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Worried about COVID-19 in the office? Here’s how employers could help make workplaces safer

As the pandemic forced people to shield themselves indoors, many office spaces around the world were left empty for months.

Desks went unused, printers and computers were untouched and office plants were left to battle the elements on their own.

Two years later, employers are encouraging workers to come back to the office. But many are reluctant to return.

One report has found roughly six-in-10 US workers who say their jobs can mainly be done from home (59 per cent) are working from home all or most of the time, while half of British workers (50 per cent) revealed in a survey they are still working from home at least some of the time, up from 37 per cent before the pandemic.

Workers are reluctant to return to the office for a number of reasons. Working from home has allowed them to claw back time wasted on commutes. Others are saving money they would have otherwise spent on transportation to work or buying lunch.

One other factor playing on people’s minds is COVID-19. While the risk of getting the coronavirus may be significantly lower than it was two years ago, largely thanks to vaccines, we are not completely out of the woods yet.

So, how can businesses help ease the minds of people taking those tentative first steps back into the office?

Experts suggest a mix of approaches, including monitoring CO2 levels, using air purifiers and staggering rosters or allowing more hybrid work.

How does COVID-19 spread in the air?

An aerosol physicist at the Queensland University of Technology, Lidia Morawska, has been studying COVID-19 for more than two years and says the science on how it moves in the air is clear.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is mainly spread through larger particles called respiratory droplets or smaller particles called aerosols.

A woman before a sneeze holding a tissue up to her face.
Coughs, sneezes and talking can release aerosols into the air.(Flickr: Tina Franklin)

But the debate around aerosols has been contentious.

Early on in the pandemic, the World Health Organization had insisted that the coronavirus spread through contaminated surfaces and in larger, heavier droplets

That prompted Ms Morawska to lead a group of 239 scientists to appeal for public health organizations like the WHO to address the “overwhelming” research on the dangers of microdroplets.

“There’s basically no doubt about [droplets and aerosols] being the major transmission of the virus,” she says.

Droplets and aerosols can spread when an infected person breathes out, coughs, sneezes, speaks, shouts or sings.

While larger particles can disappear quickly, these tiny particles can stay suspended in the air indoors from minutes to hours and inhaled by someone.

“You’re at a greater risk if you’re closer to someone because the virus in aerosols behaves like cigarette smoke particles. And if you’re sitting closer to a smoker, you’re going to breathe in more of that smoke, it’s more concentrated close to the person,’ says Linsey Marr, an expert in airborne viruses at Virginia Tech.

Ms Morawska recently discovered the perils of indoor meetings during the pandemic first hand while traveling Europe for work.

While she doesn’t know exactly where she caught COVID-19, she suspects she may have been exposed while attending a conference.

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