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A science-backed strategy for safer office reopening

office reopening plexiglass Covid-19
REUTERS/Emily Elconin
Back to the office, through protective barriers.
  • Alexandra Ossola
By Alexandra Ossola

Membership editor


For months, Joanne Wright has been working to answer one question: How do we get employees back into offices safely? Wright, the vice president of enterprise operations and services at IBM, was responsible for building a playbook to guide the return of 350,000 employees to 1,000 offices in 175 countries.

“Early [on] we had a realization that 95% of IBM employees could work from home, and it’s really just 5% that needed to continue support their jobs,” Wright said. “We needed to be sure that 5% felt safe in their roles and tasks. That’s what drove the playbook.”

After a few weeks of work, the company had a plan that could be altered depending on how Covid-19 was spreading in a particular area. Now, months into the pandemic, some IBM offices in Asia/Pacific and Europe are open (at a reduced capacity), while those in the US and Latin America remain closed for everyone but essential workers. Many of the company’s workers have not been into an office since March, Wright says, relying on digital tools to collaborate. Some may opt not to return at all. “We really are giving the IBMers the sole choice and decision,” she says.

Similar conversations are happening in businesses all over the world. Many parts of Asia and Europe have lifted lockdowns as cases of the virus have plummeted, while US states are still reopening in phases. For companies in all of these places, strategies for how to reopen offices continue to evolve. Consulting firms and software have emerged intending to help companies understand the risks and make changes to address them.

But the virus isn’t gone, and so returning to offices still presents a risk. To prevent workers from getting sick on the job, companies need to consider science-based infection prevention policies. Advice from experts and guidelines from organizations like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can set businesses on the right path.

Step 1: Assess

For companies to know what office layouts or policies need to change, they need a good sense of what activities present the highest risk. Those answers will be different depending on the company, location, and how it uses its office.

For example, an office that frequently welcomes clients or outside guests might concentrate its efforts on the places where workers and guests interact; one in which employees sit close together for many hours per day may consider other strategies.

“The devil is in the details,” says Lucia Mullen, a senior analyst at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Businesses need to drill into their operations, how their people interact, and create a strategy that builds off of that.”

They should also consider the infection rate in the community around them. Is now the right time to reopen? “I encourage businesses to look at community transmission in that area and implement infection control measures, while also encouraging/allowing people to still work remotely if they’d prefer,” says Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist. In general, US states are reporting data like daily infection rates and death rates, which could be valuable for companies to watch if they’re rising. Companies could also take into account where employees live.

At this phase, Mullen says, companies also need to determine their risk threshold—the number of cases associated with the company that would lead it to return to more restrictive policies. Before they open their offices, companies need to figure out how they’re going to keep cases at bay, and what to do if the number of cases starts rising. A company’s threshold might depend on its size or other policies they’ve implemented.

Step 2: Make moves

Once a company knows which aspects of its office would present a threat to its workers, it can start implementing policies to address them. This is where companies’ responses will vary widely, Mullen says.

Some offices are considering policies intended to reduce the number of people who are there at any given time, assigning employees staggered start times or giving them office-based shifts only on certain days of the week.

Others are looking to change the kind of contact employees have with one another. They are cordoning off break rooms, spacing them out, or putting physical barriers between those who are seated closer together. They’re changing other facets of the space, too, like upgrading HVAC systems to improve ventilation, making hand sanitizer more accessible, or increasing the frequency of cleanings for high-touch surfaces.

Some policies tackle the virus more directly. Many are planning to send health surveys to employees every time they come into the office to determine whether they might have been exposed to the virus. Some offer sign-in sheets for guests to enable contact tracing. And some organizations (universities in particular) are offering diagnostic tests for employees and students, though Mullen notes that the frequency of those tests, as well as a clear understanding of what they can show, are key. “It could create a false sense of security,” she says.

Some are also considering temperature checks for guests or for employees, though results on the efficacy of this technique have been mixed. “They are one piece of many but not something to solely rely on,” Popescu says.

It’s important to note that there’s no one policy to act as a silver bullet against Covid-19. “There is no one measure that is the Hail Mary and will dramatically reduce [risk] by itself. But a lot of these together can reduce your risk significantly,” Mullen says.

Step 3: Follow up

It’s not enough just to make these policies—companies have to be sure that employees are following them. Quality assurance checks are key, Mullen says.

They also need to communicate clearly and honestly with workers. “Businesses should be as open as possible about their protocols and how employees should report potential exposures or positive cases to make sure everyone has the information they need,” Mullen says. Wright says compliance with new policies hasn’t been an issue at IBM because the company works hard to communicate insights with its employees to build trust.

Additionally, they should update their remote work or sick leave policies so that employees who feel sick or were exposed to the virus don’t fear financial or professional repercussions for alerting their employer.

And they need to keep up with the latest research that might change researchers’ understanding of risky situations. “This is complicated, resource-intensive, and evolving—we will likely have [more Covid-19] cases when people come back, which means we need to have a plan for that,” Popescu says. “Ultimately you can’t remove all risk, but it’s important to reduce it as much as you can and communicate to employees how they can reduce risk at work and outside of work.”

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