By Matt Richtel | May 4, 2020
SAN FRANCISCO — The modern corporate office is renowned for open, collaborative work spaces, in-house coffee bars and standing desks with room for two giant computer monitors.
Soon, there may be a new must-have perk: the sneeze guard.
This plexiglass barrier that can be mounted on a desk is one of many ideas being mulled by employers as they contemplate a return to the workplace after coronavirus lockdowns. Their post-pandemic makeovers may include hand sanitizers built into desks that are positioned at 90-degree angles or that are enclosed by translucent plastic partitions; air filters that push air down and not up; outdoor gathering space to allow collaboration without viral transmission; and windows that actually open, for freer air flow.
The conversation about how to reconfigure the American workplace is taking place throughout the business world, from small start-ups to giant Wall Street firms. The design and furniture companies that have been hired for the makeovers say the virus may even be tilting workplaces back toward a concept they had been moving away from since the Mad Men era: privacy.
The question is whether any of the changes being contemplated will actually result in safer workplaces.
“We are not infectious disease experts, we are simply furniture people,” said Tracy D. Wymer, vice president for workplace at Knoll, a company that makes office furniture and has been engaged by anxious clients, including some of the country’s largest corporations, to come up with ways to make workplaces less of a health risk.
The actual disease experts say that a virus-free office environment is a pipe dream. Dr. Rajneesh Behal, an internal medicine physician and the chief quality officer of One Medical, a primary-care chain that recently held a webinar for businesses on how to reopen, said, “A core message is, do not expect your risk goes down to zero.”
Much of what is known on the subject of workplace and disease transmission comes from studies about workplace transmission of the flu, which shares some similarities with the novel coronavirus, said Dr. Lisa Winston, the hospital epidemiologist at Zuckerberg San Francisco General at the University of California, San Francisco. “We know that flu spreads in workplaces among healthy working adults,” she said. A 2016 analysis of various research papers from around the world found that around 16 percent of flu transmission takes place in the office.
Other research shows that one of the best ways to reduce transmission in the workplace is to provide paid sick leave that encourages ill employees to stay home.