards leveraging the space to influence how the organization’s operations are experienced and perceived. By tying together their facilities, mission, and strategic plan, CII’s ambitious expansion project received enthusiastic support from its board and funders. Straub sees the new campus as “an opportunity to create organic change” by leveraging the space to build partnerships with the community; plans are already underway to co-locate with other providers and host community taskforces and other grassroots organizing initiatives.

As much as we’d like the primary takeaway here to be “good facility design is not about aesthetics”, it bears noting that a well-designed facility achieves through its appearance two invaluable objectives: firstly, it destigmatizes the organization’s services and service recipients, and secondly, illustrates the depth of the organization’s commitment to the community.

Tell us in the comments: How has your organization used its facilities to support service recipients and staff? What would you change about your current service environment?

Further reading

Building Better Behavioral Health Care Facilities

Rethinking Behavioral Health Center Design

Designing for Post-Traumatic Understanding

6 Behavioral Health Design Trends

Can a Frank Gehry design help change the dynamic of Watts?

Key Elements of Safe Design