How Business Offices Can Adapt to the COVID-19 Pandemic
The pandemic may have forever changed the way we work. Social distancing rules and stay-at-home orders have led many business offices to evolve into new ways of functioning day to day. The office of packed elevators and lunchrooms — as well as conference rooms and teamwork tables — may not be returning anytime soon.
The overall objective is to help limit the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 while also being able to conduct business and keep office systems and procedures running smoothly.
Following guidelines can help the virus from spreading and surging. For those of us in the office, here are some best practices:
That means staying at least six-feet apart from coworkers , commuters and other neighbors and associates in the building. As a result, the strategy is to reduce office capacity and the number of employees allowed in the office at one time. In-person meetings should be discouraged if possible; otherwise limit the number of people attending to just a few, with social-distancing objectives in place.
Be sure to make clear which seats can be used and which seats should be left empty. Stagger the number and location of seats to reinforce social distancing. You also may want to arrange to have each desk or seat “booked”by a central reservation system, so there is no common use of these spaces and furniture items. Of course, with a plan like this, you have to remain flexible and realize that the strategy may have to change from day to day.
Place signs every six feet to remind employees about where they need to stand or sit regarding social distancing.
Cleaning and disinfecting
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus may remain viable for hours or days on surfaces made from different types of materials. A best practice includes cleaning visibly dirty surfaces followed by applying a disinfectant. This is also helpful in fighting other viral respiratory illnesses.
Keep these items on your cleaning and disinfecting checklist:
- Phone consoles
- Kitchen appliances, including microwaves
- Door handles
- Common tables
Spaces to be cleaned go well beyond the office. They include:
- External hallways
- Parking garages
- Stairs and stairwells
Check out the CDC’s guidance on Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility and the World Health Organization’s advice for office cleaning.
Many people want and can work from home, but it’s not an ideal situation for everyone. Before deciding who can and cannot return to the office, ask yourself these questions:
- Who needs to be here?
- Who wants to be here?
- How much touching and interacting do employees need to do on a daily basis?
- How much interaction is there with outside vendors, clients and contractors? Can this be stopped for the duration?
- Do any employees suffer from pre-existing health conditions that may endanger them?
- How many people can fit into the office while still being able to maintain social distancing?
- Are there extra masks on hand to distribute?
Note: introduce a “no visitor” policy to reduce risk of contagion. Only authorized employees should be allowed to enter the office.
Remember these facts from The American Lung Association:
- Coughing can spread 3,000 droplets at a rate of 50 miles per hour.
- Sneezing can spread 100,000 droplets at a rate of 100 miles per hour.
In order to help prevent the spread of the virus, your office may no longer look the way it did in the old days. Of course, an empty office void of employees will make moving furniture and equipment easier.
Keep these suggestions in mind:
- Create “occupied” signs that let employees know when someone is in the restroom, closet, storeroom or breakroom.
- Designate hallway travel directions as “one way” to avoid employees having to pass each other in close proximity.
- Block off areas where people tend to casually congregate, like the kitchen, vending machines or watercooler.
- If possible, install automatic touchless doors and sink faucets.
- Add sanitizer stations throughout the office.
- Insert partitions, sneeze guards, floor tape and plastic curtains to separate workers.
You’ll not want everyone present in the office at the same time, as that may increase the chances of spreading infection. Allowing everybody to be in the office — but at different days and times, will give your employees a chance to benefit from not having to be working from home 100 percent of the time.
A few ways to achieve staggered schedules:
- Fielding requests that honor childcare hours and other personal responsibilities.
- Having your employees work in shifts, such as a morning or afternoon shift.
- Day scheduling: Mondays/Wednesdays vs. Tuesdays/Thursdays.
Always allow some time for employees to enter and exit without having to interact, and make sure that work stations are thoroughly cleaned between use.
Screening for infection
Some employees may be asymptomatic and not even know it. All it takes is one employee to spread the virus, and the most vulnerable are at the most risk.
If possible, adapt these strategies:
- Temperature screenings.
- Antibody testing
- COVID-19 testing stations
- Detailed questionnaires asking employees about their recent travel and behavior patterns.
Then, get proactive:
- Send symptomatic employees home, or to an isolated room.
- Send all employees home
- Notify all employees of the symptomatic employee.
- Immediately clean and disinfect the office.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, returning to work amidst the COVID-19 crisis involves a great deal of planning and effort. Taking these preemptive steps and encouraging communication may help keep your employees safe until the better days ahead eventually return.
Check out COVID-19 Guidance on Social Distancing at Work from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).