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New CDC Guidelines Would Remake Office Space

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued recommendations for the reopening of office space that cover a wide of array of steps it says will slow the spread of the coronavirus.

If implemented, the recommendations would markedly change the look and feel of office space.

Recently published CDC posters

Among other steps, the CDC says that desks should be placed 6 feet apart if possible, and if not, employers ought to use plastic shields to separate desks. Also, there should be no seating in common areas and no communal amenities such as multiple-serve coffee pots or water coolers, which instead should be replaced by single-serve items.

Other recommendations involve office building infrastructure. Open windows are best, but if that isn't possible, office building management should consider increasing air filtration or having the HVAC systems draw in as much outdoor air as possible, as much as 100%.

Some guidelines are already familiar from other contexts, such as cleaning frequently touched surfaces, including keyboards, telephones, handrails and doorknobs (the CDC lists cleaning products that are good for inactivating viruses). Workers should also undergo temperature checks, wear masks and wash their hands often.

The agency stresses the importance of letting all workers affected by the changes know what is going on, including management and other staff, but also relief employees, janitorial staff and maintenance crews.

Such thorough change to office space would not only reshape physical spaces, but possibly spur a shift in corporate culture, depending on how permanent the change is. The shift might not be one that office workers are quick to embrace, preferring instead to work at home much or most of the time.

“You will not see the drum beat and hue and cry and rush to get back to the office," Joint Venture Silicon Valley CEO Russell Hancock told the New York Times. His organization is a nonprofit that studies the region.

The CDC's action is the latest in a proliferation of guidelines about reopening office space, many of which refer to earlier CDC guidelines about social distancing and steps to combat the coronavirus. 

The Building Owners and Managers Association, for instance, explicitly states in its "Getting Back to Work-Preparing Buildings for Reentry," that building occupants should follow CDC recommendations, as well as state and local guidelines. State governments (such as in Illinois and New York) have issued their own office reopening guidelines that cover much of the same ground as the CDC.

The U.S. document also takes some cues from other governments like South Korea, whose recommendations released a month ago include temperature checks and worker hygiene training, as well as rearranging office space to put distance between workers, especially in the context of meetings.