Offices must prepare for a new normal as employees return






Governor Inslee’s announcement that the state will reopen in phases over the coming weeks and months means many employers are now planning how to get workers back to the office safely. But what does that look like in a new normal?

WA workers have the ‘right to a safe environment’ when the state reopens

Challenge Seattle, an alliance of Seattle CEOs, worked with Public Health – Seattle and King County to come up with a checklist of suggestions for workplaces as they reopen.

This list includes ideas such as staggering employee arrival times, re-organizing office layouts, and hosting virtual meetings — even when employees are back in the building — to avoid bringing everyone to the same table.

“How do we make sure that we’re paying attention to sanitization? Yes, it surfaces, but it’s also things like doorknobs or pushing the little buttons in an elevator,” said Christine Gregoire, Challenge Seattle’s CEO and Washington’s former governor. “Do you require masks? Should everybody have their temperature being taken?”

Gregoire reminds businesses that, like the 1918 influenza pandemic, there could always be a later wave of COVID-19.

“We’re encouraging every employer who can have employees work from home to do so,” Gregoire said. “Because if history is any influence on us, we know that even when we come out of this stage, we’re not done.”

While it may seem an ambitious plan, Gregoire is confident the Puget Sound will get back to work and to a new normal in just a few months.

“Don’t underestimate the ingenuity of both an employer and an employee,” she said. “And let’s understand — it isn’t up to the government, it isn’t up to the private sector, it’s up to every single person.”

For those who must be in the workplace in the new normal, frequent disinfecting of surfaces is key.

Caleb Ferling, the owner of Fife-based cleaning service Cleanstart, said the germ hot-zones in an office are areas that are touched by the greatest number of employees. That means desks, water fountains, microwave doors, coffee pots, fridge handles, light switches, sinks, and any shared phones and keyboards are all teeming with viruses and bacteria.

Kitchens are especially risky because people are often consuming food and touching their faces.

“Any touchpoint, you want to make sure that is being sanitized, but also that we’re eliminating as many people touching those high-traffic touchpoints as much as possible,” Ferling said.

Many offices are finding crafty ways to get around using those touchpoints, installing touch-free garbage cans, automatic water faucets and lights, and even foot-operated door openers.

If touching something cannot be avoided when using it — as with a microwave door — then employees should sanitize diligently.

“I’d make sure that you have some Clorox disinfectant wipes available so that people can wipe down the microwave when they’re done,” he said.

Ferling added that just as important as sanitizing a touchpoint after every use is making sure to give the cleaning product time to do its work. For example, he said that a person should wait at least four minutes before touching anything that has been cleaned with Clorox wipes.

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He also recommends office janitors take time to sanitize these touchpoints.

Be especially careful around water fountains and faucets, Ferling warned. In fact, he said outside the workplace, he would not use public water fountains and restrooms if he could help it.

“Metal seems to hold onto that virus a little bit longer than wood,” he said. “Water fountain handles seem to carry a higher amount of bacteria and germs.”

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