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Is it safe to go back to the office? How to protect yourself from the coronavirus at work

An infectious disease expert shares advice on how to stay safe at the office during the ongoing pandemic.

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How to stay safe if you have to go back to the office.

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While the majority of corporate America is still working from home, many are wondering what will happen once they have to go back to the office. The coronavirus pandemic has changed society in more ways than one -- including how we work. But how long will the changes last and will things "go back to normal" at your workplace?

Not really -- according to many workplace culture experts, the office culture we once knew is dead. For now, many people can't go to the office, but many employers and public health officials are grappling with what offices will look like by 2021. For the places that start reopening this year, many changes will have to take place like reducing capacity, increasing sanitation, closing off common areas, and even rotating which employees come in on each day --- just to name a few solutions companies are discussing.

Tech companies such as Google and Facebook will largely let employees work from home through the end of the year, but some plan to reopen offices around July 6. Infectious disease expert and deputy medical director at Westmed Medical Group, Dr. Sandra Kesh says the new era for navigating safety at offices is "going to be tricky. I've seen a lot of creative solutions and a lot of it will depend on your organization's perception of this, whether they take it seriously or not, and whether they have the resources to make it as safe as possible."

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A vaccine would mean that many people can go to work again safely -- here's what to do before then.

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Is workplace safety really possible before a vaccine?

We know that only so much can be done until a vaccine and effective treatment for coronavirus become available. Until then, it's important to consider the factors that make disease transmission possible in offices and workplaces.

"I think there are ways to make it safer. Any time you have people in a confined space, there's no way to make it 100% safe. But there are certainly things you can do to minimize the risk," Dr. Kesh says.

Below is what she says companies will need to change in order to keep people safe at the workplace if working from home is not an option. She recommends companies keep people at home as much as possible until a vaccine is available and the pandemic largely dies down.

Workplace culture innovation will have to take a step back

Open-concept offices, co-working spaces and shared spaces have largely been viewed as a step forward in workplace culture compared to the traditional closed-doors, corner-office type environments. Open offices have become standard for many companies, but unfortunately these spaces are not infection control-friendly. 

"We've seen a big move in the past 10 years to make a lot of offices open and lots of shared spaces, and it's been wonderful in encouraging a nice open and healthy workplace culture and climate, but from an infection control perspective it's more challenging," Dr. Kesh says. "People having coffee, meeting together, having conversations -- all of that is risky now."

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Video meetings should remain the norm until a vaccine is here.

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Find new ways to communicate and hold meetings

Many companies have adapted to a new normal with working from home for the foreseeable future. But even when some are back at the office, Kesh says things shouldn't operate like before. Kesh says meetings, conferences and any communication with people in an enclosed space should be largely put on hold until there is a vaccine.

If that's not possible, meeting outside with social distance is better since there's more air ventilation. But if possible, the safest way to hold meetings and communicate -- even in an office -- is to keep using video calls, messaging and phone calls. 

Increased sanitation

We've been cleaning our homes, cars and even groceries like crazy -- and the same applies to the workplace. Dr. Kesh recommends avoiding sharing any items -- coffee pots, fax machines and phones if possible. If you must use shared items, then people need to be required to sanitize the items before and after each use.

If you have a lot of contact with other people, you should be wiping down high-traffic items such as your phone, keyboard during the day as well. "And if anyone else is touching your stuff, you need to clean it again after they touch it," Dr. Kesh says.

And don't think your cell phone is immune to germs just because you don't share it. It wouldn't hurt to clean your phone throughout the day as well since, "it's probably the filthiest thing that we all carry around with us," Dr. Kesh says.

Dr. Kesh recommends that workplaces ensure that any shared spaces, bathrooms and other common areas are cleaned throughout the day, not just before and after hours. She also says it's the employer's responsibility to keep disinfectant and hand sanitizer available for use throughout the space.

No 'suck it up' attitude when you're sick

"One problem in our country is we tend to have a proud culture of 'sucking it up' and going to work even when you're not feeling well. And so that sort of mentality is kind of another hurdle you have to get past, that that's no longer OK. That never should have been OK, but it's even less OK now," Dr. Kesh says.

Dr. Kesh stresses the importance of workplaces ensuring that employees feel comfortable speaking up when they are sick or think they've been exposed. Employees need to know that it's OK to stay home.

"And that doesn't even address the probably half of people who get infected with this and are asymptomatic," Dr. Kesh adds.

She recommends that workplaces put extra precautions, such as temperature checks at the door, in place if they can. "Have employees self-report symptoms every day -- do a symptom checker when they hit the door. Anyone that is screening positive whether by temperature or because they have symptoms need to go home," Dr. Kesh says.

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Open office settings with shared tables, community areas, and open seating will have to be limited until the virus dies down and we have a vaccine.

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Office space changes

Long gone are the days of communal work tables, crammed cubicles or conference rooms flooded with people. "Everything needs to be spread out. That's going to be a challenge because [it depends on] much available office space you have," Dr. Kesh says.

If you can't spread people out, Dr. Kesh added that employers may need to rotate employees to prevent crowding. 

Other options for increasing safety include ensuring that there is good air ventilation, and installing plastic or physical barriers, especially in more open or communal spaces. "Most of the [virus] transmission is droplet spread, and it is within 6 feet. Anything you can do to enclose open areas so people are not sharing air space so much, and have regular cleaning protocol for any place that is common," Dr. Kesh says. 

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Dr. Kesh advises continuing to wear face masks or coverings at the office.

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Continue wearing a mask or cloth face covering 

Face masks and coverings are becoming the new normal, and that extends to the office as well. "I think you should wear a face mask or covering when you are in an enclosed space [like the office]. I think that should be the norm. That is something everyone should be doing in schools and workplaces until this is a thing of the past," Dr. Kesh says. 

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.