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Experts say workplaces should have physical distancing measures in place as well as signage and COVID-19 testing before employees return. Leo Patrizi/Getty Images
  • Many employers are developing return-to-office plans for employees who have been working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Enhanced safety protocols, ranging from physical barriers and signage to air filtration, will help contain the spread of the virus.
  • Screening protocols can help identify sick employees and keep them quarantined from the rest of the office.
  • Employees who are concerned about risk should reach out to their employers with any queries about safety measures.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of employees to adapt to working from home.

Now that vaccination efforts have started to curb case numbers, many offices are set to open their doors again.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last month a tentative date of May 3 for some 80,000 workers to return to their offices.

Meanwhile, large companies such as JPMorgan and Amazon have said they plan to shift remote employees back into the workplace.

But in a society that’s become used to working from home along with mask wearing and physical distancing in public, there’s some apprehension about the prospect of returning to busy, enclosed office spaces for 8 hours a day.

A recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 49 percent of adults were nervous about returning to in-person interactions at work as well as outside the office.

While returning to the office might represent a return to “normal,” workplace spaces in a post-pandemic world will be significantly different from before.

The pandemic emerged quickly last year, forcing planners in all public spaces to play catch-up to minimize risk.

Now, more than a year later, experts say businesses are better equipped to implement safety measures.

Ashly Insco, a senior vice president and practice leader of health and safety at T&M Associates, an environmental engineering and construction management firm based in New Jersey, told Healthline that some of the biggest changes employees will notice will be physical measures to aid in distancing.

“A lot of consideration is being given to physical workplace environments. For example, how cubicles, tables, and desks are arranged to facilitate distancing, and how to manage layouts so that staff can move safely around the space without needing to congregate at entrances or in common areas,” she explained.

Insco also said that visual aids to remind staff of safety measures such as mask wearing, handwashing, and distancing will likely be seen in many offices.

For people who are tentative about returning to the office, full transparency and open lines of communication between employees and management are crucial, said Insco.

“Employees need to be comfortable that their company is creating a safe working environment, and that business leaders are communicating to employees what safeguards are in place,” she explained.

“As more companies return to work, employees will be more vocal than ever before about their wishes for a flexible work environment, including the ability to work from home regularly, or on a modified work schedule,” Insco said.

Physical measures and signs will be noticeable in offices, but there are also less obvious factors that can help keep a workplace safe.

Joe Heaney, president of Lotus Biosecurity, is a mechanical engineer and air quality expert who works with organizations across the New York City metro area to upgrade air quality systems.

He told Healthline that the pandemic exposed just how unprepared many workplaces were to handle a contagious pathogen.

“I think there was a mindset, especially in New York City where we’re based out of, where the thinking behind offices was to fit as many employees into an area as possible in an attempt to facilitate collaboration,” he explained.

Heaney said his work concerns three major categories: preventive measures to keep a pathogen out of the facility in the first place; passive disinfection measures such as improving indoor air quality through enhanced filtration; and active disinfection measures to ensure that spaces are pathogen-free before people gather in them.

For concerned employees, Heaney said it’s reasonable to ask questions about indoor air quality, especially considering the fact that the coronavirus is primarily an airborne virus.

“You will want to ask questions about what your employer has done to improve indoor air quality,” he said. “Asking about the filtration in the HVAC system or if they have implemented any other technologies to purify the air is certainly a start.”

He added that these measures are helpful in discouraging the transmission of not just the coronavirus but other airborne pathogens as well.

“The benefits of implementing these biosecurity measures go beyond just COVID, and therefore there is a greater incentive to both employers and employees than potentially realized,” Heaney said.

“Employers who do manage this effectively — from both implementation and communication perspectives — will likely stand out from their competitors and will be able to attract and retain top talent,” he said.

Proactive testing for COVID-19 is another way that employers can help mitigate risk.

Barry Abraham, president of Empowered Diagnostics, a diagnostic testing company based in Florida, said proactive screening protocols are a way to keep offices safer.

“Businesses can’t control employees’ behavior outside of work, like their personal choices around mask wearing,” he told Healthline. “This understandably creates concerns about an employee bringing COVID-19 to the office. Businesses should focus on what they can control: developing a thorough self-screening program that addresses both antigen and neutralizing antibody testing.”

Abraham said an employee screening program can start with voluntary self-screening. Ideally, employers can offer free access to high sensitivity tests, along with a paid quarantine period for people who test positive.

“The key is to use only highly sensitive — 95 percent or higher — rapid antigen tests that catch cases early, even before someone becomes contagious,” he said.

One complicating factor is the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), call for quarantine periods from 7 to 14 days for people who test positive.

“Right now, many businesses avoid trying to identify positive cases because, under a surveillance program, one event can trigger a company-wide quarantine,” Abraham explained.

“If the FDA modernizes these guidelines to take advantage of highly sensitive, rapid antigen tests, many more employers will be encouraged to offer testing programs in line with the FDA and CDC’s surveillance guidelines.

“Ultimately, by setting the standards for testing and empowering employees with the ability to take personal responsibility for their health, corporate America can be the heroes that get us out of this pandemic and back to normal life,” Abraham added.