How to Make your Office Safer for Everyone During COVID-19

In only a few short weeks, the emergence of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, has created an unprecedented impact on the way we live and work. As the virus continues to spread across the United States, public life is increasingly shut down. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks in the United States.

While many organizations are moving to remote work, some companies work with proprietary systems or with sensitive materials that require employees, or shifts of workers, to be on-premise to get their job done well. As champions of a great work experience, we want to help everyone stay healthy in the office while sharing common workspaces.

Looking to safely bring your team back to the office? We can help. See how with Robin Return.

This post is meant to cover the basics of creating a healthy and sanitary work environment. We believe workplace wellbeing extends not just to cleaning and disinfecting the office, but to good communication and signage strategies, and healthy office culture for COVID and beyond. We hope these tips for office safety will provide both knowledge and peace of mind as we navigate this critical public health issue.

What you can expect to find in this post:
1. Regular cleaning guidance from the CDC
2. Air quality and ventilation systems
3. Social distancing in the office
4. Communication and signage

Collect the right materials, establish a thoughtful plan, and put it into practice with this office safety checklist.

Cleaning guidance from the CDC

While the spread of the virus might feel unavoidable, the fact is that good cleaning and disinfection routines can greatly reduce or eliminate the risk of a viral count of COVID-19 on surfaces and objects in the office. As employers, it's all of our duty to maintain a clean environment and make sure every person feels safe coming in every day. 

The CDC has provided detailed instructions on how to clean and disinfect workspaces, as well as a list of EPA-Approved disinfectants known to be effective against SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). While the CDC's interim guidance should be read, understood, and followed closely, here are a few key points you should know before you begin:

  • Use disposable gloves, gowns, a mask (like a cloth face covering) for cleaning and disinfection. Carefully remove and throw them away immediately after disinfection and trash disposal.
  • Always clean before beginning disinfection. Cleaning with a detergent or soap and water solution removes particles that can carry risk of COVID-19 on surfaces. This reduces the viral load before disinfection begins, which helps the disinfectant to be more effective in killing the remaining virus.
  • While there is a list of EPA-approved disinfectants , one easy-to-access solution is household bleach and water. The CDC recommends:
  • 5 tablespoons (1/3rd cup) bleach per gallon of water. (Good for floors and larger surface cleaning.)
  • 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water (Handy for spray bottle applications.)
  • If using disinfecting wipes (such as Clorox or Lysol wipes) remember that to properly disinfect, you should clean only one item at a time, using enough wipes to ensure the surface stays wet for 4 minutes.
  • Remember to never mix cleaning products together.
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces daily in common areas (e.g. tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs, light switches, phone receivers and keypads, remotes, handles, touchscreens, desks, toilets, sinks, elevator and elevator buttons, etc).
  • Clean and disinfect shared electronics and equipment, digital signage, and touch-screen kiosks.

Air quality and ventilation systems

The Coronavirus outbreak shed light on the importance of indoor air quality and steps needed to mitigate the spread of germs and disease in an office space. Not only that, but according to a 2017 HBR study, breathing better air “led to significantly better decision-making performance,” planning, preparedness, and strategy during crises.

Offices are home to many sources of air contamination, including volatile organic compounds (from cleaning agents, furniture, and other materials), and bacteria, mold, and viruses. Poor ventilation exacerbates the presence of these contaminants.

To maintain healthy indoor environments as you phase employees back into the office, facilities need to concentrate on plumbing, ventilation, and filtration systems that filter, dilute, and remove pathogens. When looking into improving your office’s filtration system, focus on the minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV), a number from 1 and 16 that is relative to an air filter’s efficiency based on particle size.

According to environmental services company, Camfil, “the higher the MERV, the more efficient the air filter is at removing particles. At the lower end of the efficiency spectrum a fiberglass or polyester panel filter may have a MERV of 4 or 5. At the higher end, a MERV 14 filter is typically the filter of choice for critical areas of a hospital (to prevent transfer of bacteria and infectious diseases)... For the cleanest air, a user should select the highest MERV filter that their unit is capable of forcing air through based on the limit of the unit’s fan power.”

Common recommendations include MERV 13 for office buildings, MERV 14 for medical facilities, and MERV 8 for outside air intakes in urban areas.

Using their own experience with WELL Building experience, WorkDesign Mag suggests the following air quality interventions:

  • Address indoor air quality issues-perceived and actual-in existing buildings
  • Conduct air quality assessments, testing, design and provide engineering guidance to improve ventilation effectiveness of existing HVAC systems, support long-term air-quality monitoring, and create air-quality awareness
  • Adapt controls and sequencing to accommodate and monitor additional filtration needs, and additional criteria concerning recirculated air systems
  • Develop messaging and education for building occupants-dashboards, apps, situational cues-to reduce concerns regarding potential pathogen transmission

For more general air quality tips, including the importance of bringing the outdoor air in, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put together an exhaustive list of resources here

Social distancing measures in the office

For companies who require on-premise employees, social distancing in the office is required from the start, not just once offices begin to fully reopen. Getting in the habit early will give time to test what method works best for your team before everyone transitions back.

Methods to consider for physical distancing: 

  1. Limit who comes into the office and when with flexible hours and staggered shifts: Use A/B shifts to accommodate for cleaning schedules and limited workstations.
  2. Use a social distancing desk tool to make it map out what a socially distanced floor plan looks like using only desks 6ft or more apart. Assign or allow people to book their own desks based on what’s available. Determine capacity based on physical distancing and plan A/B shifts accordingly.
  3. Either prohibit or keep visitors to a minimum unless absolutely necessary. Prohibit personal packages delivered to the office. For snacks and coffee, and locker use, limit some, if not all, within the office to decrease the amount of shared surfaces.
  4. Update office design with partitions between desks and social spaces, revised seating arrangements, and directional signage like floor markers for one-way hallways and staircases. 
  5. Maintain virtual meetings in the office: Repurpose every conference room into a personal office and/or storage area in the early stages of COVID-6.
  6. Touchless entry: Using an access control system like OpenPath, every in-office employee can badge into the building using their phones.

Communication and signage on COVID-19 in the workplace

They say sunshine is the best disinfectant; in this case, the bright light of good communication is one of your first and best defenses against the physical and emotional aspects of navigating coronavirus. Be prepared to reassure and support employees who may be going through a range of emotions and personal challenges as a result of the virus and containment efforts:

  • Provide clear, concise and well-worded updates that are relevant to your location, industry, and current work culture. Communicate in a timely, calm manner.
  • Offer channels for support and two-way communication. Create a space for your staff to reach out with their concerns and needs; where possible, make accommodations for specific needs that arise.
  • Provide signage around the office that will keep everyone mindful of safety: good respiratory hygiene, cleaning recommendations, social distancing, and symptom checks. The CDC has developed a series of printable materials and posters for use in community settings, like outside of meeting rooms or throughout high traffic hallways.

In the event that you need to coordinate some of your company to work from home while others from the office, or eventually, everyone working from home, here are some tips on how to manage that transition:

  • Continue to provide clear, concise and well-worded updates that are relevant to your location, industry, current work culture, and overall state of the pandemic. Communicate in a timely, calm manner.
  • Make sure tech is consistent across the entire company including communication, video conferencing, project management, and collaboration tools.
  • Continue to clean all spaces in the office, shared or not, and push everyone to wipe down their desks and equipment as soon as they're done for the day. This is especially important if people are sharing spaces and if teams switch off working in the office.
  • Provide hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment (PPE) across the office building and make sure everyone knows where to find both in order to mitigate the risk of spreading germs.
  • Create an internal communication channel (we use Slack at Robin) to post relevant company updates.
  • Keep team communication consistent. It's easy for team collaboration to decrease without face-to-face interaction making it that much more critical that communication is prioritized with daily or weekly posts, emails, and video calls. With that being said, be mindful of how much time you're taking out of the workday to check in through video calls.
  • Don't forget to value social and recharge interactions, beyond just "work talk". Encourage digital get-togethers in the form of team lunches, happy hours, and group downtime via video calls when needed.
  • Check in with your team early and often to gauge what's working and where people need extra support.
  • Promote a work-life balance for everyone, especially working parents. Social distancing requires lots of downtime at home which can result in an unclear blend of work and non-work activities.

Back in the office? Steps you can take to keep your office safe

If you've spent time working from home as a preventative measure, it's the best time to institute optimal hygiene practices and solutions that can reduce the spread of viruses and colds (which is always welcomed, whether COVID-19 is a concern or not). Some ideas include:

  1. Increase the availability of disinfecting wipes and virus-killing hand sanitizers, and be sure everyone knows how to use them effectively . As an added touch, quality unscented lotion around the office will keep everyone from drying out while keeping their hands clean. Encourage everyone in the office to commit to regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces.
  2. Continue to improve professional cleaning and disinfecting procedures within the office to reduce the occurrence of germs and bacteria in the workplace.
  3. Where possible, rely on touch-reducing amenities, such as double-swinging push doors, motion sensor lights, and other hands-free amenities that reduce germs in high-traffic areas.
  4. If flexible seating is an option in your office and people share desks, require everyone to clean equipment, workstations, and surfaces as soon as they leave or move to a different spot.

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Using these guidelines, you can confidently help your staff navigate the challenges of this global public health issue. Should you have any questions or concerns about COVID-19 at home, school, or in the office, you can find more resources provided by the CDC here.

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