By Mary Kate McGrath - May 12, 2020
In April, regions of the United States began to reopen their economies in a marginal return to public life, following weeks of lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Most companies are beginning to plan for workers returning to a physical office space, a move that will require large and small changes to both the design and workplace culture of the contemporary office. Businesses are exploring a variety of strategies, from reevaluating floor plans to staggering employee arrival times. No matter what the plan for reducing coronavirus risk for returning workers, managing office density must be a top priority, as this will be the single greatest factor in reducing potential for transmission.
Experts agree that the coronavirus can spread easily within a crowded workspace. The Center Disease Control and Prevention shared a study conducted in South Korea on a cluster of COVID-19 cases in a call center located in a commercial-residential building in the capital city of Seoul. On one floor of the call center with 216 employees working, 94 people contracted coronavirus. Investigators determined that the outbreak occurred over 16 days beginning on February 21, and over 90% of the cases were concentrated in a densely populated section of the office, according to National Geographic.
Donald Milton, an expert of airborne disease transmission at the University of Maryland, told the publication that reducing office density will be an effective strategy for reducing risk. “You could space people out, and if you’re doing that in combination with a reasonable amount of ventilation and sanitation, you should be able to have a reasonably safe space,” he said.
Milton also noted that physical barriers, such as a cubicle, could prevent transmission from a cough, but noted other surfaces, such as an office coffee pot or door handles, and shared community spaces like elevators, pose other risks. Office administrators can take active steps to reduce foot traffic in the office, reducing contact in the communal spaces people move through, like hallways or stairwells.
Business leaders looking to determine the best way to reopen an office should make an effort to poll workers on their comfort level about returning to the workspace. Each worker will have unique needs regarding a return to work - some might have underlying health concerns that increase risk, or be caring for a vulnerable loved one. School and childcare closures might require parents to be home with children until operations resume. A mass notification system can be used to distribute a “return-to-work” survey, allowing administrators to get a better understanding of how many people plan to continue remote-working, and those whose role depends on a return to the office, or who might prefer to be in an office environment.
Employees will appreciate having input in the “return to office” plan, but polling workers can also aid strategies to reduce office density. Businesses are considering staggering arrival times, redirecting office foot traffic, and creating staging areas near elevators to reduce density. Efforts to reduce face-to-face interaction in the office can be aided by allowing high-risk individuals or those who prefer a home office to have the flexibility to continue remote working for the duration.
Employees who serve critical office roles, or others who feel a strong preference for their in-office space, can opt to return once an office has reorganized to follow social-distancing protocol. Mass notification can also help administrators implement this staggered approach to a returning workforce, keeping employees informed of any change to protocol, such as “shifts” for coming in or changes to office floor plans.
Floorplan updates are another critical aspect of managing office density. Following the last financial recession, companies have had to “do more with less space,” which meant packing people into open office spaces in a process called “densification,” according to Vox. Densification will need to be undone to accomodate for social distancing - private spaces or personal offices will increase, there should be more distance between desks, a conference room that typically seats 10 might be reconfigured for a five-person maximum, as per Vox.
Open-floor office plans are more susceptible to viral transmission, especially for employees sitting side-by-side at a communal desk, or in large spaces used for congregation. Barriers, such as the phased-out cubicle, will likely be required to manage office density, along with a “sneeze-guards”, according to the New York Times. Tall plastic barriers, which have become common-place at grocery stores or banks, have long been used in the offices for epidemiology and infectious disease prevention centers. The installation of such shields, along with required distribution of masks or hand-sanitizer, will likely become common procedure as workplaces consider bringing employees back to the office.
Companies must increase cleaning rotations and can implement agressive disinfectant strategies, such as using UV light to kill germs in meeting rooms, which has become common practice in hospitals, if possible. Other updates, such as installing air filters and investing in more touch-free technology, such as automatic doors or sinks, can also help reduce risk of infection, as per National Geographic. Each surface - from coffeemakers door handles - will require regular cleaning and disinfectant.
For office managers looking to prevent the spread of germs, however, the most effective strategy will be to limit the number of workers in office at a given time. Instead of bringing back the whole company on the same day, it might make more sense to bring back needs one team at a time to drastically reduce congestion in the office.
A comprehensive critical communications platform can facilitate a return to company headquarters, from distributing polls on employee work-from-home success to managing arrival times for a “scattered” work day. Communicate with workers ahead of their arrival to highlight key changes to office “flow” or sanitation procedures ahead of their arrival. Administrators can also deliver push notifications directly to a targeted group at a certain location, allowing for more targeted coordination of office density reduction efforts.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
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