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Ditching the water cooler: Coronavirus to upend office life

Outdoor meetings. Face masks at all times. No handshakes, hugs or even fist bumps. These are just a few of the many measures the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prescribed for employers planning on having workers return to the office.

By now it’s well-known that actions like wearing a mask, washing one’s hands and keeping at least six feet away from others can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But the CDC’s latest guidance offers a fuller picture of what office life may resemble in the coronavirus era. The basic idea behind the agency’s recommendations — one that subverts the very idea of assembling employees in a given location: keep people from congregating.

“The goal is for companies to think practically about how to keep employees socially distant from one another by using signage, blocking off spaces where they would normally congregate and by removing high-touch items,” said Sharon Perley Masling, a director of workplace culture consulting at the law firm Morgan Lewis. “It marks a fundamental shift in how employees would normally interact in an office setting.”

Preparing a building for employees’ return is among the first steps the CDC outlines as necessary “to create a safe and healthy workplace and protect workers and clients,” according to the agency. That includes ensuring that ventilation systems are functioning properly, and, if possible, increasing the circulation of outdoor air by keeping windows and doors open. 

Beware of mold growth, stagnant plumbing, and rodents and pests associated with months-long building shutdowns, the CDC also warns. Meanwhile, cafeterias, conference rooms and other meeting places will also have to be reconfigured or eliminated to accommodate social distancing.  

Goodbye to the water cooler

Such measures may only be the beginning. Some employers are installing plexiglass barriers, dubbed “sneeze guards,” to separate employees and visitors from one another while still allowing business to take place. Also expect plenty of tape marking on floors to demarcate where people should stand in line for elevators reserved for a single rider. 

And say goodbye to the ubiquitous coffee pots, water coolers and candy jars, with the CDC noting that workers could be provided with pre-packaged, single-serve alternatives. The agency also calls for both shared and personal surfaces to be disinfected regularly, leading to more sterile workstations without personal items like photographs and trinkets on desks. 

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Perhaps a more effective way to maintain social distance at the office: change worker schedules to staggering shifts and start times to reduce the number of employees in one building at a time.

But the whole matter could be moot in the cases of companies that move to let employees shift to telework permanently. Facebook, Twitter and other big businesses have already said that employees can work from home indefinitely, with more companies expected to follow suit as the costs of following CDC workplace guidelines sink in and the consequences of emerging liabilities for employers become clearer.

“It’s very employer-specific and in some cases it doesn’t make sense to bring everyone back to the office if things are working well now,” Perley Masling said. 

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