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Offices aren’t ready for this reality: Every employee is now a germaphobe

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April 28, 2020
By Todd Humber

Photo: PeopleImages/Getty

Last night, in a bout of optimism, I met with a landscaper in my backyard — standing the requisite two metres apart — to discuss some much-needed improvements.

We’re all spending a lot more time in our homes, which means we’re also noticing things we love and hate about our properties. Maybe a bathroom that needs painting, a room that needs a little bit of Feng Shui or, in my case, a backyard in drastic need of a makeover as the weather warms up.

Spending on anything other than food and shelter at this point seems frivolous. But, at some point, things will return to normal.



At some point?

Changing workplaces

Ryan, the landscaper, talked about how his company has changed during the pandemic. He is still working a handful of jobs that were started before the Ontario government shut down all non-essential businesses. It included an exemption for renovations to residential properties that were started before April 4.

“I’m a lot more sore than usual,” Ryan told me.

That’s because, instead of the usual crew of up to eight workers, he is only able to get two or three people on his worksites because of physical distancing requirements. The amount of work it takes to renovate a yard hasn’t changed, but the size of his crew has shrunk dramatically. Hence, more digging and moving rock for him.

Local bylaw officers pop by regularly to ensure he’s following all the rules on his jobsites, a minor annoyance but he understands the importance of doing everything possible to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The working world has been turned upside down, and it’s hard to imagine a return to normal. Some people are working remotely, many have lost jobs or had hours cut and a significant proportion of workers deemed essential have carried on this whole time — breathing through masks and removing layer after layer of skin with a constant bath of sanitizer.

Provinces opening up 

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. The numbers seem to be peaking in Ontario and Quebec, the hardest hit provinces.

Saskatchewan has rolled out a comprehensive plan to start opening its economy next week. Other provinces are following suit, which means we can now start thinking seriously about what returning to work will look like.

How offices will change

The coronavirus has altered the DNA of the typical Canadian office building. Just as a virus can mutate, so too can best HR practices — and they will morph and adapt to the new reality when workers return.

A couple of quick thoughts for executives and HR professionals to consider as they prepare to reopen shuttered workplaces:

Is hoteling dead? In recent years, both to save money and to encourage collaboration and flexibility, some companies stopped assigning permanent workspaces to employees.

Instead, workers reserve and book a desk, cubicle or office for the day. But in the COVID-19 era, the idea of sharing anything is going to bother employees — who have universally turned into germaphobes.

Whether it’s a chair, a desktop, a mouse or a phone, it will have to be sanitized thoroughly in between every occupant.

Not every employer will be able to abandon hoteling, because offices were built with the idea that a good chunk of people would be working remotely. There may be 500 employees on the payroll and only 250 desks in the office.

For those firms, Lysol and Purell will become staples in the supply cabinet. One option that seems popular in situations where desks have to be shared — either because of hoteling or shifts — is a paper placemat that covers the surface that can be thrown out.

Think of your local chain restaurant, the one that covers the table with brown paper and delivers crayons so you can doodle. That may be coming to the office now too.

The two-metre rule. Literally everyone is aware of the risks of being in close proximity. Over the years, desks and workspaces have shrunk.

There is now a movement to redesign offices to allow six feet of space between workers.

Walk around your office with a tape measure, and you’ll be shocked at how much redesign will be required to give employees breathing space.

One-way corridors. If you’ve been anywhere near a grocery or liquor store (and we all have), you’ll have seen clear directional arrows on the floor to control the flow of traffic.

The idea is to avoid having people walk by anyone. The same concept could be applied to offices with narrow hallways, though expect grumbling from employees who now have to take the long way to the lunchroom or the bathroom.

Don’t touch anything. Technology makes it pretty easy to ensure employees don’t have to touch anything. Automatic doors can open with a pass card or even using facial recognition technology. Elevators can be summoned via an app on your smartphone, and the office coffee maker — a cesspool in the best of times — could also go wireless.

Building walls. Open-concept offices were already on the endangered list before COVID-19. The dreams of more collaboration were dashed by studies showing that distractions and noise far outweighed the benefits.

As workers fear the coughs and the dreaded sneeze from their cubicle neighbour, they’re going to ask for a higher wall or barrier.

Think of the plexiglass shields you’re seeing in the retail world shrunk down to cubicle size. Pretty? Maybe not. Functional? Definitely.

Embrace work from home. Remote work is a dirty word in the minds of many executives who still adhere to the “If I can’t see you working, I don’t believe you’re working mentality.”

But the “accidental work at home employee” — forced into a home office by the virus — may really enjoy the perk of not having to commute on a daily basis. Now that they have a taste of what it’s like, they may not want to go back.

Employers that dig in and refuse the work-from-home option could find a shallower talent pool to hire from in the coming months.

Fresh air. One of the more interesting bits of advice I heard during the pandemic involved Uber and taxi rides. “Ride with the windows open,” became the rule, because it helped scatter the air and blow the virus around. It reduced the possibility of it getting into your system.

The same thinking could be applied to offices, though the vast majority don’t have windows that open — and you can’t really do that when it’s -20C or +35C. But expect high-tech (and expensive) air cleaning systems to become all the rage.

Just imagine the conversations during job interviews, as the hiring manager touts the pay, the benefits package, the great pension and the fact the company just installed the newest MaxCleanAir 3000 unit.

The death of the handshake. This is just sorta over now, folks. Still waiting for a suitable replacement to emerge, because I’m not bumping elbows. And a thumbs up is just plain goofy.

Ryan, my new landscaping friend, has taken to virtual gestures — he pretended to shake my hand from six feet away. Good for a laugh, and it cut the awkwardness.

It’ll do, for now.

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