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Time to go back to the office? Employers in Finland weigh safety of ending telecommuting

A recent survey indicated that 40 percent of workers in Finland were still telecommuting in late May--early June.

DNA:n toimitiloja Kuopiossa.
For many, the alternative to telecommuting is an open office environment. Image: Matti Myller / Yle

Many firms are planning for the time when employees will return to work after the summer holidays and after spending much of the spring telecommuting. But they are also considering how to make it safe for employees to return to the office.

Finland’s public health authorities are recommending a safety distance of two metres between people when they return to the workplace. The two-metre recommendation comes from medical professionals who suspect that people may be exposed to infection after spending 15 minutes in the same space with an infected person, without social distancing.

This means that all employees will not be able to return to work at the same time, but some will have to continue working remotely if social distancing is to be observed.

"Teams can decide that tomorrow half will be at the office, while the other half will come in the following day. Or they can agree to come in in alternate weeks, whatever works best," Markku Rajamäki, lead safety specialist with the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK) said.

According to Rajamäki, employers should also examine property blueprints and consider the best ways for people to move about.

"They will find bottlenecks such as small kitchens, rec rooms, washrooms and lifts, where people are typically in close contact, even if they don’t want to be. They should consider drawing up guidelines for such spaces. Mealtimes should be staggered," he advised.

The business lobby has directed its employees to enter the building at one entrance in the morning and to leave via a different route to avoid the risk of cross traffic.

Pressure to get people back in offices

Meanwhile, the government has recommended that people continue to work remotely where possible. According to the EK’s Enter 2020 business survey, 40 percent of people in Finland continued to telecommute in late May--early June because of the coronavirus situation. The majority of survey respondents said that they worked as efficiently and as well as before the pandemic.

However Rajamäki said that firms say they are under pressure to get workers back into the office, although they performed well remotely. He said they felt that strategy planning, development projects and social interaction required employees to be on-site at the same time.

He noted that it should be just as safe to return to the office as it is to go to a restaurant.

"Given the way that restrictions have been dismantled, in that regard it doesn’t seem that the office would be more dangerous, as long as attention is paid to the arrangements," Rajamäki added.

Finnish research suggests particles travel four metres

The recommended two-metre safety distance aims to protect people from direct exposure to the air exhaled by others. However it is possible for small droplets to float some distance in the air when people speak in a room.

Finnish researchers recently published a study suggesting that a cough could spread small coronavirus particles up to four metres. Researchers showed how a dry cough could release particles that do not immediately sink to the ground, but dry while airborne and travel on indoor air currents.

The research team said that the risk of infection increases the longer people spend in closely-packed indoor spaces. It specifically examined the risk of infection in places such as stores and other public locations and found that the risk of exposure to infection could be reduced by minimising the number of people present and the time they spend in such spaces.

However the risks are higher in public transportation and workplaces because people spend many hours at work and it may be difficult to maintain a safe distance from others on a bus or train.

"When I speak, some particles will float in the environment here. They may travel far and for a long time,” said Tarja Takki-Halttunen, co-owner and deputy board chair of Halton, a private company specialising in indoor environments.

She added that small aerosols can float around for up to hours. "The size of the dose required to infect someone is a different question," she added.

She said that air circulation systems dilute indoor air and reduce the risk of infection by reducing the possible impact of floating virus particles. She said firms should aim to improve indoor ventilation to provide more fresh air. Alternatively, windows should be opened to allow indoor air to circulate better, she advised. Employers should also map the direction of indoor air flows to determine the safest places to work, she added.

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