Covid-19 cases are dropping steadily in many countries of the Americas after a Christmas jump driven by the omicron variant and high levels of social mixing.
As the drop continues, companies across the region are once again preparing to invite at least a part of their workforce back into the physical office.
Many workers, having tasted the possibility of remote work, hope never to return to the office. According to a recent Gallup survey, around 10% of US employees want to return to the office full time. Another 60% would prefer to spend 1.5 to 2.5 days per week at the office. The remaining 30% want to remain completely remote.
Companies grappling with the return-to-office decision must accept that many people remain concerned about Covid-19 and its spread. Indeed, while cases are falling, the virus remains a very real health threat.
So what can companies do to reduce the threat of the virus in the office space?
Nearshore Americas spoke with Andreas Wagner, principal and senior practice lead of US Industrial Hygiene at environmental consulting firm Golder, a member of engineering professional services firm WSP, to hear his insights on measures organizations must take to ensure the safety of workforces as they return to the office.
Nearshore Americas: What are the hygiene or health and safety best practices companies must carry out prior to inviting their workforces back to the office?
Andreas Wagner: If you go back to March 2020, the guidance was all about hygiene: clean your hands, wash all surfaces, minimize touch on shared surfaces like handles. As soon as a case was identified in an office, companies would disinfect everything.
But two years in, we’ve learned a lot. It turns out that disinfecting everything actually helps very little. Fogging (disinfecting with gas) offices at night when no one is there is a waste of money will likely be damaging building materials, and will leave a lot of chemicals behind that people may later develop sensitivities to. However, fogging is still done because it was implemented as a control measure early in the pandemic and people have not been told to stop.
The best way to control the spread of the virus and keep people safe is to clean the air that circulates in the office. This does not mean disinfecting the air, it means being smart about airflow; ensure there is proper ventilation, bring as much outside fresh air in as possible, use the best available filtration that you can, and use common sense. Remember that the latest technology isn’t always the answer: if a product sounds too good to be true then it most likely is.
“The two meter or six feet distancing rule is based on old science”
Cleaning high-touch surface areas should be continued, though this should be a normal practice in offices because other viruses are also highly-transmittable by touching a surface that should not be ignored. This is the simplest and one of the most effective practices that can be implemented in the return to the office protocol.
Nearshore Americas: How do workplace hazard assessments differ nor with Covid-19, and how can that be communicated to returning staff?
Andreas Wagner: While there is a technical component to workplace hazard assessments with Covid-19, the other side is about risk communication.
When traditional workplace hazards are identified, controls can be implemented that are well understood and in many cases regulated.
However, in the pandemic, communicating the dangers of the virus has been harder. There are sections of society who may not think the virus is a big deal, who are against measures like mask-wearing and who do not want to be inconvenienced in any way. Communicating risks is more challenging in this situation.
Added to this were initial missteps by bodies like WHO and CDC, which, at the beginning of the pandemic, were in the position of having to give guidance based on incomplete science. These missteps created mistrust. Guidance was changed and people became confused.
Uncertainty is unhelpful in this situation, so employers who are inviting staff back to the office must be upfront in communication. They should explain that they have thoroughly reviewed the workplace situation and have implemented as many measures as possible. They must accept that they aren’t perfect, that nothing can be absolutely guaranteed, but that they will adapt their measures as guidance changes. They must be honest.
Nearshore Americas: What is the current thinking on space allocation for employees in the work environment?
Andreas Wagner: Before Covid-19 even began there was already a movement toward the sharing of office space; moving away from the traditional office to hybrid approaches with hot desking and hotelling. The pandemic has accelerated this.
The two meter or six feet distancing rule is based on old science. We found out that this virus can travel much further than two meters. The idea behind this was to prevent direct exposure. This means that if an infected person sneezed or talked, another person two meters away would avoid high viral load exposure.
Social distancing continues to make sense, but there are limitations to how effective it can be in an office environment.
Tools like plastic barriers are useless unless they provide complete separation between people. The ones that are commonly used in supermarkets and schools have actually been shown to be so problematic for ventilation that they can worsen the situation. A centralized ventilation system in the building is based on the assumption that mixing is going on, but with all these barriers there are potential dead zones with poor circulation of air.
“Uncertainty is unhelpful in this situation, so employers who are inviting staff back to the office must be upfront in communication.”
Personal protective equipment is important. When it comes to Covid-19, the problem is that it’s a virus and viruses are very small. A dust or surgical mask doesn’t help much from a filtration point of view – the virus will still come through even if attached to larger particles. Where they do work is protecting others. If an infected person sneezes or talks, most of the viral load will stay in the mask or settle quickly thereby not exposing others as much.
If you’re in a crowded environment in a poorly ventilated space putting on a mask helps. It helps reduce the overall spread of the virus.
There is a saying that ‘perfect is the enemy of good’, and this applies with the mask situation.
Nearshore Americas: How can the threat of contagion be reduced in common areas of the workplace, such as meeting rooms or cafeterias?
Andreas Wagner: There’s no single answer to this. There needs to be a basic, common sense approach to group meetings until the stage where the virus is not spreading actively. We’ve not yet reached this point.
The first move should be to limit the amount of people in any meeting room. Only those who need to be there should be there. Ideally, reduce numbers by having some participants call in rather than be present. Depending on the type of ventilation, filtration and air exchanges that the room receives, companies can come up with the ideal number of people that meetings should be limited. Also, keep the meetings as short as possible.
Ventilation and filtration are vital. Any meeting room should be well ventilated, and if a building does not have a ventilation system that can be easily upgraded, a company can bring in a portable filtration unit. These are can be very effective.
And go back to basics. Put on masks. Keep distance when possible.
Nearshore Americas: How does the architectural design of an office block impact the potential spread of a virus within the building?
Andreas Wagner: Architectural design can make a difference, but simply for the most effective way to reduce virus spread, make ventilation absolutely essential. When viruses spread 100 years ago, hospitals moved wards outside. There was a reason for that; viruses and bio contaminants will accumulate and spread in spaces that are not properly ventilated. Ventilate or even consider going outside if possible. Obviously, there are limits to this.
There are many things that can be done to improve a centralized ventilation system. Upgrading to a HEPA filtration system or MERV 13 filter can be expensive and is not always practical. But companies can still make sure their systems are working properly, that as much outside air as possible is entering the system, and that diffusers are working properly to provide airflow to all areas. Companies can become fixated on the filtration system only, or supplementary systems such as UV light or bipolar ionization, which for most office space are not necessary. Instead, they should focus on ensuring their existing systems are working properly, including completing maintenance updates.
Ventilation systems should move clean air over people and the ‘dirty’ air away from people to be collected and cleaner before recirculating it. Currently, most systems are installed in ceilings which blow air directly onto people, for it then to be sucked up back into the ceiling. This mixes potentially contaminated exhaled air with clean air, continuously exposing occupants before it gets exhausted.
Just by moving air properly within a space can make a huge difference. New buildings can be designed with ventilation systems that supply air through the floor and exhaust through the ceiling so that air moves vertically. On the tech side, there are ideas about using touchless controls especially for commonly-touched areas. Simple ideas like using materials such as copper can also be effective. Hospitals have been dealing in infection control for many years; the commercial real estate market can learn from them without necessarily introducing huge costs.