How offices should look in a world with the coronavirus

As many countries begin the slow process of re-opening with the coronavirus still on the loose, the World Health Organization has issued a set of guidelines on how to mitigate the risks of catching the coronavirus from your co-workers, when heading back into the office.

Research shows the new coronavirus — which is transmitted chiefly via virus droplets that get into our eyes, noses, and mouths — infects people more efficiently in crowded rooms with little ventilation. Some of the hardest-hit spots so far have included cities, where people live very close to one another, nursing homes, hospitals, and churches; all places where people gather.

"The virus needs people to transmit between," the WHO's technical lead for COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkohve, said during a press conference last week. "If people are in close contact with one another and you have an infected person, it will transmit to another person through these respiratory droplets, and so we need to do everything that we can do to prevent that from happening."

In offices, where many work in close quarters, the risk of COVID-19 spread runs high. To combat that, the WHO recommends people wash their hands with soap and water regularly and throughly, "frequently during the work shift, especially after contact with co-workers or customers." In order to make this easier, the WHO recommends that hand hygiene stations, for both handwashing and sanitizing, now be installed in prominent spots around offices. 

Here are the other top-line office redesign suggestions the WHO has: 

redesign corona offices
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Employers should stock up on face masks, paper tissues, and trash bins with lids "for hygienic disposal" of any virus-laden tissues or other discarded items that the coronavirus might live on for hours or days. If someone feels sick at work, they should be given a medical mask to ensure they got home without infecting others, the WHO said.

People should remain one meter (that's about 3.3 feet) away from each other at all times, and workstations should be spaced at least one meter apart.

This is a smaller and far less conservative metric than the 6-foot rule for social distancing that experts at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged people to use when they're out and about in this pandemic.

Worker hours should be staggered to avoid crowding, and meetings should be held sparingly, or via teleconference. Work-related travel should be reduced, or cancelled, if possible.

High-touch surfaces like doorknobs, tables and laptops, should be disinfected regularly, and people who are unwell urged to stay home. There should be posters, videos and messages updating workers on COVID-19 safety practices, as well as possible risks.

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People wear protective masks in a union tax assistance office in Naples, Italy on May 11, 2020.
Salvatore Laporta/Kontrolab/LightRocket via Getty Images

The CDC offers similar guidelines to the WHO, telling workers to stay home if they're sick, and encouraging employers to improve building ventilation systems.

In April, a CDC report warned that air conditioning blew droplets around a restaurant in China, infecting three families. With that in mind, health officials said buildings where people mix and mingle outside the home, such as workplaces, should be equipped with high-efficiency air filters, which are very good at trapping dirt, dust, and coronavirus particles.

The CDC also encourages employers to conduct daily health checks (monitoring employees for coronavirus symptoms), and ask employees to wear cloth face coverings.

None of the new guidance, however, addresses how workers should adjust to dealing with the coronavirus in some of the most crowded and dank places at work, like the elevator, and the restroom, places where it's near impossible to stay the recommended six feet (or even three feet) away from others.

It's not totally clear, yet, if breathing in stale air in a bathroom or elevator — which might be laced with someone else's exhaled coronavirus particles — could get you sick, but scientists haven't ruled this idea out. 

Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech, recently told Business Insider that elevators could potentially be coronavirus-catching hotspots for people "if they are crowded and people ride in them for a long time, like a minute or more, several times a day."

It's definitely a good idea to wash your hands after riding in an elevator, and before starting to work, especially if you've touched the buttons. 

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Salesforce, before the pandemic.
Business Insider/Julie Bort

Many corporate offices across the US are still closed for now, but employers are already considering how to return workers to their desks as safely as possible, in the weeks and months ahead. 

We don't yet have a clear picture of what workplace coronavirus transmission might look like in the future, but what's clear so far is that no matter what kinds of disease-fighting measures are implemented, some people will catch the coronavirus at work.

"Do not expect your risk goes down to zero," Dr. Rajneesh Behal, the chief quality officer at One Medical told The New York Times.

Recent seasonal influenza models suggest that anywhere from a tenth to a third of flu cases every year are caught at work, and transmission could be similar for the coronavirus, which is also a respiratory illness.

One recent study of a South Korean call center showed how nearly half of the workers on a single floor caught the coronavirus in March, demonstrating how easily the illness can spread among people spending the day together in a confined space. 

US businesses like Salesforce, which has 9,000 San Francisco employees, are already planning to implement temperature scans (despite the evidence that those scans aren't very effective) and more cleaning, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Every employee will have to wear a mask and maintain a six foot distance from their colleagues.

At Discover Financial Services in Chicago, workers will be seated at every other workstation, and "Xs" will be placed on the off-limits workstations, an HR officer told the Wall Street Journal.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, a Big Four accounting firm, has developed its own contact tracing app to keep track of COVID-19 cases within the company when their offices reopen, according to Accounting Today.

But even so, the coronavirus by no means spells the end of the open-floor office plan. Simply put, the shared space strategy saves employers too much cash, even if it means we have to get closer to our colleagues, and whatever they may exhale.

"Density has been a strategy for firms for a long time, to make the best use of space," Melissa Hanley, CEO of the design firm Blitz previously told Business Insider. "That is a premium, and that means open office."