Getting ready for the ‘new office’ after MCO

So you’ve got your mask and hand sanitisers, and you have learnt about safe physical distancing, hand washing, dealing with contaminated surfaces and keeping away from crowds.

But there’s much more to prepare for before returning to the office.

The movement control order (MCO) has done a very good job of decreasing the current Covid-19 wave but it has pushed it to a later date.

We need to work to prevent the second and subsequent waves of Covid-19, some of which may be even bigger than the first one. We are just starting out in this Covid-19 pandemic that is estimated to last 1-2 years or longer.

The health ministry staff have done a good job in helping to reduce the current hot spots but we must realise that low grade community spread of Covid-19 is still on-going; much of it asymptomatic.

We know the MCO strategy has been effective but is not sustainable in the long-run as it hurts the poor, businesses and causes collateral damage to other illnesses.

To relax our lockdown it has to be done in stages and with all Malaysians acting responsibly, maintaining vigilance and strict discipline.

We need to behave and act as though everyone around us is Covid-19 positive. We need to behave and act as though we have an asymptomatic infection of Covid-19 and can infect others. We need to protect all older persons as if they are our parents and all those vulnerable to Covid-19 as our sisters and brothers.

As you plan to return to the office, here is a checklist of some of the things you need to consider and prepare for:

1. Public transport

Recognise that buses, trains and LRTs are higher risk for transmission, especially those with closed windows and air-conditioning. Best to wear a mask and avoid touching your face, try and keep some distance from other passengers if possible, limit touching surfaces, sanitise your hands before getting on-board and once disembarking, and if possible open windows to increase airflow. Car-pooling is an option but you need to keep to the same group all the time.

2. Office SOP

Every office will need a SOP/checklist and will need to train all staff, including the cleaners and security guards, to ensure everyone is on the same page.

3. Limiting people

We need to prevent a mass entry and exodus of people. One way is to stagger entry and leaving times as well as consider having multiple exits and entrances. Consider foot-operated door openers or motion-sensor automatic office doors.

4. Working hours

As we begin to open more offices, it is important to offer, in the beginning, the possibility of staggered and reduced working hours. Some staff can come for the first half of the day (8am-12noon) and the others come in the second half of the day (1-5 pm). Another option is for staff to take turns to come and work on alternate days. A clear work from home policy might be applicable for some staff. This can reduce crowding in the office.

5. Lifts

Lifts are a closed environment and, if packed, a high risk for transmission. Use the stairs if possible, otherwise have a limit to the number that can travel in the lift at any one time, with masks on and all facing different directions in the lift.

We will need “standing spots” marked out in all lifts. There will be a need to have 1-metre queue lines or circles outside the lift.

6. Air-conditioning

This is one of the most difficult areas to modify with the current structure of many of our offices. The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends “increase ventilation by opening windows or adjusting air conditioning”. Consider installing high quality air filters in offices to prevent re-circulated air from spreading the virus.

7. Open office

An open office environment has a higher risk for the virus spreading. A recent Covid-19 outbreak at a call centre in South Korea on the 11th-floor resulted in 94 (43.5%) out of 216 employees being infected. It underscored the risk in a crowded office environment as well as the risk of an open-office setting. Consider reducing the number of employees working at any one time as well as putting up partitions between workstations.

Seating arrangements should be such that staff are at least 1 to 2 meters distance apart. Use floor marks around all workstations to indicate personal space that is not to be encroached on. Avoid co-working spaces or desk sharing. Consider looking at templates or office design online to help plan and reorganise your office environment.

8. Meetings

Office meetings are high-risk events, especially if the room is full. Plan to meet virtually, even when you are in the same building/office. Use conference and video call extensively and limit face-to-face meetings to a very small number of people that are spaced out in a room.

9. Common items

It will be important to discourage the sharing of office supplies and equipment. Think how contact with the photocopy machines and printers can be minimised.

10. Pantry, prayer room and staff areas

These are recognised as very high-risk areas and should be avoided. Staff should be encouraged to bring packed food and eat at their own work station. Be concerned about the frequently, used office coffee maker. Perhaps avoid its use for now. Prayer break can be staggered, and prayer mats must not be shared.

11. Mask safety

We are wearing masks primarily to protect others from our saliva droplets. I protect you and you protect me. We cannot be certain who is infected as many are asymptomatic. Different masks have different capability.

Ideally N-95 and 3-ply surgical masks should be reserved for healthcare professionals. When using cloth masks, remember that you will require at least two. Half way through a work day, at the meal break time, remove the used mask correctly and put it into a plastic bag. Wash your hands and have your meal. Then clean your hands again and wear the second clean mask.
Remember to ensure the cleaning staff and security have adequate masks provided by the management.

12. Office socialising

Encourage staff not to socialise at the office, even in small groups, especially at arrival, lunch or when leaving. Instead, advise staff to confine communication to work-related needs.

13. Toilets

Toilets are high-risk surface contact areas and often poorly ventilated. There should be clear guidelines displayed on the toilet door on steps to take to minimise contamination. Foot-operated soap dispensers and door openers would be ideal. As are elbow-operated or contactless tap-heads to enable easier hand washing. Advise staff to close the toilet seat cover after using and before flushing, to reduce waste aerosol transmission. Door handles need to be disinfected by the person using the toilet when entering and leaving.

14. Cleaning routine

Clean and disinfect all frequently touched and common user surfaces in the office like door knobs, elevator buttons, toilet sink heads, escalator rails, handrails, light switches, countertops, etc. Floors should be cleaned at least daily.

For routine cleaning and disinfection of surfaces and objects, wear disposable gloves and use household bleach diluted with water (for example, 10ml bleach to 1 litre water) or alcohol solutions with at least 60-70% alcohol. Explore the possibility of using UV lighting to disinfect offices at night (used in some hospitals) but without compromising safety.

15. Gloves

Disposable gloves should only be worn during cleaning activities and then discarded. Staff, security and cleaners should be discouraged from wearing gloves all the time as this gives a false sense of security. With gloves on, you may touch many surfaces, becoming a risk to others and self.

16. Sick staff

Staff who are unwell should be encouraged to stay at home and inform their respective supervisor. Staff who have just returned from overseas should be offered mandatory, paid 14-day leave of absence to quarantine themselves. Also have a plan what to do if a staff member becomes sick while at work.

17. Work travel, site visits

For the next few months it would be wise to defer all conferences and travel, even within the country. Air travel may pose a high risk for infection. Site visits and inter-office meetings should be conducted virtually.

18. Back home

When you reach home avoid interacting with other household members or touching surfaces. Soak your clothes worn to the workplace in soap and water and have a shower immediately. This will reduce the risk to your loved ones.

We will get through this difficult period by all of us working together, changing our behaviour and taking personal responsibility to protect others.

Businesses and organisations should plan how to adapt their office to ensure safe physical distancing. We need a strong, regular routine that pays attention to details and becomes second nature to all of us. This will help overcome our fear and get us back to some aspects of our previous work and life.

Dr Amar-Singh HSS is a senior consultant paediatrician.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT. 

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