Running an office just got a lot more complicated.

Our physical spaces are going to look much different as we return to work amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Even as the number of new cases drop and cities begin to reopen, it will be up to everyone to remain vigilant in order to prevent new outbreaks while we await a vaccine.

That means office managers will need to become experts on public health and sanitation best practices—as if they didn’t already have enough to worry about. 

“If you manage any sort of gathering place, like an office, you now have a special role in fighting this pandemic and preventing COVIDs spread,” says Amy Pooser, global chief operating and people officer at Convene. “It’s vital that those of us tasked with running these places do our part.”

If you manage an office space, here is what you need to know and prepare for as employees return.

Know Thy Enemy – How Coronavirus Spreads in Office Environments

In many ways, the novel coronavirus is similar to common flu and cold viruses in how it spreads.. “Cold and flu viruses live in the nose, throat, and lungs—this is the respiratory tract,” explains Dr. Anish Mehta (MD, MPP), a board-certified physician in internal medicine and director of clinical affairs at Eden Health. “A person ‘catches’ a cold or the flu when the virus gets into their respiratory tract, and the virus starts to live and replicate there.”

Viruses can get into our respiratory system in a few ways. Most commonly, we get infected when virus particles get on our hands and we subsequently touch our eyes, mouth, or nose. Viruses can also travel on tiny droplets of water spread by someone coughing, talking, or sneezing, which could then land on our faces. The least common way (though still possible) is from breathing in virus particles floating in the air that an infected person has exhaled.

There are a few things that make the novel coronavirus more contagious than your typical flu, Dr. Mehta says. For one, the virus is smaller, meaning it can travel and land on surfaces farther away. Second, it takes fewer viral particles to get sick from the novel coronavirus than many other viruses. And third, people can spread the coronavirus without showing any symptoms. So even though you may feel healthy, you could be carrying (and spreading) the disease.

That seems scary, but the good news is we have a pretty good idea of how to fight transmission. “While the virus spreads easily, it does not have supernatural properties,” says Dr. Mehta. “The recommendations that are based in science genuinely work to prevent transmission of the virus.”

Reducing Density

Scientists are still learning about the novel coronavirus and the type of environments that make transmission more likely. There is evidence that close interactions, particularly in indoor spaces, can be a major transmission risk. Cutting down on this means reducing the number of people occupying a space so that people can spread out—at least six feet—and thus reduce the risk of transmission.

Why six feet? Viruses can spread on the tiny, nearly invisible droplets of water that get projected from our mouths when we cough, sneeze, breath or even just speak. And six feet is a generally agreed upon distance at which microdroplets are less likely to jump from person-to-person.

Another important reason to reduce density has to do with simple math—if more people are congregated together and one of them is contagious, the virus can spread to more people. In the event of a transmission, reduced density can also make contact tracing easier. Rather than tracking down 50+ people someone may have interacted with, you cut the number down and slow potential transmission vectors.

“It’s still important to avoid large groups or gatherings because these can be hotspots for virus transmission,” says Dr. Mehta.

Ventilation and Filtration

While outdoor transmission is possible, early evidence suggests that indoor environments have a higher transmission risk, as the air an infected person exhales can travel around the room and thus infect other persons. Exhaled air is more quickly dispersed outdoors or in areas with good ventilation.

Convene’s vice president of architecture, Kevin Denlinger, recently told Commercial Observer:

“The tenants who will do deals are going to be focused on larger, column-free offices so their workers can stay socially distanced as much as possible in the office. Another important (factor) will be the air-flow and air-filtration of buildings.”

Besides ventilation, air filtration can play a big role in keeping an office clean and healthy. Viruses can hitch rides through the air on microdroplets, so while the virus itself may be too small to filter, high quality air purifiers can help remove those microdroplets from the air and put the virus out of commission, while also cutting down on allergens and other disease vectors.

Individual Habits and Hygiene

One of the biggest factors in fighting the spread of coronavirus at the office comes down to individual habits and hygiene.

Hopefully everyone at your office got the basics of personal hygiene down long ago. Now you need everyone to go further. Dr. Mehta stresses that one of the best ways to fight the virus is to maintain “strict hand hygiene.”

“This means washing hands with soap or disinfecting hands with alcohol-based sanitizer very frequently,” he says. “This is by far the most common way that the virus is spread—a person gets viral particles on their hands, and then touches their hands to their face.”

Dr. Mehta suggests using alcohol-based hand sanitizers or washing your hands at least every hour. Remember, this is not only about protecting yourself, but protecting those around you as well. The longer you have virus particles on your hands, the more places you can spread it, just by going about your typical day. Of course, office managers should be expected to make hand hygiene supplies readily available and well-stocked.

No amount of fancy cleaning technology will be sufficient without individuals doing their part to keep themselves and others safe. That’s why Convene is introducing a new “social contract” that all members and guests are expected to abide by. This includes regular hand washing, wearing a mask indoors, and staying home if you think you may be ill or have been directly exposed to someone who is sick.

Cleaning and Sanitation

Everyone likes a clean office. But in the post-COVID-19 world, cleaning will have to go beyond looking and smelling good.

Frequently wiping down high-touch surfaces with disinfectant is a must—elevator buttons, door handles, faucets, counters, and more. Weekly deep cleanings will ensure that all nooks and crannies are free of germs. “Standard cleaning products containing bleach or alcohol are very effective against the coronavirus,” advises Dr. Mehta. “Coronavirus is not a bacteria, so ‘antibacterial soaps’ are not any more effective than standard products containing alcohol or bleach.”

Fabric surfaces pose a potential challenge, as they are not easily wiped or sprayed with disinfectant. This is partly behind the increase in popularity of electrostatic mist sprayers. These tools spray electrically charged disinfectant. The charged droplets are attracted to surfaces and stick to them better, making it a more effective disinfecting tool.

Whether you clean your office yourself or contract with a custodial services company, there’s a few things you want to check:

  1. Are you using cleaning supplies that actually disinfect? Many cleaning agents may take  away dirt and grime but leave germs behind.
  2. Exactly what surfaces are being cleaned and how often?
  3. What equipment is being used to clean and how often is equipment replaced or disinfected?
  4. Are high-touch areas getting more frequent attention?
  5. How are you keeping cleaning staff safe? Do they have proper PPE and training?

Keep Sick Workers OUT of the Office

This cannot be stressed enough: if you are sick, stay home. 

Office managers will have to strictly enforce these rules. All too often, workers come into work with “just a cold” and end up getting their entire team sick. With COVID-19, the stakes are much higher. “Office environments have an important role of identifying people who have COVID-19-like symptoms and ensuring that they stay out of the environment,” says Dr. Mehta. While individual choices make a big difference here, office managers must also play a role to keep people safe.

That may mean daily temperature checks before being allowed in the office. At Convene, all employees, members, and guests will have to pass a brief screening for temperature, symptoms, and exposure risk before being given the all-clear to enter the building.

“Of course, individuals must do their part to be responsible and stay home if they don’t feel well or even think they might be sick,” says Pooser. “But office managers need to go a step further and do what we can to keep sick people out of the office and at home.”

High Stakes

If this all feels a bit overwhelming, you’re not alone. Managing an office prior to the pandemic mostly meant stocking office supplies and dealing with broken printers. Now, the stakes are much higher. As you’re planning to reopen the important thing is know the facts, have a plan, and ensure you have the team (and supporting partners) to put those plans in place.

“Running an office in this new world is a serious responsibility, and not something that should be taken lightly,” says Pooser. “We’re committed to doing what it takes to keep our members and guests safe, and to sharing our expertise with those in need.”

Looking for information on keeping your office safe? Check out what measures Convene is implementing to ensure we maintain the safest workplace possible.