How Accurate Should Social Distancing Be?


Pictured on the left are former England football stars Peter Crouch and Steven Gerrard (two of my favourite players) sharing a lighter moment. As you can clearly see they are about the same height.

You disagree? Well I can’t say I blame you because Steven is 6’ tall and Peter is 6’7” (2m) and to me the difference in height is considerable and obvious.

In the last month or two we have, of course, heard a lot about keeping a ‘safe’ distance of either 6 feet or 2 meters apart. Those familiar with one unit and not the other seem to have a marked tendency to believe that the two are about the same. The real difference is approximately a 10% increase, from 72 inches to 79 inches.

For the most part this is not a huge difference. When we have been out and about shopping or exercising over the last few weeks, it’s probably been good enough to simply stay one large human away from everyone else, not stressing about whether it’s a Michael Jordan (2m) or an Allen Iverson (6ft.)

Forbes published an article in April 2020, referencing whether 6 feet apart is really enough in terms of Coronovirus distancing. It quotes Ben Cowling, a Professor on Infectious Disease epidemiology that:

“… the exact distance to maintain is less important…rather it would be more important to avoid prolonged close contact with other people in crowded areas…”

Now we are planning to get back to work as quickly and safely as we can. For office workers, this means that time spent in an enclosed space with others will be as much as eight hours each day, far greater than a few minutes queuing for the supermarket. This makes the accuracy of minimum distancing important for people’s safety. Specifically, space planners will have to specify with millimetre precision over large (previously) well-populated areas.

Back in the pre-Corona universe, time and effort was spent making sure that as many desks as possible could fit into a given space (ideally with at least a modicum of comfort!) The difference between 6 feet and 6 feet 7inches (or 2 meters) is therefore significant: around the world, open-plan office spaces are strikingly similar and we should be using the same measurement.

It may only be 7 inches in difference but It should come as no surprise that a lot of dimensions in human-centric spaces work well accommodating ‘tall’ people (like Gerard and Iverson) and not ‘very tall’ people (like Crouch and Jordan.) This is most obvious in door frame design where 6 footers have few issues, but the rarely seen 6’ 7” employees spend their lives ducking, translating into widths and depths, as well as heights.

Based on the hundreds of thousands of desk layouts that have passed through Accordant, the average separation of people within open plan spaces is approximately 75 inches. There are a lot of 6 foot desks, making it just below the 2 meter standard, yet crucially above the 6 foot standard.

Let’s compare the area of a 6 foot exclusion zone around a person to a 2 meter zone. This gives areas of 113 square feet and 136 square feet respectively, which are again, either side of a key benchmark (an average square foot per person of 128 square feet, according to CoreNet).

What all of this translates to: if you take a floorplan layout (whether from the United States, Europe or elsewhere) and work out how many desks could be used if appropriate social distancing is applied, that number using a 6 foot standard can be much higher than if using 2 meters. Examples have shown an increase as high as 20% of the whole capacity equating to many millions of dollars in annual real-estate costs.

Whether 2 meters is significantly safer than 6 feet is a matter for the medical profession. What does seem crucial is that we should apply the same standards and 6 feet and / or 2 meters on either side.

Ultimately, doorway, corridor and rest-room capacities are likely to establish overall headcount limits. Firms with offices in multiple locations need to be especially careful in their planning. You don’t want to be losing more money in Europe through resources you have blocked out as unusable any more than you want your US employees to feel they are being kept 10% less safe than their European counterparts.

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Alan Rose