Social Distancing at The Office: Where Do We Start?

March 19, 2020

Social Distancing

In this time of crisis, we are all being asked to take part in social distancing. It is an important risk mitigation tactic to try to slow the transmission of disease during epidemics/pandemics. If your company has not instituted a broad work-from-home policy and does not know where to start, our medical director and in-house pandemic expert, Dr. Bill Lang, has put together a step-by-step guide on social distancing measures to implement in an office setting.

Social distancing is the deliberate action of increasing the physical space between people to avoid spreading illness. The goal of social distancing is to decrease the risk of infecting a lot of people at the same time. By social distancing, we are trying to “flatten the curve”; which refers to using protective practices such as social distancing to slow the rate of COVID-19 infection so hospitals have enough rooms, supplies, nurses, and doctors for all of the patients who need care. We now know that for every individual who gets infected, two to three others will also become infected.

Where to begin?

Step 1: Management identifies local Community-based Risk level

  1. No known COVID-19 in the community
  2. Occasional cases without chains of transmission
  3. Office has travelers
  4. Limited community-based transmission
  5. Widespread community-based transmission
  6. COVID-19 case in the workplace

Step 2: Ensure your Employees understand and identify their Personal Risk Level

  1. Low: Young healthy non-pregnant workers
  2. High: Workers who may be pregnant
  3. High: Workers over 60 without chronic disease
  4. Higher: Workers with chronic disease (especially respiratory)
  5. Highest: Workers over 60 with chronic disease

Step 3: Understand main potential components of Social Distancing

  1. Education: Ensure people understand why 6’ distancing works. If you are casually exposed to COVID-19, the chance of contagion is 0.5%. Likelihood of contracting the infection if you are in close contact with a person who is COVID-19 positive rises to 10%-12%.
  2. No Physical Contact: No handshaking, no hugs
  3. Physical distancing: Using available space to ensure employees are generally at least 6’ from co-workers and not in shared offices
  4. Operational distancing: Arranging work schedules and/or alternative work locations to reduce population density in any given work area
  5. Telework rotation: Having rotating members of teams telework so as to decrease population density in the office.
  6. Self-selected telework: Have people who self-identify in one of the known risk groups telework to both decrease their personal risk and to decrease population density in the office.
  7. Maximal Telework: Have employees work from home as much as operationally reasonable (most companies will want to avoid this but have a plan in the case directed by local authorities).

Step 4: Implement Social Distancing in relation to Community-based Risk

Risk Level 1 and 2: No known COVID-19 in the community or occasional cases without community-based transmission

  1. Educate all employees on social distancing
  2. Consider a “drill-day” to test alternate work location/telework systems
  3. Informally implement No Physical Contacts and begin to develop and test-implement mechanisms for Physical Distancing

Risk Level 3: As above but the office has travelers

  1. Request travelers to strictly adhere to No Physical Contact and Physical Distancing until 14 days after last travel

Risk Level 4: COVID-19 has limited circulation in the community

  1. Formally implement No Physical Contact and Physical Distancing
  2. Allow self-identified high-risk employees to Self-Select for Telework.
  3. Consider implementing Operational Distancing so that staff become comfortable with this model in a non-urgent transition
  4. Minimize and log any visitors to workspaces and consider health questions

Risk Level 5: COVID-19 widespread in the community

  1. Fully implement Operational Distancing to decrease density
  2. Encourage high-risk employees to telework
  3. Implement Telework Rotation so as to further increase physical distancing
  4. Close “congregation spaces” (break rooms, lunchrooms, etc.)
  5. Require employees who are at work to stay in their work area only except by exception and track exceptions
  6. Minimize the use of common locations, including elevators. Consider recommending a small maximum number on elevators.
  7. Exclude visitors except by high-level exception

Risk Level 6: COVID-19 case in the workplace

  1. Coordinate with Health Authorities for contact tracing and monitoring
  2. Propose to them, if Stage 3 had been implemented:
  3. Send home employees from the affected employee’s office area to allow deep cleaning of that area and any common areas that have been used (typically overnight)
  4. Review the employee’s work patterns and exception log and identify any other at-risk employees
  5. If alternate work locations have been implemented, do not send potentially involved employees to those locations (until considered clear of disease per health department guidance)
  6. Return to Risk Level 5 ASAP; Maximal Telework in the interim

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