Don’t Return to the Office Until You Read This
An employee sits on a video call at the Unicredit SpA headquarters in Milan, Italy. (Photographer: Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg)

Don’t Return to the Office Until You Read This

You have a lot to think about at the moment if you run a company. One of the biggest questions is whether to have employees return to the office, assuming your area allows it. How do you let people do their jobs and keep them safe? We asked scientists, interior designers, public-health and building experts, and others for their thoughts on what to do right now—and what to think about for the future.

● What’s my priority?

“You should be identifying the core workers that you need to be physically present,” says Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard School of Public Health. Everyone else stays home. He says companies should follow the decades-old approach to keeping workers safe from chemical and biological hazards called the hierarchy of controls. Step 1 is “elimination”—which in the case of Covid-19 reopenings means prohibiting anyone from a building who doesn’t need to be there.

● What’s the next step?

“Substitution,” Allen says. Today, that translates to siloing critical workers so they’re easily quarantined if necessary. Step 3 is “engineering controls,” aka how we make a building safe.

Air circulation is key. “Many buildings’ ventilation systems don’t meet basic standards,” says Ian Cull, president of environmental consultant Indoor Sciences Inc. Have your system evaluated by an indoor air-quality adviser—Google your city and “test and balance consultant.” You want the building to meet the standards of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

● What space should I worry about most?

The coffee break area. “You’d be safer eating lunch in the bathroom,” says Charles Gerba, a microbiologist and environmental scientist at the University of Arizona. “How many people use that coffee machine?”

Encourage alternatives. Reimburse employees who bring coffee from home, or supply Jot (jot.co), a just-add-hot-water coffee concentrate people can make at their desks with a personal electric kettle.

● How about areas I occupy with other tenants, like elevators?

Shared spaces are problematic, says Michael Silver, chairman of Vestian LLC, a corporate real estate consulting and management company. “Most lobbies aren’t big enough for an elevator queue spaced 6 feet apart, and vertical transportation time to your office is affected,” he says.

Now’s the time to renegotiate your lease; landlords are likely to pay for safety upgrades rather than try to find a new tenant in this economy. Articulate details such as building sanitation schedules and maximum lobby-to-office travel times.

Gerba suggests minimizing elevator use if possible, because their fans don’t fully refresh air between rides. Encourage employees to use stairwells (one up, one down), stagger arrival times and days, and put footprint stickers where people should stand—while waiting for the elevator and in the elevator itself. Sheryl Schulze, who heads landlord services for architecture firm Gensler, says companies should hire a vertical transportation consultant, who can speak to speeding up cars; increasing airflow; installing touchless systems; and stacking cabs, which is when two occupy one bank.

● Should I even ask about the bathrooms?

The novel coronavirus is found in human waste, which can be aerosolized when we flush toilets. Bathrooms are high-touch environments, but they’re also more ventilated than other spaces.

For now, block off every other stall or sink. “It will not be as aesthetically pleasing as we would like, but that’s what needs to be done,” Schulze says. Install a touchless entry lock, digital counters that tally users and alert cleaning staff, and biodegradable hand-towel dispensers (blow-dryers launch germs into the air). More long-term, install floor-to-ceiling toilet partitions, touchless stall entries, toilets with sensors that lower lids before flushing, ventilation systems for each stall, and sinks with red and green lights to time 20 seconds of hand-washing.

● What about food?

“Most businesses are washing their hands of any liability issues by discouraging food delivery,” says Ben Gillam, founder of U.K. design firm ThirdWay Interiors Ltd. Your habit of leaving the office to grab a salad or sandwich for your desk is on hold, too. Both options create elevator and lobby traffic and force additional interactions.

Many companies are encouraging people to bring their lunch, according to Schulze. If you provide food service, let people order ahead and send them to multiple “grab and go” points, she says.

● I’m hearing about “deep cleans.” Do I need to do this?

A month-old list from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency details more than 400 pesticides approved to kill SARS-CoV-2. Many of the chemicals haven’t been meaningfully tested on human health. Cleaning companies are using them to keep employees safe—and lower businesses’ liability—but this is spiking exposure to such products.

Ask cleaners what they’re using, especially for after-hours deep cleans, which can involve an electrostatic sprayer blanketing surfaces with disinfectant; when in doubt, opt for gentler products, and consider options like giving staffers disposable desk mats and alcohol wipes and asking them to clean their desks daily. In a study, Gerba found that hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes dropped the amount of virus on surfaces and hands by 60% to 90%.

Lastly, run your disinfection plan by an exposure scientist from a school of public health.

● Anything else?

Sadly, you need to think about stuff like grouting. Karl Heitman, president and founder of Heitman Architects Inc., recommends oversize tiles, which reduce the number of hard-to-clean grout joints, and antimicrobial carpets and fabrics. He likes textiles and wall coverings from memosamples.com, which are commonly used in health-care settings; vinyl and rubber flooring from mohawkgroup.com; and antimicrobial coatings from Microban.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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