How to Reopen Offices Safely

Flush the taps, focus on indoor air quality and consider getting creative about staff schedules.

By Emily Anthes

For the last 15 months, many American offices sat essentially empty. Conference rooms and cubicles went unused, elevators uncalled, files untouched. Whiteboards became time capsules. Succulents had to fend for themselves.

But over the coming weeks, many of these workplaces will creak slowly back to life. By September, roughly half of Manhattan’s one million office workers are likely to return to their desks, at least part time, according to a recent survey by the Partnership for New York City.

Although the risk of contracting Covid-19 has fallen significantly in the United States — especially for those who are fully vaccinated — it has not disappeared entirely, and many workers remain nervous about returning to their desks. (Many others, of course, never had the luxury of working remotely in the first place.)

“If you’re still feeling uncomfortable or anxious, that’s totally understandable,” said Joseph Allen, an expert on healthy buildings who teaches at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “This pandemic has affected all of us in profound ways, and people are going to be ready to re-enter life again or re-enter interacting with people at different times.”

But scientists have learned a lot about the virus over the past year, and there are some clear, evidence-based steps that employers can take to protect their workers — and that workers can take to protect themselves. Some of these strategies are likely to pay dividends that outlast the current crisis.

“I think it’s important for us as a community, but also individual employers, to think about these questions in relation to not just this week and this month,” said Alex Huffman, an aerosol scientist at the University of Denver. “How do we make decisions now that benefit the safety and health of our work spaces well into the future?”

Address the risks of closures

Although Covid-19 is the headline health concern, long-term building closures can present risks of their own. Plumbing systems that sit unused, for instance, can be colonized by Legionella pneumophila, bacteria that can cause a type of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease.

“Long periods with stagnant, lukewarm water in pipes — the exact conditions in many under-occupied buildings right now — create ideal conditions for growth of Legionella,” Dr. Allen said.

Some schools have already reported finding the bacteria in their water. In buildings with lead pipes or fixtures, high levels of the toxic metal can also accumulate in stagnant water. Employers can reduce both risks by thoroughly flushing their taps, or turning on the water and letting it run, before reopening.

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