June 1, 2020 -- More than half of American workers have office jobs. If you’re among them, during quarantine you probably miss the camaraderie -- grabbing a cup of coffee in the break room, catching up in the elevator. But thanks to coronavirus safety precautions, when you finally go back to your office, you may not recognize the place.
Last week, the CDC offered new guidance to help offices reopen safely. Among the highlights:
- Moving or removing furniture to maintain 6 feet of social distancing -- that includes reception areas, workspaces, break rooms, and anywhere else people congregate
- Requiring masks indoors
- Limiting occupancy in elevators
- Replacing the water cooler, coffee pot, and bulk snacks with touchless dispensers or single-serve, individually wrapped items
- Disinfecting common areas like kitchens and bathrooms more frequently
- Improving ventilation and air filtration
The number of moving parts is daunting -- making changes to the building itself, staff behavior, and even the way work gets done. For many companies, this means reopening offices slowly, in phases. Already tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have told employees that many will be able to work from home into the fall or even permanently. Other fields, too, are looking at extended work-from-home options.
The Major Challenges
To begin with, closing an office building for months at a time raises health risks of its own. Among the hazards the CDC warns about: mold growth, rodents or other pests, and stagnant water in the plumbing system, which can lead to Legionnaire’s disease.
Once building management clears the site to reopen, coronavirus-specific adjustments begin. One big issue: clean air. The virus spreads through respiratory droplets, which new research shows we generate just by talking. “The droplets are small enough that they can remain floating in the air for many minutes,” says Christina Bax, MD, a research fellow at Penn Medicine who worked on the study. If the speaker has COVID-19 but no symptoms, everyday conversation indoors could spread the disease.
Buildings already had to meet certain standards for air quality, but that doesn’t mean the whole place lives up to those standards. “We all know of horrible conference rooms with stuffy air, where you end a 1-hour meeting feeling exhausted,” says Memo Cedeno Laurent, ScD, associate director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. All those stuffy spaces must be identified and addressed.
And then there’s the fact that those speech droplets settle down eventually, landing on surfaces. While this isn’t thought to be the primary way people spread COVID-19, viruses do spread from contact.
“Our studies show that viruses spread quickly in the office setting and that if one person comes to work sick, over 50% of the office surfaces and co-workers’ hands can become contaminated with the viruses they shed,” says Kelly A. Reynolds, PhD, director of the Environment, Exposure Science, and Risk Assessment Center at the University of Arizona.
Another huge challenge with larger buildings is simply getting everyone in and out safely. Limiting the number of people on elevators can quickly cause bottlenecks in the lobby, which will make it hard to practice social distancing there.
Addressing Things in Order
The CDC recommends following a hazard-reduction system known as the hierarchy of controls. It has five elements, to be approached in order: elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment.
The first two are virtually impossible with coronavirus. Elimination means completely removing the hazard. Closing offices accomplished this, but not as a permanent solution. Substitution means replacing the hazard with something less dangerous. We can’t replace COVID-19, so companies and building management have to focus on the next three.
Engineering controls covers all the physical ways a building can protect the people inside it. That’s where things like rearranging workspaces, installing no-touch faucets and soap dispensers in the restrooms, and replacing the coffee pot come in. Open plan offices, for instance, will probably need to be reconfigured with physical barriers. But because of the way coronavirus is transmitted, Laurent says clean air is the most important aspect --making sure the building’s ventilation and filtration systems can handle it.
Ventilation involves bringing in more cubic feet of fresh air per person. In a smaller facility, that could be as simple as opening the windows. But for large buildings whose windows don’t open, a mechanical system pumps in fresh air. Most such buildings should already be able to do this, Laurent says, thanks to building codes.
Filtration comes into play when machines recirculate the building’s air for climate control. Just like health care workers need a specific type of mask to keep out the virus, buildings need a specific type of filter to capture the viral particles. Here things get tricky, especially with older buildings.
“Some of these mechanical systems are old enough that they can’t handle the additional pressure from a tighter filter,” says Laurent. That makes the next type of controls even more important.
Administrative controls include many of the things you’re doing already, like social distancing and washing your hands. But for companies, it also means measures like staggered shifts, one-way traffic through doors and corridors, limited use of conference rooms, 6-foot markings throughout the office, and temperature checks before you even go inside.
Because elevators don’t have much wiggle room as far as engineering controls go, they’ll need to be addressed administratively, too.
“Down the road we’ll see myriad technological solutions. Maybe elevators will have their own ventilation and filtration systems,” says Laurent. “But at this point the easiest thing to do is to have fewer people there.”
If it’s not possible to limit the number of people in the elevator, there are other ways to reduce the risk, says Marissa Baker, PhD, director of the Industrial Hygiene Training Program at the University of Washington. “Have a mask policy, and encourage people to ride the elevator without interacting or talking,” she says. “That, coupled with cleaning and disinfecting the surfaces, can make it safer.”
Personal protective equipment should be obvious by now: Requiring (and even providing) masks, and where necessary, gloves.
“We’re making sure we have gloves near every copy machine because multiple people touch it,” says Shana Sweeney, chief human resources officer at SugarCRM, a software company with offices in nine cities around the world.
What You Should Expect
Communication between company management and their employees will be crucial, says Baker.
“You should know what to expect and what you need to do before you get there,” she says. “There should be a plan for social distancing, a plan for people to have masks, a plan to ensure there’s not overcrowding -- not only in the office but also places like the break room and the elevator.”
The plan should be detailed, including information on how your company will enforce policies for things like masks and social distancing, and what the company will do if an employee gets sick. And it should be specific to your company’s needs.
“There’s going to be a learning curve,” Baker says. “There’s not one plan that fits all offices and workers.”
At SugarCRM, Sweeney’s team sent out a survey to employees with one question: Would you prefer to work from home or come to the office? Only 20% of their employees said they wanted to come in. After they sent out the company’s extensive plan for reopening, the team asked again. Now, less than 10% want to return.
“Some people said, ‘My city’s having a second wave and I no longer feel safe,’” Sweeney says. “Others told us they didn’t think there would be restrictions, it would be just like when they left. That one surprised me a little bit.”
Ultimately, SugarCRM is making the return to their offices entirely voluntary. The first phase started on June 1, but phase two won’t happen for at least another month. Sweeney anticipates ending up with a hybrid workforce, where people are in the office only once or twice a week and the rest of the time work from home.
“It’s going to change the way we work,” Sweeney says. “In a typical office a lot happens in hallway conversations, in the kitchen, hanging out before a meeting. We’re going to need to think about new ways of collaborating and brainstorming.”