The pandemic workplace: Employers modify offices in times of social distancingPosted On: Nov. 2, 2020 12:00 AM CST
Plexiglass barriers, sensor-controlled lighting, touchless elevators and HVAC systems designed to improve air filtration are among the physical changes being made or considered by businesses as they reopen their work sites.
While many of the changes are necessary to comply with social distancing guidelines, companies face numerous challenges as they reconfigure workspaces and manage the risk of returning employees to work in a pandemic, experts say.
Prior to COVID-19 many organizations had implemented the open office concept and a very communal way of working, said David Barry, Willis Towers Watson PLC’s national director of casualty risk control, who is based in Overland Park, Kansas.
“The precautions that you need to take in a pandemic and the precautions that people are going to want to take post-COVID are opposed to that open office concept and the communal concept,” Mr. Barry said.
Initially, after the pandemic hit, there was a wide expectation that office-based work would decline and people would continue to work from home even when it was safe to return to a workplace, said New York-based Sheri Wilbanks, head of the global casualty risk consulting team at Axa XL, a unit of Axa SA.
“Overwhelmingly what we’re seeing is that while there will be an increase to the amount of hours that people spend working from home that it won’t continue to be 100% work from home for many companies,” Ms. Wilbanks said.
With the number of hours that people work from home increasing, however, there will be a shift in the kind of office space required, she said.
“Maybe where you had a large building in Manhattan you might downsize that and have more satellite locations closer to where people’s houses and families are,” Ms. Wilbanks said.
Recent surveys point to new work patterns going forward. Employees will spend just 50% of their time in a traditional office setting, 42% of their time in a home-based or remote location and 7% in a co-working space, according to a September survey of corporate real estate professionals conducted by Atlanta-based nonprofit association CoreNet Global.
Complying with social distancing requirements is a priority for businesses, though it can be tough to manage in certain buildings or office areas, experts say.
Ever-changing federal, state and local guidance adds another layer of complexity. On Oct. 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded its definition of a COVID-19 “close contact,” which will further complicate worksite health and safety compliance for employers.
Companies must rethink how they use their space, and controlling the population density can be challenging, said Brian Dove, USI Insurance Services LLC’s national real estate practice leader, based in Dallas.
For example, in areas such as New York City there are limits on the number of people allowed in building elevators. “If you can put two people in an elevator instead of 15, they’re going to be standing there awhile,” Mr. Dove said.
If only 25% of employees are allowed into the office on a given day, it’s possible to space them out physically via an “open seating concept,” provided there’s an empty cubicle or other space between each employee, he said.
Spacing is especially challenging for industrial facilities, some of which have been operating as essential businesses and continuing production at full speed, said David Klein, Washington-based insurance partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.
“Maintaining social distance consistent with the operation of machinery is very costly to think about,” Mr. Klein said.
Nevertheless, managers at such facilities worry a great deal about risks to their employees, contractors and vendors who come onto their premises, he said.
Amalgamated Life Insurance Co. in White Plains, New York, was considered an essential business under state guidelines issued in March, said Ellen Dunkin, the insurer’s senior vice president, general counsel and chief risk officer and a vice president at the Risk and Insurance Management Society Inc.
“Our offices never closed during the lockdowns,” Ms. Dunkin said. Initially, all staff were sent home, and later less than 10% came into the office, she said.
People were spaced to meet social distancing requirements, she said. Then in May the insurer started looking at how it could have more staff return to the office while meeting state guidelines.
“We process insurance claims, and those people sit fairly close together. We started looking at a lot of things like spacing and what we would need to do in terms of safety and plexiglass and how the cubes could be reconfigured,” said Ms. Dunkin, who is on Amalgamated Life’s COVID-19 back to work taskforce.
While the backs of the cubicles were high and faced the windows, the fronts were low and along the passageways, so Amalgamated Life flipped them so that the high pieces of cubicle were at the front, she said.
“Cubicles that didn’t already have high spacing between them, we installed plexiglass, and we took tables and chairs out of the lunchroom and out of the break rooms,” Ms. Dunkin said.
Beginning July 4 Amalgamated Life started rotating people back into the office, with no more than a 50% occupancy rate, to comply with state guidelines. “It’s not always the same people every day. Different people rotate in,” Ms. Dunkin said.
Larry Glasser, director of risk management at Amerijet Holdings Inc. in Miami said the air cargo company has remained fully functional from an operations perspective, but staff who could carry out their work remotely were directed to do so.
Amerijet has relocated necessary staff that must remain in the office to larger spaces, he said.
For example, an area of community open workspaces that previously housed 50 staff has been reconfigured. “Workstations that normally would hold six people around them, now have one, possibly two people,” Mr. Glasser said.
In areas like the operations command center where “people at consoles in a dark room” monitor Amerijet’s cargo aircraft and flights, any staff who don’t need to be in that community setting have been moved to other areas vacated by administrative staff, said Mr. Glasser, who is also president of the Broward County Chapter of RIMS.
“Where we cannot socially distance, we’ve put up as many barriers as we possibly can,” he said. This includes providing personal protective equipment, such as masks and face shields, to staff and installing plexiglass partitions for desks.
Workers compensation insurers have started asking questions about prevention and testing of their workers, he said.
COVID-19 is changing everything that’s happening at the workplace, including how people are housed and spaced and how they interact with technology, said David Wald, Chicago-based CEO and co-founder of Aclaimant Inc., a risk management technology firm.
There are also secondary implications. “If you’re in real estate and hospitality you also have the public coming into your workspace so (it’s about) finding ways to safely mitigate those individuals from entering buildings and penetrating the perimeter, whether it’s shields or physical separations between employees or tenants and the public,” Mr. Wald said.
Exactly what physical changes companies should make to the office isn’t completely clear because health guidance around the pandemic continues to evolve, experts say.
“We’re learning as we go. A lot of places are looking to not only increase distance between employees, to give them more space between each other, they’re looking at making physical changes to the air filtration systems,” Ms. Wilbanks said.
Low UV light systems that go beyond regular sanitizers to disinfect air and surface particles are among the other physical changes being made, she said.
Many architecture and engineering firms are exploring how to design office spaces more effectively with pandemics in mind, from desk spacing to air filtration, said Kevin Collins, architects and engineers practice leader at Victor Insurance Managers Inc., the underwriting unit of Marsh LLC, based in Bethesda, Maryland.
But right now, “the focus is more on retrofit or how to get people back in the office,” he said.
Still, there are risk management steps that architects and engineers should consider when taking on projects to reconfigure and design commercial spaces as companies come back into the work environment, experts say. (See related story)
Even as they make physical changes to office space to comply with health guidelines and to mitigate pandemic-related risks, companies may face potential liability exposures, experts say.
Some of the concerns related to office reconfigurations are unrelated to COVID-19, they say.
High-tech features such as automatic doors and touch-free elevators can fail and cause injury, for example.
“Any time you rearrange an office you need to make sure you evaluate the ergonomics of the office and how people will interact with their new office surroundings,” Mr. Barry said.
Injuries related to repetitive stress or manual material handling are the biggest risks, so companies need to do what they can to limit the amount of stress placed on a worker’s body, he said.
In the commercial real estate sector, companies operate in different jurisdictions that are in different phases of reopening, if they’re reopening at all, Mr. Klein said. This can give rise to elevated liability if “you arguably have any choice” about whether to bring employees onto the premises and “you make the choice to do so,” he said.
The situation is prompting many questions around employment-related liability and workers compensation and related insurance issues, Mr. Klein said.
“I don’t think anyone at this stage would claim to have a foolproof design that’s going to protect workers 100% from potential transmission exposure,” Ms. Wilbanks said. However, employers are required to show a duty of care that they are looking out for the best health of their employees, she said.
That involves an assessment of the risk their employees might face throughout their regular course of work and providing the right training and equipment, she said.