This is what every office needs to do to make it safe to return to work

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If the latest government advice is to be believed, it’s time for us to go back to the office. But there are no proper rules on how to do it. “It feels to me like my employer is much better at keeping me safe than the government,” says Lena Ciric, an environmental microbiologist at University College London who is still working from home. While the government guidance goes a little way to address health and safety concerns, she says it leaves too much room for interpretation to be truly useful. “We need to go a step further.”
The safest office will always be your own house, but as we’ve spent more time working from home – some feeling more and more isolated, others dreaming of a few hours of silence – more excuses are being leveraged to force us to go back to the office. There is still a risk though, despite health secretary Matt Hancock’s insistence to the contrary.

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In France, where 83 per cent of white-collar workers have returned to the office, compared to 34 per cent in the UK, workplaces have become transmission hotspots. Data from Santé Publique France found that one in four clusters of infection (between May 9 and August 11), excluding those that occurred in healthcare facilities, happened at work. The risk was deemed great enough for the French government to mandate masks in offices.
In the UK, landlords and employers can decide for themselves how stringent they’re going to be. But, for landlords especially, there’s a clear business reason to make buildings as safe as possible. “They are facing an existential crisis, people are questioning whether we need offices at all,” says Tushar Agarwal, co-founder and CEO of HubbleHQ, a real estate search engine for businesses. “The safer your building appears to be, the more likely your existing tenants are going to come back.”
The landlords Agarwal works with have been actively working to make visible improvements: touchless entry, one-way lifts, temperature check stations. And they’re not the only ones. In New York, where workers have also been reticent to go back to the office, real estate company RXR Realty is pulling out all the stops: from thermal scanners and plexiglass shields to GPS fobs that track your every movement – and vibrate if you get within two metres of another employee. The renovations have cost them millions. But is it all necessary?
“All of these interventions need to be taken with a pinch of salt,” says Ciric. “There are so many people trying to profit from the current situation, so it’s really tricky to find effective solutions as opposed to just constantly being bombarded with promising new products that say they’re going to solve everything, but likely can’t.”

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Many of these cure-all interventions are half-baked, first or second tries at prototypes that wouldn’t have been rolled out so quickly if it weren’t for the global emergency. Apple’s plastic face shields, for examples, were sent out in their millions before the tech firm had done any testing. As Dezeen points out, a disclaimer on the product specifically states: “The device has not been tested or qualified to prevent or reduce infection, and does not provide particulate filtration.”
This doesn’t mean useful innovations aren’t out there. But to create the perfect post-Covid office, you’re better off nailing the basics: social distancing, cleaning and ventilation.
Handheld UV lights “basically do nothing,” says Ciric. “In order for these things to be really effective, like the ones used in hospitals or in clean rooms, the light is very strong and it’s not the sort of thing that you can install in an office with people sitting around.”
“If it’s really humid the virus doesn’t like it, but neither will we,” she explains, so humidifiers won’t help either. And plastic dividers that are automated to move up and down depending on capacity are only effective if they are kept clean.

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When it comes down to it, these extra measures are just that – extra. “They’re the cherry on top, not a silver bullet,” says Ciric. If you want to send a robot beaming out hospital-grade ultraviolet lights into your offices after everyone’s gone home, feel free, but you can’t substitute that for regular cleaning throughout the day.”
If you’re going to spend some money, get a good ventilation system. “There’s more and more evidence that the virus can linger in droplets in the air for hours,” says Ciric. That means, without proper airflow, even the biggest social distance sticklers can be at risk.
Ventilation has been a bugbear to open-plan office workers for years. A 1994 analysis of 3,000 workers across 40 buildings found that 57 per cent of all sick days were attributable to poor ventilation – and we’ve only sealed our windows tighter since then. Last year, a study from Imperial College London found that ensuring even minimal levels of outside air ventilation reduced transmission of the flu as much as having 50-60 per cent of the building vaccinated against the virus. So, even if you can’t afford to bring in a high-tech system, ensuring windows are open will have an impact.
If you can make sure there’s adequate ventilation, regular cleaning and that people stay two metres away from each other at all times, you’ll have the best chance at keeping everyone healthy. But adherence is the problem.
“Some of the changes you can implement from a technical perspective, but the majority will be essentially trying to manage behaviour of the people in the building,” says Agarwal. “It’s more about trying to encourage people to behave in a certain way, rather than changing the building itself.”
In short, there is no point spending loads of money on office improvements if people don’t know where they are going to sit, or when they can come into the office.
Michael Hobbs, founder of business design consultancy Reputable Ventures, says software could play a very large part in making this happen. Companies could install a software system, similar to room booking software we use now, for line managers or individual employees to book groups of desks or meeting rooms for a certain amount of time on select days through their company calendars. Arrival and departure times would be staggered, and — technology permitting — your entrance fob wouldn’t let you in outside those hours. “You can’t just turn up whenever and sit where you usually sit,” says Hobbs, and you wouldn’t go in just for the sake of it. “You’re there for a reason.”
If you can reduce the load on the office by 50 per cent “some of the problems start to go away”, Hobbs says. Lifts are still a sticking point, and so are bathrooms, but with fewer people in the office small innovations will make more of a difference. Installing airplane-style lights in the main office space to indicate whether the toilets are free, for example, will help to reduce crowding.
Unfortunately, companies won’t know if any of this tech works until they test it with their own employees.“As with everything else with this disease, best practice only emerges with a series of experiments and growing understanding,” says Hobbs. These experiments have been slow to start because most of us have been waiting for things to just go back to normal. But as the chance of that edges further away, finding innovative ways to get your employees to stick to the rules is a much better option than blindly hoping they’ll follow them.
It’s going to require a huge overhaul to accomplish; Hobbs calls it “macro redesign”. “It’s not just design of buttons or websites,” he says, “it’s the redesign of working processes, and it’s going to go right across business and society.”
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