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Most health experts agree – the shift from office work to remote work played an important role in stemming the outbreak of the coronavirus in the U.S.

Still, now that some businesses are preparing for a return of in-person work – at least on a part-time basis – organizations should have a plan in place for the next infectious disease that goes beyond sending staff home to work remotely, experts say.

However, studies show that many companies aren’t thinking ahead.

According to a recent ReturnSafe survey of 122 business leaders in the U.S., almost half of companies lack the protocol to manage infectious disease beyond Covid-19. At the same time, 78 percent of employers say that future infectious-disease outbreaks pose a business liability.

Kurt Monnier, vice president of customer success for Texas-based ReturnSafe, which provides return-to-work services for organizations such as contact tracing and vaccine management, says it’s important to know how infectious disease can impact a company when devising policies and protocol.

Some organizations are having to return to full-time in-person work and can’t continue having staff on an all-remote or even hybrid basis, he says.

“While the shift to remote work or remote hybrid work is a fantastic option when feasible, it can’t be the only solution against the current and future infectious disease outbreaks,” he said.

Crafting a comprehensive infectious-disease policy

An infectious-disease protocol consists of policies and tools to mitigate infection risk, according to experts. It involves practices and platforms to ensure communication, crowd control, testing of occupants and cleaning and monitoring of the office building.

How the office is designed also can play a part in enacting a successful plan, says Mark Bryan, a senior interior designer at M+A Architects in Ohio.

An effective infectious-disease protocol must take into facility management and design and support the shift in how employees work when they are on site or off site, and how they communicate and interact with their employer, he adds.

According to Bryan, many offices are shifting design and creating best practices to support their infectious-disease mitigation plan. An example of this is the creation of flex spaces instead of assigned cubicles. This will bring people together safely in the short term and create more engagement in the long term, he notes.

Bryan says his firm focuses on choice, comfort and control when designing spaces. Choice lets the employee choose where to work, comfort can encompass open communication and control lets a person control the space based on their needs, he says.

“Business leaders are now considering how to make sure there are protocols in place to ensure the workplace offers high-impact and low-touch spaces,” he said.

Tools and training play key role

While offering remote work is a great place to start when thinking about how to deal with future public health emergencies, “plans need to be backed up with tools and training that will lead to successful outcomes,” said Paul Shain, CEO of Singlewire Software, the Wisconsin-based maker of the mass-notification tool InformaCast.

In addition to following local and federal health guidelines, communicating with employees is part of his company’s infectious-disease plan.

“One of the most critical elements that should be in every company’s infectious-disease protocols going forward is how they will communicate information with their staff,” Shain said.

“Lack of communication can lead to confusion, unnecessary downtime and can put people at risk,” he said.

In addition to capacity limits, his company lowered the number of open entrances and added temperature checks so staff can self-screen before entering buildings.

“Masks are required when people are not at their workstation, and we limited the number of people that could be in shared spaces such as our employee lounge,” he added.

Businesses also are turning to tech to enact their infectious-disease plans, whether for disinfection, monitoring, prevention or communicating.

Tools are available to manage employee visitations to the office, wellness checks and capacity management. Organizations also can tap touchless sign-in capabilities.

In addition, occupancy sensing and indoor location tracking application that can determine safe paths to get to and from various places are available to businesses.

Many businesses also have stepped up office-disinfection systems and are adding technology to clean—and monitor—the air and surfaces, according to Rajiv Sahay, director of environmental diagnostics laboratory the at Pure Air Control Services in Florida.

Indoor air quality — often an afterthought in the past — now will become a priority for businesses asking their employees to return to the office, says Tony Abate, vice president and chief technical officer at AtmosAir Solutions in Connecticut.

“Knowing that indoor air is a coronavirus risk and threat, and that poor indoor air quality can cause illness, companies will want to be sure the air their employees breathe during a normal eight-hour workday is safe from viruses, germs and airborne contaminants,” he said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that three aspects to control and improve air quality are source control, ventilation and air cleaning.

Servi-Tek has seen several large office buildings enact technology to improve ventilation and indoor air quality, says Bryan McMinn, a partner at the San Diego-based company. The firm uses bipolar ionization air purification technology, which can cleanse the air by releasing ions that inactivate pathogens.

Advanced electrostatic cleaning is another popular service for Servi-Tek, he adds. It involves specialized spraying device that contains an electrode, which gives a positive charge to the particles in a disinfectant solution. The electrostatically charged particles cling on surfaces to kill pathogens without harmful chemicals.

In addition to cleaning, companies should post new safety guidance, manage inquiries about any occupants who have eye/nose/throat irritation and pay attention to any dust or musty smells that could indicate pathogen growth, says Pure Air Control’s Sahay.

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