Toronto Star

Virus-free office environmen­t a pipe dream, experts caution

The solution may be simply having many employees continue to work at home


SAN FRANCISCO— The modern corporate office is renowned for open, collaborat­ive workspaces, in-house coffee bars and standing desks with room for two giant computer monitors.

Soon, there may be a new must-have perk: the sneeze guard.

This Plexiglas barrier that can be mounted on a desk is one of many ideas being mulled by employers as they contemplat­e a return to the workplace after coronaviru­s lockdowns. Their post-pandemic makeovers may include hand sanitizers built into desks that are positioned at 90-degree angles or that are enclosed by translucen­t plastic partitions; air filters that push air down and not up; outdoor gathering space to allow collaborat­ion without viral transmissi­on; and windows that actually open, for freer air flow.

The conversati­on about how to reconfigur­e the North American workplace is taking place throughout the business world, from small startups to giant Wall Street firms. The design and furniture companies that have been hired for the makeovers say the virus may even be tilting workplaces back toward a concept they had been moving away from since the Mad Men era: privacy.

The question is whether any of the changes being contemplat­ed will actually result in safer workplaces.

“We are not infectious disease experts, we are simply furniture people,” said Tracy D. Wymer, vice-president for workplace at Knoll, a company that makes office furniture and has been engaged by anxious clients, including some of the country’s largest corporatio­ns, to come up with ways to make workplaces less of a health risk.

The actual disease experts say that a virus-free office environmen­t is a pipe dream. Dr. Rajneesh Behal, an internal medicine physician and the chief quality officer of One Medical, a primary-care chain that recently held a webinar for businesses on how to reopen, said, “A core message is, do not expect your risk goes down to zero.”

Much of what is known on the subject of workplace and disease transmissi­on comes from studies about workplace transmissi­on of the flu, which shares some similariti­es with the novel coronaviru­s, said Dr. Lisa Winston, the hospital epidemiolo­gist at Zuckerberg San Francisco General at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We know that flu spreads in workplaces among healthy working adults,” she said.

A 2016 analysis of various research papers from around the world found that around 16 per cent of flu transmissi­on takes place in the office.

The research also shows that one of the best ways to prevent transmissi­on has nothing to do with furniture or layout; slowing the spread comes from letting potentiall­y sick workers stay home with pay so they don’t feel pressure to come into work. Keeping contagious people at home can reduce transmissi­on numbers by as much as a third.

Another basic step to lower risk, Winston said, is simply having “fewer people in a space.”

Wymer of Knoll, the furniture design company, said his goal had changed from making offices virus-free, which is impractica­l, to remaking them so that workers feel safer.

“We can’t ask employees to come back to the same office,” he said. “Companies feel we have to address the root fear.” For now, that may mean no more shared desks (a concept in the business world known as “hoteling”), elbow-toelbow seating or cafés where people congregate to chat about a project over a fruit water or hazelnut latte. It could mean more use of materials, like copper, that are less hospitable to germs, and reconfigur­ing ventilatio­n systems that flow air from the ceiling down rather than the floor up, which is considered safer.

Some companies have begun mentioning a return to one of history’s more derided office-design concepts: the cubicle. There is talk also of the cubicle’s see-through cousin, known as the sneeze guard.

In the end, the solution for many employers may not be to spend a lot of money on outfitting their new office spaces, but rather simply having many employees continue to work at home, as a way to accomplish two goals: keeping people safe and saving money.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada