Hot-desking in the post-pandemic era is best avoided, say experts © John Sibley/Reuters
Concerns have surged with a virus that experts say is mainly spread by droplets expelled by a cougher, sneezer or talker that can infect a bystander directly or contaminate nearby surfaces.
After the virus ripped through a Seoul call center, infecting nearly half the 216 workers on one floor, South Korean health officials reported the pathogen could be “exceptionally contagious in crowded office settings”.
Authorities around the world now advise employers to make sure people can work as far apart as possible but this is not straightforward. Shifts can be staggered, but that requires careful management and it undermines the cost savings that open plan offices are supposed to create. Other measures such as sneezeguard screens between desks might be relatively easy to install but Covid-19 requires frequent cleaning in all occupied office space, and that is expensive.
Do air-conditioning systems help to spread the virus?
The evidence is patchy but transmission risk can’t be dismissed.
One of the biggest unknowns about Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes the Covid-19 disease, is the extent to which it can spread via smaller particles that float in the air like pollen, not just larger droplets, and potentially pose a threat in badly ventilated, crowded spots indoors where people linger.
Updated guidance from the World Health Organization last month acknowledges that so-called airborne transmission “cannot be ruled out”, lending weight to theories that a recent rise in Covid-19 cases in warmer southern US states could be due to people spending more time together in air-conditioned rooms.
When US researchers studied the ventilation system in an Oregon hospital treating Covid-19 patients, they found enough genetic material from the virus to conclude that air-conditioning could potentially help to spread viral particles, though there was no evidence this had happened.
Another study of a restaurant in Guangzhou, China found air blown by an air-conditioner probably helped a diner from Wuhan infect people sitting at two neighboring tables more than a meter away.
But that air-conditioning unit was recirculating the same air, says Tony Day, an air conditioning expert who has contributed to industry guidance on Covid-19 safety in the UK.
More sophisticated systems that pipe in fresh air from outside should be much safer, he says, adding the dilution of indoor air was critical and windows should be kept open when possible.
The virus is so new that this advice is bound to keep evolving as more evidence emerges. “Nobody’s done this before,” says Mr. Day. “We don’t know what the exact level of risk is.”
Can I touch the door handle?
Health officials say that although the virus is mainly transmitted between people, it might be possible for workers to catch it from touching a contaminated light switch or door handle before wiping their mouth, nose or eyes.
A recent article in the Lancet argued the “chances of transmission through inanimate surfaces is very small” before adding that “erring on the side of caution” was wise.
Scientists found the genetic material of the virus in the cruise ship cabins of infected passengers 17 days after they left the vessel.
That does not mean anyone touching the material would have been infected but other research has shown the complete virus can last for up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel.
Lucia Mullen, senior analyst at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, advises employers against expensive renovations. “The science is not fully available on how much your risk would reduce should you change your surface for one that might be more resistant to viruses”. Other factors, such as humidity and temperature may also affect resistance.
Frequent cleaning and disinfection is important. Primrose Freestone, associate professor of microbiology at Leicester university, advises employers to clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces several times a day. If contaminated equipment cannot be sanitized, quarantining it for at least three days should allow the virus to inactivate naturally.
What about hot-desking?
It’s not recommended.
The growing trend of shared workstations offers even bigger savings than open plan offices. But post-pandemic, officials say the practice is best avoided because of the risk that an infected person will contaminate a desk or keyboard someone else will use the next day.
Anyone keeping hot desks needs to be sure they are carefully cleaned between use.
Lift or stairs?