As many countries begin the slow process of reopening with the coronavirus still on the loose, the World Health Organization issued guidelines for how to mitigate the risks of catching the virus from coworkers back in the office.
Research has found that the new coronavirus — which is transmitted chiefly via virus droplets that get into our eyes, noses, and mouths — infects people more efficiently in crowded rooms with little ventilation.
“The virus needs people to transmit between,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said during a press conference last week. “If people are in close contact with one another and you have an infected person, it will transmit to another person through these respiratory droplets.”
In offices, where many people work in close quarters, the risk of spreading COVID-19 is high. To combat that, WHO recommends that people thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water “frequently during the work shift, especially after contact with co-workers or customers.”
To make this easier, WHO recommends that hand-hygiene stations for handwashing and sanitizing be installed in prominent spots around offices.
Employers should stock up on face masks, paper tissues, and trash bins “with lids for hygienic disposal” of tissues or other items that the coronavirus might live on for hours or days, WHO said.
If someone feels sick at work, they should be given a medical mask to help ensure they can get home without infecting others.
People should remain 1 meter (about 3.3 feet) away from each other at all times, and workstations should be spaced at least 1 meter apart. That’s far less conservative than the 6-foot social-distancing guideline that experts at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged people to use when they’re out and about in this pandemic.
Workers’ hours should be staggered to avoid crowding, and meetings should be held sparingly or via teleconference. Work-related travel should be reduced or canceled if possible.
High-touch surfaces like doorknobs, tables, and laptops should be disinfected regularly. There should be posters, videos, and messages updating workers on COVID-19 safety practices, as well as risks.
People wearing face masks in a union tax-assistance office in Naples, Italy, on May 11.
Salvatore Laporta/Kontrolab/LightRocket via Getty Images
The CDC also recommends conducting daily health checks and using filters on air-conditioning units
The CDC offers similar guidelines, telling workers to stay home if they’re sick and encouraging employers to improve building ventilation systems.
A research letter published in a CDC journal in April outlined findings that air-conditioning helped to blow a person’s viral droplets in a restaurant in China, leading to several coronavirus infections across three families who dined there. Health officials have since said that buildings where people mingle outside the home — such as workplaces — should be equipped with high-efficiency air filters that can trap dirt, dust, and viral particles.
The CDC also encourages employers to conduct daily health checks to monitor employees for COVID-19 symptoms, and to ask employees to wear cloth face coverings.
It will be difficult to get around the problem of elevators and public bathrooms
None of the new guidance, however, addresses how workers should deal with some of the most crowded places at work, like elevators and restrooms — places where it’s nearly impossible to stay the recommended 6 feet (or even 3 feet) away from others.
Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech, recently told Business Insider that elevators could be coronavirus-catching hot spots for people “if they are crowded and people ride in them for a long time, like a minute or more, several times a day.”
It’s definitely a good idea to wash your hands after riding in an elevator and before starting work, especially if you’ve touched the buttons.
We don’t yet have a clear picture of what workplace coronavirus transmission might look like, but what is clear so far is that no matter what kinds of disease-fighting measures are implemented, some people will catch the coronavirus at work.
Seasonal-influenza models have suggested that anywhere from one-tenth to one-third of flu cases every year are caught at work, and transmission could be similar for the coronavirus, which is also a respiratory illness.
At Discover Financial Services in Chicago, workers might be seated at every other workstation, with X’s placed on the off-limits stations, its chief human-resources officer told The Wall Street Journal last week.
The accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has developed its own contact-tracing app to keep track of COVID-19 cases within the company when offices reopen, Accounting Today reported in April.
But the coronavirus by no means spells the end of the open-plan office. Simply put, the shared-space strategy saves employers too much cash, even if it means we have to get closer to our colleagues — and whatever they may exhale.
“Density has been a strategy for firms for a long time, to make the best use of space,” Melissa Hanley, CEO of the design firm Blitz, previously told Business Insider. “That is a premium, and that means open office.”