As the COVID-19 pandemic plateaus and (hopefully) begins its decline, office managers are considering what changes need to be made to create a safe workplace. This brings good news and bad news. The good news is the most impactful changes have nothing to do with the physical characteristics of an office, but instead are about changing daily behaviors. The bad news is changing human behavior is arguably one of the hardest things to do.
Office management will need to implement protocols that effectively limit infected and potentially infected people from entering the workplace. These habits should exist all the time, but are particularly critical during a pandemic and flu season. If we can accomplish this critical priority, along with a collection of other changes, we will become much more effective at dealing with the cases in the workplace that thwart our best efforts.
Enforcing staff to refrain from coming into the office at all is the only guarantee of non-transmission in the workplace. This is the reason Work From Home orders were put in place, and why working remotely will be a growing and permanent part of business strategies moving forward. There are many studies, papers, podcasts, and books about Distributed Work and the challenges and opportunities it presents. Although that topic is related and very important, it is not what we are tackling here.
There are some changes to the workplace that can be made immediately. Each of these changes comes with a cost and an unspecifiable effect on the chance of transmission, individually or collectively. No single thing will result in a completely safe space, but making these changes collectively will attack the nature of a microscopic bug that wants nothing more than to survive and thrive, mostly by perpetuating itself.
Let’s begin with clearly identifying the problem at hand before jumping into possible solutions.
COVID-19, like so many other viral contagions, is here to stay, and we don’t know as much as we need to. The CDC states:
“The most likely route of transmission is through aerosolized respiratory droplets from infected individuals and the fact that infected and contagious individuals may be asymptomatic, especially during the early stages of incubation.”
The suggestions we hear about touching our faces and washing our hands properly are primarily driven by our knowledge of other respiratory viruses - that transmission happens through the virus traveling from the infected individual’s mouth or nose directly via air or indirectly via face-touching.
The challenges of our physical workplace are first about air, and then surfaces. Therefore, the first solutions involve separation and sanitation.
As discussed, distancing is primarily about limiting transmission from person to person through the virus particles that live in the air. The CDC recommends six-foot social distancing, a number that appears to go back to the early 20th Century, addressing heavier droplets. When sneezing, coughing, and talking in calm air conditions, the heavier droplets fall rather quickly to land on surfaces, but the accompanying airborne particles can easily travel up to 12 feet in seconds. Those infectious materials can then live in the air for hours. Give those airborne droplets a little push with a sneeze or a cough and all bets are off as it becomes an air velocity, humidity, temperature equation.
The first solution when changing your workplace is to put physical distance between people once they enter your building. In areas where people congregate, like conference rooms and waiting areas, remove furniture or mark it for non-use. Marking it for non-use is preferable as furniture can be moved back into the new gaps, and having the clear markers are a reminder of the situation. Plus, this also eliminates the cost of storing furniture. Unfortunately, it is also a little unsightly, so perhaps there’s an opportunity for the creative use of pillows, stuffed animals, or even mannequins clothed in company gear. In areas where people queue, taping off proper spacing is advisable. Remember that the six-foot rule is a minimum, so more is better if space allows.
While pure distance separation is one solution, putting up barriers would be the next best option.
The first and best barrier is over everyone’s nose and mouth. Wearing proper masks helps considerably as it not only limits the size and quantity of the particles in the air expelled, but it also reduces the “throw” of the air leaving the mouth and nose. This is a difficult habit to make and it is unreasonable to expect it for an entire uninterrupted workday, but the point is that if we all do it as much as we can, as well as we can, the safer we will all be. Having multiple strategies in place will help cover the gaps in behaviors.
Secondly, consider barriers between people at reception desks, in group seating areas, and at
clusters of workstations. These are readily available in varying heights, styles, materials, and attachment systems. Air that has been pushed by lungs or mechanical systems within the office can easily push the floating particles of infection around barriers, but it will provide more protection than nothing at all. If you are looking at making this investment, it could be worth considering acoustical barriers that would have the added benefit of reducing noise levels. Additionally, there are some aesthetic options that take function and turn it into a fun design element. There is no official detailed guidance, so combining barriers with other strategies is highly advisable.
It is also worth adjusting the placement and orientation of many individuals’ primary work position to maintain maximum distances and avoid people facing each other even though they are on opposite sides of a partial wall. While many people may prefer to sit facing outwards, this position unfortunately aims that coughing, sneezing, or talking person at a walking path into which a cloud of particles may routinely float for every passerby to walk through.
Forced air mechanical systems may also play a role in spreading viruses as it actively circulates the airborne particles along with the conditioned air. Initially, one might think of reducing air velocity by reducing fan speed or increasing filtration, but systems would have to work longer and/or harder and may not as efficiently heat or cool since these systems are balanced to disperse and gather air in an engineered fashion. Adjusting these systems to change direction away from people could assist in reducing the spread of particles, but in turn could affect system performance.
Mechanical systems are designed to work with the natural circulation of air that happens with nothing but temperature contrasts. We have all experienced the cold draft emanating from glass in winter, or the heated air that radiates from surfaces warmed by sunlight. These are not localized flows of air, but are spatial circulations that can transport particles across very large spaces. Consider drawing blinds and shades closed at windows receiving direct sunlight to help limit the flow of air that would circulate up, travel along the ceiling, and then drop down as it cools, carrying the contaminated air the whole way.
Another effective strategy would be to add in a UV lamp to clean the air that passes through, just as hospital systems do. Per the National Air Filtration Association,
“The details of the system are very important (e.g., desi