Return To Work: Does Covid-19 Mark The End Of The Office?

BBC Focus - Science & Technology|July 2020

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Return To Work: Does Covid-19 Mark The End Of The Office?
As people head back to work, organisations are making drastic changes to the office layout, putting up dividers, two-metre distancing markers and hand-sanitising stations. But is it enough to keep us safe?
Amy Barrett

Flexible hours and working from home have been on the rise for a number of years, with around 1.7 million people out of the UK’s 32.6 million in employment reporting that they worked mainly from home in 2019, compared to just 884,000 working from home in 2008. But since the coronavirus pandemic and at the UK government’s request, it’s believed that approximately 44 per cent of working adults – roughly 14.2 million people – have turned their living spaces into a home office.

In 2019, Kelly Reynolds, a professor of public health and environmental science, published a paper looking at the way a virus spreads within the office environment. Reynolds and her colleagues at the University of Arizona found that simple hygiene measures or interventions, like providing hand sanitiser and disinfection wipes, could result in an 80 per cent reduction in the risk of respiratory and diarrhoeal Illnesses.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Reynolds has been helping businesses with infection control and has been advising public services on how to safely re-open.

HOW DOES A VIRUS SPREAD AROUND THE OFFICE?

“If just one person comes to work sick, they can contaminate over 50 per cent of the office surfaces, and their co-workers’ [spaces], in less than four hours,” says Reynolds. “The typical route of transmission is from an infected person’s hands to surfaces that are touched by multiple people.”

This hand-to-surface-to-hand transmission enables a virus to spread quickly in an office setting. That’s why the worst offenders are shared areas, such as the kitchen and toilets, and things touched multiple times a day, like doorknobs and lift buttons, says Reynolds. The most contaminated site? The handle to the refrigerator door.

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July 2020