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COVID-19

Offices prepare for post-virus return to work

Meghan McCarty Carino Apr 22, 2020
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Workspaces where people sit across from each other might not be the best idea when we return to work. Oli Scarff/Getty Images
COVID-19

Offices prepare for post-virus return to work

Meghan McCarty Carino Apr 22, 2020
Workspaces where people sit across from each other might not be the best idea when we return to work. Oli Scarff/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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We’re beginning to see signs of planning for reopening some parts of the economy, sooner in some places than others. But business will probably look pretty different: restaurant tables spaced out 6 feet apart, widespread masks and touchless payment systems. For the tens of millions of Americans who work at desk jobs, office space could be transformed.

Ramon Peralta heads his own creative agency, Peralta Design in Shelton, Connecticut, and has always taken pride in his stylish headquarters.

“You know, beautiful office campus, glass conference room, all the amenities,” he said. Of course it has the popular open floor plan, which is newly imbued with a sense of danger.

“We may consider doing some plexiglass dividers or kind of cough shields,” he said.

Workstations facing each other might be turned apart, the fun game room repurposed into a solo office and the whole space will get more frequent and deeper cleanings when his team eventually returns. 

Some workers have already returned to offices in China run by commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield. Despina Katsikakis has been helping put together best practices for its global offices using the experience in China as a model.

“We’re working to test a lot of hands-free technology,” she said, including automated infrared temperature checks, facial recognition or QR code entries and voice-activated elevators.

Buildings will also need improved air flow, said Joseph G. Allen, a professor of environmental health at Harvard University and author of the book “Healthy Buildings.”

“You bring in more outdoor air and you dilute anything that’s indoor air,” he said. “And, of course, if you a partner that with enhanced filtration, you can actually capture virus particles and other particles.”

If windows can be opened, they should be, he said. If not, ventilation systems should be adjusted to bring in more air as most are currently set to adhere to standards geared toward energy efficiency rather than health.

But maybe the biggest change will be workers who don’t want to return to the office, at least on a regular basis. Creative agency director Peralta is preparing for that.

“If they don’t feel comfortable coming in, they won’t have to,” he said.

Of course, not all companies can operate with workers staying home long term, and there are plenty of workers that will welcome a return to a workplace free of the challenges of home.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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