WASHINGTON: Around the world countries are hitting their COVID-19 peaks and starting to grapple with questions about when and how to reopen their economies.
But those people fortunate enough to have not lost their jobs should be prepared for a “new normal” when they finally go back to work, say experts.
Here is a preview of what to expect.
NO HANDSHAKES, FEWER MEETINGS
Handshakes are out “indefinitely,” said Tom Frieden, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Next, offices will need to start thinking about practical measures.
“Can we have doors that don’t have to be opened by people? Should we be taking the temperatures of all people who enter?” he said in a call with reporters.
No-touch hand sanitiser dispensers will become common. Steps may be taken to reduce overcrowding in common spaces, and computers and phones may no longer be shared.
Mask use will be encouraged, and some workplaces may provide them.
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Businesses like supermarkets are already keeping down the number of people who can enter, placing clear plastic barriers between employees and customers and enforcing physical distancing – this could be extended to all shops, cafes and face-to-face engagements.
Offices may also stagger employee hours and have workers come in on different days so that fewer people are present at a given time – and cut meetings.
“One of the positive impacts of COVID-19 I hope will be fewer meetings, because there are just too many meetings,” added Frieden.
MORE SICK DAYS
“Staying at home if you are sick may be encouraged vs discouraged,” said Brandon Brown, a University of California Riverside epidemiologist.
The US has a famously brutal work culture driven in part by the fact there is no federally mandatory sick leave.
As a result, people tend to power through despite illness: an October 2019 nationwide survey of 2,800 workers by the accounting firm Robert Half found that 33 per cent always go in when sick. That may change.
Telework may become more common for many, especially as people have learned during enforced lockdowns that it is possible.
“One thing that we found out from this pandemic and sheltering in place at home, is that in-person meetings are not always necessary. Virtual meetings should be an ongoing option from here on out,” added Brown.
The pandemic has already extracted a devastating death toll, particularly in the hardest-hit region New York, and the onus for providing counseling may fall to great extent on employers.
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“Don’t forget a lot of people are gonna go back to work having lost family members,” said Marc Wilkenfeld, a doctor who specialises in occupational medicine at NYU Langone Health.
“I think the bigger companies or even the smaller companies are going to need to address these issues, because you do want a workforce coming back healthy, physically and mentally.”
TOILET LIDS AND BETTER PLUMBING
Workplaces will continue to hammer home the message to wash hands regularly and thoroughly, said Brown.
Often touched surfaces will be cleaned more frequently, but greater attention will need to be placed on keeping bathrooms clean and improving plumbing, since there is some evidence that the coronavirus can be spread via feces.
A recent Lancet paper recommended “do not ignore unexplained foul smells in bathrooms, kitchens, or wash areas” and included tips for improving plumbing like having functioning U-bends that prevent the outflow of sewage gases.
One step toward mitigating the risk is flushing the toilet with the lid down, since a flush can release up to 80,000 contaminated droplets and leave them suspended in the air for hours if it’s not covered, according to a recent Hong Kong study.
But many toilets in modern workspaces lack lids – a trend that may be reversed.
WHO RETURNS FIRST
People over the age of 65 or who have underlying conditions like heart disease or diabetes are at higher risk for complications arising from COVID-19 – and their return to offices will come later.
“When people start to go back to work, I think that it’s going to be that not everyone goes back at the same time,” Wilkenfeld said.