The future of the sanitized office

To make workplaces safe for employees and customers, companies are turning to new techniques to fight the coronavirus

5 minute read


Key takeaways

  • As companies bring employees back to workspaces, they are rethinking safety and cleaning protocols
  • Sanitizing options range from improved air circulation and deep disinfecting to touchless fixtures
  • Emerging technologies are offering methods for keeping workplaces safe from the coronavirus for every budget


Keeping businesses clean and safe for employees and customers alike has taken on a new urgency in the wake of the coronavirus. Already many companies are stepping up their sanitizing measures, reorganizing workplaces and turning to high-tech disinfecting solutions.


Today, nearly nine out of 10 companies require employees to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer when entering the business, or are considering doing so, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM); two out of three are installing or considering adding touchless fixtures. “We’re seeing a combination of employers providing cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, signage in the offices for social distancing and mask-wearing, and touchless technology for doors and security screens,” says Amber Clayton, SHRM Knowledge Advisor.


Such measures are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, as protection against not only the coronavirus, but also yearly influenza and other contagious illnesses. As your company fine-tunes its approach to workplace safety, you’ll want to understand the latest in sanitizing methods and technologies.



Air filtration and ventilation


With the coronavirus spreading mainly through the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and a recent study demonstrating that viral particles may be active for up to three hours, businesses are looking closely at their air circulation and filtering systems.


Many companies are already experimenting with a variety of ways to clean the air in workspaces. These tech fixes include changing the direction of the airflow, ensuring a slow, steady air speed and directing potentially contaminated air out of rooms. On commercial airplanes, for example, ventilation systems blow air down from the ceiling to the floor to reduce the potential spread of airborne viruses within the cabin. Businesses are also upgrading HVAC systems or improving central air filtration, using more efficient and effective filters. In some cases, companies are keeping their filtration systems running around the clock.


A new report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. that looked at how HVAC systems can help prevent the transmission of the coronavirus, found that one simple way to enhance filtration is to increase the rate of exchange with fresh air from outside the building, thus reducing air recirculation. Although filtration is the most commonly used method for cleaning and purifying indoor air, McKinsey found that other effective strategies include irradiation and high-intensity targeted heating.


Deep and frequent cleaning


As the pandemic demands new standards of cleanliness, businesses of all sizes are significantly enhancing their cleaning protocols as well as increasing the frequency of cleanings. A large, cloud-based software company in the Bay Area, for example, has instituted both regular daytime cleanings and deeper cleanings in the evenings. Longer term, the company is redesigning its workspace to incorporate anti-microbial metals such as copper, brass and bronze.


Federal guidelines from the CDC provide a list of best practices for cleaning and disinfecting offices, including what to do if someone in the building reports being sick. Some go beyond what many companies are already doing. At any time, for instance, the CDC notes that it's important to use soap and water as well as disinfectants to sanitize all surfaces, especially high-touch surfaces like tables, doorknobs and light switches. The Environmental Protection Agency lists more than 300 cleaning products that are safe for humans and effective against the coronavirus.


Workspace protocols


With social distancing a critical component of indoor safety, workplaces are investing in signage to reinforce practices such as hand-washing, requiring masks in common areas and directing employees and customers to keep six feet apart. The Bay Area software firm, for instance, is experimenting with staggered arrival times for its employees to reduce crowding on elevators. Conference rooms will be limited to 40% to 50% of the normal capacity to reduce what some experts call office “density.”


Other employers are retrofitting offices to allow for increased social distancing. In the SHRM survey, 79% of organizations reported spacing workstations further apart (the CDC recommends six feet), and 71% say they are adding floor markers or physical barriers. One small clothing retailer in Ann Arbor, Michigan has gone beyond the now-common practice of marking its floor with spots that are six feet apart. It has also implemented health screenings for employees, installed hand sanitizing stations throughout the store and made masks and gloves free for all customers. When customers try on clothing but don’t purchase it, employees steam clean the garments before returning them to the rack.


Emerging sanitizing technologies


Touch-free technology is another important means of reducing the spread of germs in the office. According to the market research firm CB Insights, new touch-free technologies include foot- or gesture-operated elevators and apps that allow workers to wave a smartphone to enter a building.


“We suggest changing trash cans and faucets to those that are touchless and putting touch-free hand sanitizer stations throughout the office,” says Amber Clayton at SHRM. Two out of three workplaces surveyed by SHRM said they were considering or had already added touchless features to their workplaces; 77% are adding or considering adding contactless procedures.


Another potential new tool is re-engineering electrostatic sprayers for use with disinfecting liquids. These sprayers cause liquids to seek out and stick to surfaces — even in difficult-to-reach areas — without spilling or pooling. The EPA recently announced an expedited review of this new use for the sprayers.


Finally, some companies are turning to high-tech methods such as UV-light-based disinfection systems to help keep things clean. New research has found that a type of ultraviolet light that kills viruses and bacteria may also be effective against the coronavirus. This UV light is known as far-UVC light. A study published in June by researchers at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University Medical Center determined that more than 99.9% of coronaviruses present in airborne droplets — including the current one — were killed when exposed to far-UVC light. Because far-UVC light doesn’t penetrate living cells, it's considered safe to use with people present.


With so many options available, businesses can tailor an effective plan to provide a clean and sanitary environment to customers and employees — one that will provide long-term benefits that last well beyond the coronavirus situation.


Resources for employers


Here’s where to find federal guidelines for keeping your workplace safe and sanitary and other useful information:


Workplace safety procedures:

  • Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), May 2020
  • Recommended Practices for Safety and Health Programs, U.S. Department of Labor
  • Guidance on Returning to Work, Occupational Safety and Health Administration


Tips on office cleaning:

  • Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility, CDC, July 2020
  • List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2, United States Environmental Protection Agency


Tips on office cleaning:

  • Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility, CDC, July 2020
  • List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2, United States Environmental Protection Agency
  • Safety
  • Workforce management

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