It’s your first day back in the office after a long time. After you’ve navigated the temperature checks and socially distanced lift queue, your colleague kindly offers you a much-needed cup of tea. Do you politely accept, or decline on the basis that they could be harbouring a potentially lethal virus?
This used to be a question strictly reserved for the most paranoid employees, but it is a dilemma many are facing.
So what do the experts say? We ask Prof Lawrence Young, a virologist and expert in molecular oncology from Warwick Medical School, Michael Fitzpatrick, a GP, and Sadie Restorick, a specialist in workplace well-being, how they would approach a day in the office now.
Fitzpatrick: I habitually travel to work by bicycle and the risk of Covid transmission outdoors is negligible. I wouldn’t be put off going to work if I had to get public transport. However, people do have different levels of vulnerability, so I understand why people who have underlying health conditions have reservations.
Young: I travel to work in my car, but if you are going to use public transport, the key lies in not being complacent – even if you’re queuing for a bus. Face masks help here; while they are useful at reducing transmission, evidence also shows that people who wear face coverings are more vigilant with things like social distancing and regular handwashing.
Restorick: I currently drive to work, and I always keep antibacterial wipes in my car. If I do have to use public transport, I try to travel outside of rush hour.
Going to a meeting
Young: Have a spare chair between each attendant so people are seated at least one metre apart. Even if your office has good ventilated spaces, social-distancing remains the most important thing. Where possible, it’s useful to keep the door open to help the air exchange in smaller spaces.
Restorick: Try the “walk and talk” meeting – it creates a sense of social cohesion among employees while being outside in the fresh air. We can’t shake hands any more, but I still think that smiling and chatting at a distance can go a long way.
Fitzpatrick: I think most people are resorting to fist pumps or elbow touching. Handshakes aren’t customary in my workplace, but I would probably avoid them, too. On the whole, we should be careful of prolonged contact in very confined spaces.
Young: You’ve just got to be careful about getting too close to people. That doesn’t stop you being able to have a dialogue with colleagues, but shaking hands or hugging people is off limits. In communal areas, it’s easy to forget social distancing.
Doing the tea run
Young: I think the tea round is dead – at least for now. I’ve heard of instances where people are bringing their own hot water in to avoid touching the same tap as their colleagues. This is slightly extreme but I would certainly advise that people bring their own tea and coffee, as the kitchen spaces can be a source of transmission. You want to reduce the number of people handling the same items when it’s difficult to clean them between usages; the communal milk bottle may cause a problem.
Restorick: All of my colleagues bring their own mugs, tea and coffee to work now. In terms of the communal kitchen, there should be routes around the office that ensure people aren’t congregating in communal areas, such as in the kitchen. Wiping down the kettle after you’ve used it, quickly becomes normal.
Eating at work
Fitzpatrick: I wash my hands carefully before or after eating, make sure to clean the surfaces and avoid close contact with people. I think it’s fine to go for lunch with a colleague as long as social distancing remains in place.
Young: The communal refrigerator might be an issue, along with ensuring there is appropriate ventilation in the communal areas. The hope is that people will go out for lunch, and use local cafes which have social-distancing measures already in place.
Using the communal bathroom
Young: All workplaces have a responsibility to make sure that the lavatories are cleaned between uses. The evidence of the virus spreading through faeces is controversial – but there is a chance that the virus can spread in communal bathrooms. There should be appropriate sanitation materials, so that people can clean the door handles, and wipe down the seat after each use. Ideally, you would have someone monitoring how many people are using the facilities at one time.
Getting the lift
Fitzpatrick: In a lift, you’re going to be safer wearing a mask, because any confined, crowded spaces raises the risk of Covid transmission. I prefer using the stairs to lifts; you get the opportunity for some cardiovascular exercise, and they help to keep you fit.
Young: Where possible, I use the stairs. However, handrails can be a significant source of infection, so wearing gloves is a good idea. The same goes for lift buttons. We know that heavy breathing can be a source of virus transmission, so if you’re climbing up and down the stairs you need to make sure that you’re practising social distancing by at least one metre. Always wash your hands after taking off your gloves, too; if you’ve been touching lots of things, it’s sensible to change to a different pair.
Restorick: I typically avoid lifts, it’s healthier to get the stairs. Every company I have visited has had appropriate hand sanitation stations at every floor, so it’s really important to sanitise on your way out.
Wearing a mask in the office
Young: Tricky. A lot of it depends on the nature of the office; whether social distancing is possible, and how much ventilation there is. The safer thing to do is wear a mask if there isn’t another option.
Restorick: Although we’re able to socially distance in our office, I have been wearing a mask in the communal areas, and when entering and exiting the office. At a desk, I leave it up to the individual’s discretion. Some of my clients have put up shields between each desk, which has helped their employees feel psychologically reassured.
Dealing with a cough or a cold
Fitzpatrick: The virus can be transmitted by aerosol droplets that spread through coughing and sneezing, so anyone who feels unwell should stay off work and public transport.
Young: If I had a bit of a tickle in my throat, or a temperature, I would certainly avoid going to work. That being said, sometimes you don’t always know if your temperature is a little bit higher than usual, which is why temperature checking employees on the way into the office is a good idea. Anyone with symptoms should book a test as soon as they can.
Restorick: Rethink presenteeism – when people still go to work when they’re sick – which is a huge problem in the workplace. Hopefully, people will be more mindful about resting when they’re unwell.