Want to reopen your office? When you do, consider temperature checks for employees as they arrive at work, facemasks, and plastic dividers between desks that are closer than six feet apart. Those are just some of the new list of recommendations that the Centers for Disease Control just released for companies that plan to have their employees return to the workplace.
The recommendations are just that -- they're not legally binding. But chances are these guidelines would come into play during any potential litigation over workplace safety. Besides, some expert say, most of these measures are very good ideas that you should consider adopting if you want you and your employees to stay healthy.
Here's just some of what the CDC wants you to do.
1. Review your HVAC system.
If your office has been closed for a while, there may be procedures you or your building's facilities staff must follow to safely restart your ventilation/heating/cooling system. (Covid-19 is a huge concern, but Legionnaires' disease is still out there too.) Beyond those normal measures, the CDC wants you to open windows and create airflow from outdoors as much as possible, increase airflow in general, and increase filtration without decreasing airflow. It also suggests creating "clean-to-less-clean air movement," by, for example, creating positive air pressure in work areas (but not higher-risk areas such as reception.)
2. Encourage social distancing between employees.
There are many ways you should do this, including staggered work times, and staggered use of elevators and entry areas -- visitors should phone from their cars before entering for example. Set desks so that employees work at least six feet apart and consider installing plastic dividers where that isn't possible. Remove or rope off seating in indoor communal areas to discourage employees and visitors from congregating there. Instead, encourage employees to gather outdoors for lunch and other breaks when possible. Cloth facemasks are recommended. Communal food areas and coffee stations should be removed, the CDC says, replaced with wrapped, single-serve items.
Also, although governments have for years been recommending car-pooling and public transportation use to reduce pollution and traffic congestion, in view of the coronavirus the CDC suggests that you now encourage employees to drive to work solo, providing parking vouchers, for instance.
3. Monitor employees' health.
"Consider conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks (e.g., symptoms and/or temperature screening) of employees before they enter the work site," the CDC advises. Employees who have symptoms or become symptomatic during the workday should immediately be sent home and given guidelines to follow to get the care they need and to make sure they won't be contagious when they return to work.
High-touch surfaces, including keyboards, should be cleaned and disinfected regularly, and employees should be provided with sanitizing wipes and encouraged to frequently wash their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds. Employers should provide single-use paper towels as well.
The obvious alternative.
These guidelines may constitute the final deathblow to the notion that everyone in your company has to work together in the office every day. Some companies, most notably Twitter, have already announced that most employees can work from home forever if they want. Others, such as Google and Facebook, say their employees can at least until the end of this year. The CDC has just given every other company a big push in that direction because for most, the only way to comply with the social distancing elements of these guidelines will be either to acquire a lot more office space or else have a lot fewer people in the office.
That points the way to a possible solution. Have people who are currently working at home come back to the office -- but not every day, unless that's where they want to be. Employees who work in the office one or two days a week still benefit from social interaction and casual conversations with their colleagues. They can still attend in-person meetings (although the CDC says those should be held outdoors). And that will leave extra space, allowing employees to work farther apart and to maintain those six feet of separation more easily.
The world we all lived in five months ago is gone for the foreseeable future, and that especially includes the world of work. It's up to each business to find its own balance between social distancing and working together, and between safety and collegiality. These CDC guidelines are a big wake-up call that the time to start looking for that balance is now.