According to experts, this is the only way to safely return to in-person workspaces

For many remote workers right now the idea of ever returning to a physical office sounds like a fairytale. However, a new joint study has concluded there is indeed a way for employees to get back to work without risking a full-blown company-wide COVID-19 outbreak.

How is this plausible? According to the analysis, just published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, workers who absolutely can not do their jobs from home can safely return to physical work locations if they are separated into “work bubbles.” 

“Employers have a responsibility to provide a safe work environment for their employees,” says lead author Dr. Jeffrey Shaw, a critical care physician and fellow at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. “Creating company cohorts, or work bubbles can reduce the risk of a company-wide COVID-19 outbreak that could affect the larger community.”

Throughout this pandemic, many businesses deemed essential have kept their factory or workspace doors open. Predictably, this has led to several outbreaks among essential workers. One Canadian company called Bombardier Aviation, however, has been able to safely and efficiently keep its factory doors open while ensuring employee safety. 

The research team examined Bombardier Aviation’s strategy and say their “work bubble” approach can serve as a blueprint for other essential businesses to keep running safely during the pandemic. Similarly, work bubbles can help non-essential companies plan their eventual and gradual return to offices and any number of other in-person workspaces.

For some background, Bombardier Aviation is a rather large designer and manufacturer of jets and other aircraft. They operate seven factories located in both the United States and Canada and employ over 22,000 people. For the past months, non-essential office workers at BA have worked from home. Their factory workers, on the other hand, have had to continue coming into the production factories. After all, one can’t build a jet from their living room.  

To ensure their safety, all essential BA workers were separated into distinct groups or cohorts. Each group only interacted/worked amongst themselves, and cohorts contained the absolute bare minimum of workers necessary to get the job done. Every bubble had a distinct work zone located far away from all other bubbles, and members of different groups usually worked during different hours as well.

Additionally, the bubbles were designed to be as self-contained as possible. This means that if in the event of one bubble being compromised by COVID-19 infections, the other bubbles would still be able to continue doing their jobs. Essentially, BA created multiple tiny, self-sustaining workspaces within one location.

“Adjusting our operational activities to the pandemic was challenging, but we are extremely proud of how proactive and efficient our teams were in adapting to their new working conditions. Keeping our employees safe is our number one priority,” says co-author Nancy Barber, COO, Industrialization, Footprint, and Central Planning, Bombardier Aviation.

Researchers say that once employees are separated into bubbles, it’s a good idea to have different bubbles report for work on different days if possible. Workspaces should be disinfected after each workday as well. Every employee should be tested for coronavirus symptoms upon reporting for work, and a plan should be in place in the event of a positive test result (rapid isolation, contact tracing).

None of this is easy. But, this is what it takes to keep on-location employees safe right now.

“As we begin to relax the public health measures brought in to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Canada, we must think of how to limit the risk of becoming infected at work,” Dr. Shaw concludes. “Using a work bubbles strategy can help businesses continue to function and ensure the safety of employees.”

This analysis was a collaboration among researchers from the University of Toronto, the University of Calgary, Harvard Medical School, Queen’s University, and Boston Children’s Hospital.

In conclusion, the study’s authors believe that work bubbles, if implemented correctly, open up the possibility of slowly and safely re-opening in-person workspaces. These measures should protect employees from COVID-19 infection and increase worker confidence in the safety of their workplace. 

Of course, even with strict work bubbles in place, COVID-19 infections certainly aren’t impossible. Even if that happens, though, a work bubble setup for employees will make it easier to contact trace and establish who else has been exposed. Work bubbles should also provide enough flexibility for businesses, offices, or factories to keep functioning (to at least some degree) in the event of one or two employees testing positive for coronavirus.

If all of this still seems strange to you, you’re certainly not alone. Just a year ago the notion of “work bubbles” would have sounded more like an SNL sketch than a legitimate safety protocol. Still, at some point, at least some closed offices and workspaces will be re-opening, and work bubbles can help ease the transition back to “normal life” (remember what that was like?).

The full piece can be found here, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.