Cover up: should employees wear a face mask in the office?

In our weekly WORKTECH Wednesday Briefing, we look at the debate about whether to wear a face mask in the workplace - and at how smart buildings can improve air quality and other factors vital to support a successful return to the office

In the latest of our WORKTECH Wednesday Briefings, created to reach out to our 10,000-plus Academy members, WORKTECH attendees, speakers, partners and sponsors while WORKTECH’s professional live conference series paused due to the coronavirus pandemic, we share perspectives on the latest developments in work and workplace. This edition is posted 15 July 2020.

The great face mask debate           

Should employees wear a face mask on the great return to the office? This is the current question of the day but one that has no easy answer.

The importance of wearing face masks in shared public places to combat the spread of coronavirus has divided the scientific community, diverted politicians and confused the public in many western economies.

While Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan have a strong culture of office workers wearing face masks without stigma to support public health, there have been mixed messages elsewhere.

All of the UK has now fallen into line with its European neighbours by making the wearing of a face mask mandatory in shops and supermarkets as well as on public transport. But as yet, there is no clear guidance on making face masks compulsory in the office to lower transmission rates – although UK Government ministers are said to be discussing the possibility with employers.

The issue opens up a hornet’s nest of challenges. Should employers provide masks? Where and when should they be worn? Can employees refuse to wear them? According to the SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management) in the US, the American workplace is also unsure about what will happen.

The SHRM draws attention to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which has offered guidance. It notes that ‘millions of Americans will be wearing masks in their workplace for the first time’ as businesses reopen and offices repopulate after months of stay-at-home orders.

‘Should employers provide masks? Can employees refuse to wear them? …’

OSHA generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work but adds that employers can decide not to, ‘based on the specific circumstances present at the worksite’. Engineering and administrative controls, such as improving air ventilation and ensuring strict social distancing, are preferred ways to protect workers. Face masks should be used in addition to those controls or when those measures aren’t feasible, according to OSHA guidance.

But OSHA is unambiguous about one thing. As cloth face-coverings are meant to protect others, not the wearer, they are not considered personal protective equipment (PPE) and so are not subject to federal requirements to provide them and train workers in their proper use. In contrast, surgical masks and respirators that protect workers from exposure to infections or toxic substances at hospitals, construction sites and other settings are PPE and must be provided with training.

Confused? You’re entitled to be. The picture is likely to constantly shift from sector to sector, from state to state, and from country to country. One thing is for certain. Whether mandated or not, face masks are set to become as much a fixture around the water cooler in the office as the water cooler itself.

Working world goes hybrid

Can companies facing a ‘hybrid working world’ that will combine remote and office work make better use of the power of software and deep data in commercial buildings? That is the challenge discussed by Schneider Electric’s Laurent Bataille in the latest in our series of WORKTECH Kitchen Table Conversations, with WORKTECH Academy Chairman and UnWork CEO Philip Ross.

Bataille, who is Executive Vice President of Schneider Electric’s digital energy division, believes the huge potential of the workplace to generate ideas and collaboration is currently undermined by an unsophisticated approach to implementing digital solutions. He suggests there are four main considerations in managing the return to office work: space management and densities; occupant wellbeing, especially air quality; occupant engagement and operational efficiency.

Digital office buildings capable of responding autonomously to user needs with their own operating system can address all of these demands, says Bataille, but more collaboration and open systems in the industry will be necessary.

View the full WORKTECH Kitchen Table Conversation with Laurent Bataille here:

Read Laurent Bataille’s WORKTECH Academy article on how digital tools can help building owners to achieve continuity here

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