8 ways to make the office safer (and more inviting) for returning employees | BenefitsPRO

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Incorporating some nature into your office can not only help to purify the air but can also help to bring some color and a peaceful ambiance.

Now that vaccines are being administered, it seems that we’re close to some level of pre-pandemic normality. However, although we’ve made it out of what could be described as the “belly of the beast,” the battle is not yet over and it’s vital that a cautious approach is taken.

A back-to-work survey showed that 62% of people support a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine requirement in order to return to the office. Another 61% fear their employers may get rid of other protocols too soon. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the employer to keep their workforce safe, healthy, and happy. Let’s take a look at the top eight measures that your company can take to ensure that your office remains safe.

Related: Return-to-the-workplace tools for employers large and small: Workplace safety

1. Bringing the outdoors in

It isn’t breaking news that plants help to purify the air—even back in the 1980’s NASA started studying houseplants to see if they could help produce cleaner air in space stations. Many different plants have been shown to help remove harmful compounds in the air and make it healthier to breathe. If they can help to detoxify the air in space stations, why not your office space?

Different houseplants have been shown to help purify the air in different ways, here are three easily maintained and powerful air decontaminating plants:

  • English Ivy: Both aesthetic and somewhat customizable—as it can be trained into different shapes with proper care—English Ivy is useful in removing harmful toxins from the air.
  • Spider Plants: The spider plant is both easy to maintain and re-propagate—this small but mighty plant battles benzene, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and xylene in the air.
  • Chinese Evergreen: These plants are an approachable plant for those who don’t necessarily have a green thumb, and can also thrive in low-light areas where other plants struggle. The Chinese Evergreen can filter out a variety of pollutants and toxins from the air over time.

Incorporating some nature into your office can not only help to purify the air but can also help to bring some color and a peaceful ambiance into the work landscape.

2. Incorporate helpful hands-free technology

Touchless technology can help to minimize the spread of germs including COVID-19. Think about the spaces in your building’s landscape that are heavily trafficked, and incorporate available technology to mitigate cross-contamination. Some examples of useful technologies are:

  • Motion sensors to turn on lights and faucets
  • Automatic doors
  • Elevators and AV systems that can be controlled from a smartphone

There are also many new applications that have been developed to help companies evolve their workplace to include new needed features focusing on health and safety. The Safe Distance app creates a 3D map of the office showing areas that are busy or not, helping each employee to see if a communal space is at low or high capacity.

3. Remaining physically distant

An office is still technically considered a public space, so it is important to maintain the social law of remaining physically distant.

It was shown in an analysis by Raghu Kalluri, M.D., Ph.D., that practicing social distancing had a huge impact on the spread of COVID-19. Kalluri and his colleagues estimated that national social distancing policies in 46 countries prevented more than 1.5 million cases of COVID-19 in a two-week period—making for a 65% reduction in new cases.

Be sure administration is encouraging policies of socially distancing in the workspace, whether that’s spacing out desks and office furniture, posting reminder signs, or employing a registration system for coming into the office. Your company could also administer a survey to scale interest in which employees want to come back to work, and then phase workers back into the office accordingly. Ultimately, it is the company’s responsibility to find ways to encourage employees to continue to tow the safety line.

4. Conscientious material choices

It is important to note that different materials have different capacities for attracting and absorbing germs and viruses.

Surfaces with non-porous materials like steel, quartz, and corian are surfaces that are more noticeable when dirty, and easier to sanitize. Other materials—like copper and silver—even have natural properties that can destroy microorganisms.

Being conscientious of what materials you are bringing into your office is key because you are reducing the number of landing strips for germs and viruses. If your company is investing in new and safer office fixtures for your workspace; keep faucets, door handles, toilets, and wall tiles in mind to help lower potential transmission locations overall.

5. Utilizing open floor plans

While it may seem that separate offices would provide more protection—most buildings use the same heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system (HVAC)—so office doors do little to stop the spread of germs. Open floor plans are naturally designed to help alleviate stagnant air. With a space that has good airflow and spaced-out surfaces, you can help to stop the spread of germs.

With fewer objects such as door handles and cubicle openings, open floor plans also reduce the number of communal surfaces that need to be monitored and sanitized.

6. Have back-to-work policies in place

It is important to enforce and incentivize procedures that will help your employees navigate this new normal. Companies should have some policies in place for people returning to the office—a few that have been encouraged by the CDC are:

  • First, be sure to coordinate with state and local health officials to obtain timely and accurate information that will keep your company’s safety protocols up-to-date.
  • A course of action if an employee has had risk of exposure to COVID-19
  • Handwashing and surface sanitizing policies
  • A mask protocol

7. The importance of air ventilation

According to the Lancet, 800,000 people die every year due to poor air quality in their workplace—prominent viruses aside. These indoor air pollutants can include everything from dandruff and smoke particles, all the way to airborne illnesses.

Donald Milton, a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland, led a group of 239 scientists to research the potential airborne transmission of COVID-19. Milton and his colleagues found that several tactics minimized the risk of infection in public buildings and offices:

  • Providing sufficient and effective ventilation—such as supplying clean outdoor air and minimizing the recirculation of air.
  • Supplementing general ventilation with airborne infection controls such as local exhaust, high-efficiency air filtration, and germicidal ultraviolet lights.
  • Avoid overcrowding in any common spaces in the office building

8. Implementing an air purification system

The CDC recommends using air purifiers with true HEPA filters to eliminate viruses in homes and office buildings.

As the golden standard of efficacy in air purification systems, HEPA filters range on a scale from 1-16. According to the EPA, filters that scored 13-16 can capture particles up to the size of .01 – .03 of a micron. At this level of filtration, which is hospital-grade purification, HEPA filters can help your business feel confident about providing a safe workplace environment. Place these filters strategically throughout your workspace in order to make sure they are helping in high-risk areas.

It is also prudent to install the highest efficiency filter that your building’s HVAC system can handle and increase the amount of outside air circulating through the HVAC system by opening windows where possible.

The future of the workplace

“Better safe than sorry” couldn’t be more true in 2021. These are just some of the must-have initiatives for any workplace seeking to create a safe space for their employees returning to the office. One last measure that companies can take is to encourage an environment for open communication. This allows employees to confidently translate their feelings about this shift back into the physical workspace. This can in turn inform your safety policies and procedures so that they reflect local concerns, and are the most current and applicable to your company’s workplace.

Pierre Bi, CEO at Aeris, a company that offers an air purifying system that claims to remove 99.95% of airborne viruses, including the coronavirus.

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