Altered Office Environments Will Likely Greet Workers Returning From Quarantine

June 24, 2020
A floor sign encourages social distancing at the International Atomic Energy Agency's center in Vienna, May 11, 2020. Indoor work environments worldwide are likely to get a makeover, as companies rethink workplace safety during the pandemic. Photo: IAEA/Dean Calma, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Altered Office Environments Will Likely Greet Workers Returning From Quarantine

By Joseph A. Davis

When and if you return to your office after the COVID-19 work-from-home quarantine, you may find many things changed. Even if they find a vaccine.

Preventing the spread of infection in the workplace is serious business and there are many kinds of workplaces other than offices. But rethinking the design of workspaces is definitely something companies big and small will be working on.

It’s also a story for environmental journalists to follow. That’s because indoor spaces are environments — a fact which is often overlooked by news media used to thinking about chemical plant fumes and polluted rivers. 


Why it matters

The health impacts of workplace setups matter because people’s health matters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average American spends some 90 percent of his or her time indoors. 

Exposure to indoor air pollution is therefore a significant challenge to people’s health. And it’s more than just cigarette smoke (there was a time when people were allowed to smoke in offices). 


The air indoors is often more unhealthy

 than air outdoors, because environmental 

threats are contained and concentrated 

rather than diffused and dispersed.


In fact, the air indoors is often more unhealthy than air outdoors, because environmental threats are contained and concentrated rather than diffused and dispersed. And some of the most vulnerable people (small children, older people with cardiovascular and respiratory problems) spend even more of their time indoors. 

For now, let’s set aside the many sources of indoor air pollution (combustion, vapors, building materials) to emphasize that many are in fact biological. Not just mold, pet dander and dust mites, but a whole constellation of disease-causing microorganisms. 

Indoors is usually where we catch colds (from viruses). These are often transmitted via micro-droplets (aerosols) from a cough or sneeze, which float in the air for a long time.     


COVID-19 is one among many workplace threats

The current pandemic coronavirus can be nasty or fatal to many and there are a number of clear steps for preventing its spread. 

But COVID-19 is hardly the only health threat in the workplace. Flu, another respiratory virus, is common and nasty as well. 


Other transmissible viral and 

bacterial diseases can spread in 

the workplace, whether from droplets 

in the air or germs on a surface.


Other transmissible viral and bacterial diseases can spread in the workplace, whether from droplets in the air or germs on a surface. And whatever you do, don’t look in the employee restroom or the breakroom refrigerator.

From the employer’s point of view, it only makes business sense not to have workers be sick. Lost productivity and disrupted work schedules cost actual money. 

Not all employers are fully enlightened, though. Stingy sick leave policies encourage employees to come to work sick — and possibly infect other workers or customers. 

So one thing that might change is sick leave policies … by which we mean paid sick leave, the only kind that gives workers an incentive to stay home.

While many communicable diseases, like the common cold, are not as serious, there are others, like bacterial meningitis, that can be serious and are spread in close quarters. 

Certainly, the workplace is not the only place where transmission can take place, so the strength of the overall healthcare and public health systems matters.   


The backstory

Quarantining, “sheltering-in-place” and “social distancing” are infection-slowing techniques that have been well-known to public health professionals for some time. They go back well before the “Spanish” flu pandemic of 1918, perhaps to Biblical times. 

By limiting the amount of close contact between people, societies aim to suppress the spread of infection from person to person.

For the last few months, many “non-essential” workers have been working from home, or “teleworking,” with full approval, even a mandate, from their employers. Telework in one form or another has existed almost since the beginning of the internet. But today’s corporate computer systems allow office email, remote file access and sharing, and remote computer access, among other things.

Since the pandemic began, it has become increasingly common to hold meetings remotely online, or “video conferencing” — another thing that was possible, but not so popular before. People use tech like Zoom, Webex or Teams. Of course, the kids had been using FaceTime all along, but not really for work. Many people still find these platforms difficult or annoying.

Even journalists, or especially journalists, have been using such technologies a lot longer. Journalists often need to write, shoot, record, edit and file stories remotely from their laptop or other device — a capability that has extended the reach of journalism in many ways. 

Nowadays, even cable networks have correspondents and interviewees speaking from their living rooms — whatever the sound quality or interruptions.     


Story ideas

  • Visit some reopening general offices in your area. What are the post-COVID-19 concerns of employers and employees?
  • How do local offices intend to reconfigure or redesign their spaces to minimize the risks of disease transmission? Furniture? Structures? Ventilation? Air filtration? Ultraviolet disinfection? What has been removed or added?
  • Visit local office design and architecture firms and discuss what techniques and technologies they offer. Visit their clients. How is office design changing?
  • Check with local employers to ask about changes in work policies that may result from the pandemic. Telework? Sick leave? Family leave? Temperature checks and screening? Communal coffee machines?
  • Ask local employers what changes they have made in work scheduling (e.g., staggering or rotation of hours). Has this changed costs or productivity?
  • How do spacing requirements affect building rental costs?
  • Ask yourself what special redesign needs may arise from particular types of offices. Doctors? Dentists? Customer service? Banking? Phone support? Tech and IT?


Reporting resources

  • Architect magazine: An up-to-date professional magazine that has articles on office design in the post-COVID-19 world.
  • Work Design magazine: Another professional design magazine focused on different kinds of workplaces and aware of post-COVID-19 needs.
  • Architecture and design schools: Find some of the university-level schools of architecture and design near you and look for experts there who may have ideas about redesigning offices.
  • Local design firms: There are many branches of professional design, but use Google and directories to find firms near you that design/redesign office spaces.
  • NIOSH: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has some suggestions about safe offices.
  • CDC: Yes, the Centers for Disease Control. Despite White House efforts to stifle it, the CDC has put out healthy office guidelines that have gotten attention
  • OSHA: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t seem to have grappled with the subject of post-COVID-19 safety, but you might ask their press office. Check also with your state OSHA office.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 25. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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