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10 Tips For Returning To Work In The Midst Of A Pandemic

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Though working from home has become the new norm for many, some companies are slowly transitioning operations back to the office. However, with new protocols set in place, the office environment now looks much different than it did pre-coronavirus. If you're considering heading back to your work space, the following tips for safely returning back to the office are essential to keep both you and your coworkers healthy.

First and foremost, for those looking to make the move back, doctors suggest limiting the time spent there. "People should also minimize the time they have to be in the office and in public spaces, and consider working from home for as many days as practical," Dr. George Astrakianakis, PhD, MEng, BEng, and member of the Infectious Disease Council, tells TZR. "Transmission will only occur through breathing in virus particles released by someone who is infected or from contacting a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth."

One company using technology to safely have workers return back to the office is Verizon. When it allowed employees to enter its offices (though it's completely up to them whether they decide to or not) on July 6, the telecommunications company adopted an app, called the Return To Office (RTO) tool.

Christy Pambianchi, Chief Human Resources Officer of Verizon, explains to TZR how the app operates. "It gives them training reminding them of social distancing and on-site safety protocols," she says. Before their shift begins, employees are required to complete a certification before coming in. "It asks a series of questions affirming no fevers or symptoms of COVID-19, and not testing positive in the past 14 days."

If you're thinking about heading back to the office, it's good to know the proper protocols that will help keep you healthy. Read on to find 10 tips below from experts to ensure your return is as safe as possible.

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Safety Tip For Returning Back To The Office: Stay Home If You Notice Any Symptoms

Before you even step foot out of the door, be conscious of exactly how you're feeling. "People should be prepared to self-evaluate every day and be prepared to self-isolate at home if they notice any symptoms," Dr. Astrakianakis notes. To help guide you, try a self-assessment from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing the symptoms of coronavirus. Additionally, Dr. Astrakianakis explains that if you have been diagnosed with COVID-19, you must follow the CDC guidelines on “Discontinuation of Isolation for Persons with COVID-19 Not in Healthcare Settings" prior to going back to your office. This guidance discuses protocols to follow for those with COVID-19 under isolation, and for individuals who haven't had coronavirus symptoms, but have tested positive for the virus and are under isolation.

Safety Tip For Returning Back To The Office: Wash Your Hands Upon Arrival

Dr. Philip M. Tierno, Jr, Professor of Microbiology & Pathology at NYU School of Medicine, explains that the first thing you should do when you get to the office is immediately wash your hands. "In getting to work, you have to use public transportation or walk, open doors, touch elevator buttons, all of which can impart on your hands germs from other people," Dr. Tierno notes. "And then if you touch your eyes, nose, and mouth — they are the conduits of entry into your body with that dirty hand." The professor says it's also wise to opt for an automatic paper towel dispenser over an air dryer, as he says they pass on germs. But if your office doesn't have paper towels, consider carrying your own.

Safety Tip For Returning Back To The Office: Temperature Checks

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The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that "employees who appear to have symptoms upon arrival at work or who become sick during the day should immediately be separated from other employees, customers, and visitors, and sent home." And, experts say that it's best to do a temperature check before allowing employees to begin the day. "If you have a hot bed area, temperatures should be taken at the start of the work day," Dr. Tierno notes. He says that many offices, as well as restaurants, have instilled this practice. (Dr. Tierno says having a fever for most people is a temperature of 100.4 or above.)

Safety Tip For Returning Back To The Office: Wear A Mask

Dr. Astrakianakis says to wear a mask in the office when you're working closely with someone within six feet or when distancing from others is difficult to do, like in an elevator, and when you're transiting through common spaces. Pambianchi says Verizon employees are allowed to remove their mask while sitting at their desk, but must put it back on before getting up to go to the bathroom or to leave. The desks in Verizon's offices are all marked to be six feet apart from one another.

Another alternative to a face mask is a shield, according to Dr. William Haseltine, chair and professor at ACCESS Health International and author of A Family Guide to Covid. "It protects your eyes as well as your nose and mouth," he notes. He says it's a little more protection for you, and that a typical mask isn't protecting you very much as the virus can go right through it. To be safe, he suggests wearing it while you sit at your desk. "Because you may cough something out, and aerosols get into the air," Dr. Haseltine states. "And this is something we are sure of now that we weren't sure of earlier, if you're in an enclosed space, people breathing out put little particles into the air fomites and aerosols, which can be in the air for four or five hours."

Safety Tip For Returning Back To The Office: Social Distance

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Practicing social distancing in the office is vital, according to docs. "What I would anticipate is that many people will have their desks or work stations at least six feet from other workers," Dr. Michael Knight, MD, MSHP, Assistant Professor of Medicine and the Patient Safety Officer at The George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates, tells TZR. But, Dr Tierno says if a desk can't be spaced six feet apart, then that calls for a plexiglass plate to be placed in between desks. The plexiglass provides a shield between individuals.

Safety Tip For Returning Back To The Office: Limit Capacity

Many companies have implemented a group by group return. For Verizon, this is done by dividing all employees across the company into four groups (A, B, C, and D). Each week one of the groups can go into the office, but only if they want to. The RTO app alerts them when it's their week to go in, if they wish to. To ensure safety measures are in motion, no more than 25 percent of employees will occupy an office space at any given time. Verizon came up with these return to work guidelines by following CDC, WHO, and other local agency guidelines.

Safety Tip For Returning Back To The Office: Use Gloves If You're Handling Documents

In addition to your mask or face shield, consider having gloves in reach. "If multiple people have to deal with a document, there are these very thin vinyl gloves that can be fit almost like your skin," Dr. Tierno explains. "[They prevent] your germs that can go on a paper that's being handled by a second person or maybe a third person."

Safety Tip For Returning Back To The Office: Limit Elevator Capacity

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Going on an elevator can't be avoided for those in a high-rise building, but there are a few things to take caution of. "Elevators should be cleaned throughout the day, and also limiting the number of people that are entering the elevators," Dr. Knight emphasizes. "So a packed elevator trying to get to your floor is a high-risk situation. We are really recommending people to limit the elevator to about three or four people depending on the size of the it."

Safety Tip For Returning Back To The Office: Avoid Large Meetings

If a meeting is essential, it won't look like ones held pre-coronavirus. "A lower-risk meeting is going to be in a large room where you can be at least six feet away from other individuals at that meeting, and is not running for an extended period of time," Dr. Knight states, "The longer the meeting, the higher the risk. The more people in the room, the higher the risk." He adds that a packed board room for three hours is a very high risk situation.

Safety Tip For Returning Back To The Office: Don't Gather Around The Coffee Maker

"Use common spaces, like lunch rooms and break rooms, only very briefly; the CDC considers any exposure equal or greater than 15 minutes as prolonged," Dr. Astrakianakis says. Gathering around a water cooler or coffee maker to chat with coworkers brings you into close proximity with other people, while also not allowing you to wear a mask while you drink, Dr. Knight notes. "You might see that some break rooms are actually closed and individuals are encouraged to have their lunch or a refreshment at their desk in distance from other people," he says.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support.