When the Office Is Like a Biohazard Lab

By David Gelles

“If people have to stay six feet apart and have to wear masks, why are we bringing them back?”

Companies are preparing elaborate new routines intended to keep their workers healthy. Cisco employees will have to show that they have been cleared to go into the office.
Companies are preparing elaborate new routines intended to keep their workers healthy. Cisco employees will have to show that they have been cleared to go into the office.
David Gelles

Here’s what it will be like when Cisco employees return to the office:

Before heading in each day, workers will be required to log on to a new app the giant networking company designed, and answer several questions about their health. Have they had close contact in the last 14 days with anyone who received a Covid-19 diagnosis or was suspected of having a coronavirus infection? Within the last 24 hours have they experienced chills, shortness of breath, or a loss of taste or smell?

If they report themselves to be healthy, the app gives them a green screen that reads “Pass." If not, the app flashes red and reads, “Do not come to the worksite.”

Those who are cleared to go into the office will be stopped in the lobby. There, they will have to show the all-clear screen from their app. After that, they will walk through a thermal screener temperature check. Anyone with a fever will be sent home. Those without one can get to work.

Now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended sweeping changes to American offices, companies around the country are preparing elaborate new routines intended to keep their employees healthy. In many cases, the changes will transform workaday offices into fortified sites resembling biohazard labs.

“It’s going to be a very different experience in the office,” said Fran Katsoudas, Cisco’s chief people officer. “It is going to take a lot of work, but it can be done.”

Simply complying with the C.D.C. suggestions will present major hurdles for many companies, especially those in skyscrapers and dense urban centers.

Amalgamated Bank, which has offices in New York and Washington, D.C., has decided that the earliest it will bring office workers back is September and is still “digesting” the C.D.C. recommendations.

ImageOnce employees answer all the questions on the company’s new app and get the all-clear screen, they will have to walk through a thermal screener temperature check at the office.
Once employees answer all the questions on the company’s new app and get the all-clear screen, they will have to walk through a thermal screener temperature check at the office.

“We wanted to make sure we give ourselves enough time for proper planning,” said Edgar Romney, an Amalgamated executive running the bank’s return-to-work task force. “There’s a lot of information about what you should be doing, but there are a lot of questions about how you should be doing it.”

For example, the C.D.C. recommends limiting elevator use to maintain social distancing of six feet. Amalgamated, which leases space in crowded office buildings, shares elevators with many other tenants.

“We have to understand what building management’s plan is going to be,” Mr. Romney said. “What are they doing about elevators?”

Even at companies that occupy entire buildings, elevators are a vexing problem.

“It can’t be two people per elevator in a high rise. That’s not just feasible,” said Rob Falzon, a vice chairman at Prudential, which occupies several large buildings in Newark. “It would take us two to three hours just to get everyone in.”

One possible solution? Prudential is considering putting ultraviolet lighting in elevators so surfaces are continuously disinfected.

Another C.D.C. suggestion — that companies limit employees’ use of public transportation — is also impractical in cities like New York, where millions of people commuted to work that way before the pandemic.

An office with protective barriers between cubicles and social distancing in place.Credit...Alex Welsh for The New York Times

“There are some real practical limitations to the guidance they’ve provided,” said Jim Underhill, chief executive of Cresa, a commercial real estate firm. “In dense urban environments, you can’t have everyone drive their car in alone. And in a 70-story high rise, you can’t limit two people to the elevator.”

There are also very real concerns about whether strictly following the C.D.C. guidelines may strip offices of much of their vibrancy.

“One of the biggest reasons for going back into the offices is so people can collaborate,” Mr. Underhill said. “But when the whole premise is to stay away from people and wear masks, it challenges the very reasons why people would be coming back.”

The C.D.C. suggestions are likely to be met with varying levels of enthusiasm in different parts of the country. In interviews, executives said they expected efforts to promote sanitation and social distancing to differ by region, and by the size of the office.

Willy Walker, chief executive of Walker & Dunlop, a commercial real estate financing firm, said managers of his 40 offices plan a wide variety of approaches to office life in the midst of a pandemic. In states like Texas or Florida, he said, everyone wants to go back to the office. In New York and California, employees are much more concerned about returning.

“In the blue states, just two to three people want to go back in,” Mr. Walker said. “And in the red states, just two to three people don’t want to go back in.”

  • Updated June 5, 2020

    • A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

Walker & Dunlop is bringing back its first employees on June 15, and those who return will find plexiglass barriers between some desks. Other desks will have been moved to face a wall rather than another desk.

Yet Mr. Walker said that with so many offices around the country, it would be hard to get everyone to follow the C.D.C. suggestions.

“There are different social norms,” he said. “People are adhering to them or not as they want to.”

Moreover, some of the C.D.C. suggestions may simply fly in the face of human nature. The guidelines call for an end to handshakes, hugs and fist bumps. They encourage masks to be worn at all times, even in meetings. That could make it difficult for employees to collaborate.

“Coming back is for social interaction and collaboration,” Mr. Falzon said. “If people have to stay six feet apart and have to wear masks, why are we bringing them back?”

“It’s going to be a very different experience in the office,” a Cisco executive said. The networking company plans to bring back office workers slowly.Credit...Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA, via Shutterstock

Even if there is a vaccine and the threat of the coronavirus is eliminated, Mr. Falzon said, he expects fewer than 70 percent of Prudential employees to return to the office.

“We’re not in a rush to come back,” he said.

Most of Cisco’s roughly 75,000 employees have been working remotely for the past few months, and Ms. Katsoudas said the company would bring back office workers slowly. Those that do will find their work lives transformed.

The phones in many Cisco common areas will be gone. Conference rooms will be sanitized after each use. Engineers who previously huddled over hardware prototypes will work in shifts. And the open floor plans that had become hallmarks of the modern office are going to be scrapped, with desks repositioned farther apart.

“All of those amazing open spaces that we created?” Ms. Katsoudas said. “We’re now going to have reconfigure them.”

Even then, adhering to the C.D.C. guidelines will be a challenge.

“We are human beings at the end of the day,” Mr. Underhill said. “We are not robots.”