Lidia Morawska has been working in her office for months. You might think that’s because she’s an aerosols expert, and her work is crucial for helping bring the pandemic to heel. But really, it’s because she’s an aerosols expert at Queensland University of Technology, in Australia. The country has recorded only three cases of community transmission of the coronavirus in the past week. Although Australian offices and classrooms have lowered their maximum capacities and are still observing social-distancing guidelines, Morawska told me, no one wears a mask to work, except in the rare case of a local outbreak. “Basically, life is back to normal,” she said.
Still, going back to work took some adjustment at first. “It felt strange,” Morawska said. “It was that feeling [of being] in between. What’s real? What’s not?”
Many Americans may soon have the chance to experience such a surreal return to work. With an average of nearly 50,000 cases reported per day over the past week, the United States is still far from a full return to the fluorescent-lit, slightly coffee-scented glory of pre-pandemic work. But now that the majority of adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, time in the office likely feels imminent for the millions of workers who went remote during the pandemic. Several of the nation’s largest companies have announced that, between May and September, they’ll begin asking employees to work in person at least some of the time. In a survey conducted late last year, three-quarters of executives said they expected their offices to operate at 50 percent capacity by July.
If your boss is one of them, you might be wondering how your company plans to protect you from the coronavirus. After a year-plus of pandemic life, employers have had plenty of time to prepare to keep office workers safe at their desks, but some workplaces have still fallen short. So here are six questions that any company should be able to answer before asking its staff to set foot in their cubicles. Raising these with your boss might be awkward, but they are a first step to ensuring that your company is taking everyone’s health and safety seriously. In fact, many of them deal with workplace practices that employers should always be thinking about, even after the country and the world escape the grip of this deadly virus.
1. What have you done to review and improve airflow in the office space?
Joseph Allen, the director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings Program, told me that this question is essential. “If the answer is ‘Nothing,’ or ‘We’re meeting code,’ that’s not enough,” he said. Last month, Allen co-wrote a paper recommending that the air inside buildings should be replaced four to six times every hour to reduce transmission of the coronavirus—far more air turnover than is currently required for most buildings other than health-care facilities. That replacement, Allen said, could happen through bringing in more air from outside or through filtering and recycling indoor air.
It’s also important, Morawska noted, that new air is distributed equally around a space, leaving no pockets of stale air where particles can linger. If the air in your office is not refreshed often enough or circulating evenly enough, she recommended that employers place stricter rules on how many people can be in the space.
2. What are the company’s vaccination policies?
The CDC has given fully vaccinated Americans several freedoms over the past several weeks. If it’s been more than two weeks since your last shot, you can meet inside, unmasked, with other vaccinated people—or even with people from a single household who have not yet gotten their shots. You can travel without testing and quarantining. But offices are tricky, because many are likely to include workers with a mix of vaccination statuses for at least a few more weeks, if not even longer.
If your company requires you to be fully vaccinated to enter the office, bosses can likely ease up on some other safety measures. Allen said it’s safe for a fully vaccinated group to have an unmasked meeting, for example. In that case, it’s important for you to understand how your employer will verify your vaccination status, and how it plans to accommodate people who aren’t protected.
3. Do I still have to wear a mask?
If your office isn’t requiring full vaccination for all employees, masking will be an essential tool for keeping everyone safe. Those lucky enough to have a personal office and a door can probably safely take off their mask inside, according to Allen. But if you won’t be the only person in the room, he said, “it’s a good idea to put the mask back on at least 30 minutes before others enter,” to give the room’s air some time to clear. You might also consider asking your boss if they’re thinking about providing door-closed, mask-free time to everyone on staff, because those with private offices also tend to have more status in the workplace.
For people who have been working from home for a while now, returning to the office in masks will mean retraining themselves on many small, reflexive actions that have come to make up the workday over the past year, such as constant grazing or belting along to your pump-up playlist. “It’s very different wearing your mask when you go run errands, and then wearing it all day and working in it,” Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, told me. Workers will need to have places to take breaks throughout the day to snack and hydrate, and to just give their ears a rest from holding up all that fabric. Popescu suggested that employers hold meetings outdoors as much as possible and make plans for staff to eat in private spaces or outside. She also said that bosses should provide masks that are comfortable, fit well, and filter out airborne particles.
4. Can I still work from home sometimes?
Even if going back to the office is relatively safe, occasional remote work will still help with inconsistent child care, doctor appointments to deal with the lingering effects of a coronavirus infection, and the other complications that the pandemic has introduced to Americans’ daily routines. Bosses will need to accommodate workers who are uncomfortable returning to the office (if they’re immunocompromised, say, or live with someone who is), and set expectations about remote work if anyone feels under the weather.
As my colleague Amanda Mull has written, American employers are particularly bad at allowing and encouraging their employees to stay home when they’re sick. That pattern can and should be mitigated as we recover from the pandemic. If you have the sniffles and can’t work from home, Morawska recommends wearing a mask to the office, even if your workplace has loosened its masking requirements.
5. How will the office be cleaned?
If surface cleaning is the only safety measure your office is taking, that’s a red flag. As the CDC acknowledged last month, “surface transmission is not the main route by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads,” so Cloroxing your desk once an hour is probably not going to make much difference in whether you contract or spread the virus. According to Allen, “deep cleaning” measures such as fogging and electrostatic spraying are especially unnecessary.
All that said, offices always have been kind of nasty, even before the pandemic. One 2019 study found that disinfecting high-touch items and encouraging good hand hygiene in office settings can reduce the amount of viruses on surfaces and workers’ hands by 85 percent. So while a little extra cleaning might not fend off the coronavirus, keeping a less germy office certainly doesn’t hurt. One cleaning a day should do the trick, Allen said.
6. What happens if something goes wrong?
The best-laid schemes of workers and bosses often go awry. Given the speed with which the coronavirus is still moving through the United States, even people in well-protected workplaces still have some possibility of being infected. Your boss should be able to lay out a thorough communication plan in case it happens in your office. Will the company notify you if a co-worker has COVID-like symptoms, or only if they test positive? Will the entire office be told? How and when will the information be delivered? If a co-worker does test positive, will the office be closed? For how long? The appropriate answers to these questions will vary depending on the specifics of your office and the ever-changing state of the pandemic. What’s important is that your employer has answers.
Sometimes, disasters lead to changes that would have been a good idea to begin with. Other times, disaster strikes and nothing changes. Morawska has been lobbying the World Health Organization to adopt stricter indoor ventilation recommendations since the SARS-1 outbreak nearly 20 years ago, but she says it hasn’t done nearly enough. Instituting higher standards might have helped control the initial spread of the coronavirus through the United States last year. They also would make us healthier, even outside a pandemic. “We know that better ventilation is associated with many positive benefits: better cognitive function, better performance on reading-comprehension tests in schools, better performance on math tests, fewer worker absences,” Allen told me.
Offices, by their nature, are playgrounds for germs. People are crammed together for hours and hours each day, shaking hands and sharing air and touching doorknobs and faucets and fridge handles. Companies probably don’t need to follow every single precaution laid out here in order to keep their offices from turning into a full-on viral amusement park. But the more steps they commit to, the better off their workers will be, this year and in the long run.