(TNS) — When workers start to return to California's Bay Area high-rises and office buildings, there is one thing they should plan on: a second wave of the coronavirus.
That is according to technologists and legal experts who say the best way to fortify a workplace is to take measures to guard against the virus, but also plan for what happens when the coronavirus penetrates those defenses.
“The best approach for an employer in thinking about this is to prepare for additional waves of the virus spreading,” said Michael Warren, head of the labor and employment practice at the law firm McManis Faulkner.
Other than essential measures like reconfiguring office layouts and using personal protective equipment, planning for future spikes in the virus will also require a range of technology to trace and screen employees.
“You have to have access control and an ability to quarantine,” said Mary O’Hara, chief human resources officer and senior vice president of internal communications at Blue Shield of California. “You have to make sure that people psychologically and actually know ... the workplace is safe.”
One Sunnyvale company, NextNav, hopes to use a technology called the Metropolitan Beacon System to pinpoint employees in three dimensions while at work to more exactly determine where an infected worker was in a building and with whom that worker might have been in contact.
NextNav CEO Ganesh Pattabiraman said he hopes his technology can be integrated into contact-tracing apps for smartphones so that businesses won’t necessarily have to quarantine entire buildings.
“You can be more specific if a person took a certain elevator and entered a certain floor of the building,” Pattabiraman said, noting his technology can determine a user’s location within about 10 feet using sensors deployed throughout a city.
Companies also increasingly will have to take the office-as-fortress approach, screening employees as they enter while limiting contact with surfaces that could transmit the coronavirus.
San Francisco’s Proxy already makes hardware and software that allow employees to use smartphones to access office areas with minimal contact. The company is looking to expand its contactless offerings in the face of at least a partial return to work during the pandemic, according to CEO Denis Mars.
Mars said the company already has created doors, turnstiles and elevators that obey the wave of a phone instead of the push of a button. He said he also wants to create attachments for iPhones and iPads that allow workers to check and log their temperatures before entering a building.
Another more simple technology, Plexiglas shields between workers, also might become as in demand in office buildings as they are in many still-operating essential businesses.
That is according to Katrien Van der Schueren, owner of Voila, a design studio that typically makes bespoke office furniture but now produces Plexiglas shields for customer service businesses.
Van der Schueren said she believes offices may begin distributing personal barriers employees can carry around and clean in an office or begin hanging sheets of Plexiglas, as if in an art gallery.
Van der Schueren admits that barriers alone will not be sufficient to curb the spread of the virus, however, and said even details like office furniture will have to be reconsidered.
“The type of fabric offices choose will become really important,” she said. “It needs to be able to be easily disinfected.”
Before workers even get to the office, “another issue is the manner in which employees arrive to work,” according to Martha Doty, a labor and employment attorney at the Alston & Bird firm. Many Bay Area employees rely on public transportation to get to work, which represents an infection risk and “may cause employees to rethink or think about continuing remote-work possibilities,” Doty said.
Six Bay Area counties and the city of Berkeley extended shelter-in-place orders through May, but many businesses are eager to power up again despite the risks as the prolonged measures cause increasing financial strain.
Recent data from a Bay Area Council survey of business leaders found 71 percent want restrictions lifted in the next month. Of the 178 leaders surveyed, 60 percent said they had laid off workers or will be forced to do so under shelter-in-place orders.
In a survey of almost 1,000 office managers mostly in the Bay Area, San Francisco office-cleaning-technology company Eden found over 70 percent of those surveyed are planning to return to physical workplaces in one form or another by July at the latest.
Reopening state and local economies will not be as simple as flipping a switch, however. Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week an initial phase would allow curbside pickup for retail stores and nonessential manufacturing, but even that is weeks away.
Some companies like electric-car manufacturer Tesla have considered opening sooner. Tesla management told some of its employees at its Fremont manufacturing plant to return to work starting April 29, but pulled back before implementing the order.
Legal considerations also potentially hinder a return to physical work as much as technological ones.
Companies would be wise to stagger workers’ return to the office, but need to careful about discrimination, according to Rebecca Stephens, an attorney with Farella Braun and Martel.
Companies cannot “identify older workers and older people with disabilities and say you’re not coming back because you’re high risk,” Stephens said, a particular challenge for employees who may be unable to work from home.
Warren of the McManis Faulkner firm said forcing employees to return can be complicated especially if there has been an infection at a worksite.
“An employer can’t force you to come into a known hazardous work environment,” he said.
Infections at work could also precipitate workers’ compensation claims, even if a company follows government safety guidance, Stephens said.
All of these stumbling blocks could lead to continued work-from-home arrangements even after the shelter-in-place orders lift according to Randall Micek, regional vice president of Menlo Park’s Robert Half staffing company.
Micek said that trend could result in Bay Area companies broadening their search for talent beyond the region as remote work becomes the norm.
“Suddenly, their talent pool grows exponentially,” Micek said.
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