A Safe Return: Breakrooms
It's not just a spaghetti-crusted microwave, uncleaned coffee maker, or crumby table anymore—breakrooms have become a whole new battleground in the fight against COVID-19. Unlike nearly every other area of the office, this leisurely space is where we're encouraged to step back from the day-to-day grind and take time to ourselves. Be it a quick chat between meetings, a casual lunch with a colleague, or a moment to breathe while the microwave whirs away, we tend to see the breakroom as a place full of positivity.
Food safety is a unique school of thought built into the fabric of service operations. However, these standards aren't often imposed in a corporate environment. Building off of best practices in hospitality as well as what we know to be protective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the right steps can make the lunchroom, breakroom, lounge, café—whatever you may call it—as safe as any other area.
Maintaining a high-touch space comes down to a series of routine and repeated cleaning measures taken by everybody every time. To best communicate these policies and procedures, use a combination of different posted signage to keep all expectations transparent and highly visible.
This signage includes instructions on cleaning up after oneself, etiquette while using shared appliances, refrigerator cleaning measures, and other area-specific details. Standing sign holders, wall-mounted acrylics, and laminated printouts can be used in varying places, but make sure that any paper products are covered or laminated, as these are the hardest to clean.
Consider putting copies of other guides or instructions in a communal area, laminated and cleanable for everybody's safety. These pieces can serve as quick reading material while reinforcing the transparency and availability of all company communications.
Capacity is the biggest hurdle in space planning for breakrooms and lunchrooms, and it affects everything. From the overall capacity of the space to the maximum seating of every table, determining these benchmarks puts everybody on the same page, communicating clear expectations for breakroom behavior.
Overall, consider cutting your maximum capacity by at least half, including people standing around or preparing food. For larger companies, this might mean establishing lunch shifts to cut down on crowding. For others, this might involve converting other large spaces into temporary eating areas to allow more people to break at once.
Space out tables with more than 6 feet between them while trying to maximize scenarios where employees are back-to-back. For each surface, cut the seating in half, turning 2-tops into singles, 4-tops into doubles, 8-tops into 4, etc., and make these changes known by removing excess chairs and tables from the space. Consider spacing booths out and turning tables lengthwise to create 2-person seating.
Even when dividers are being used, try to stagger seating to keep parties from sitting directly across from one another. While this isn't exactly possible on 2-tops, it is a working strategy for longer tables with higher capacity.
As mentioned above, the only surefire way to scale back seating is to completely eliminate the ability to sit somewhere. Put excess chairs and tables in storage to dissuade anybody from pulling up a spare seat.
Create physical barriers between people by placing acrylic table dividers between parties. From simple partitions or sneeze guards to innovative X-shaped dividers, these lightweight and easy-to-place solutions maintain visibility and allow people to stay social during their lunch hour. It's important to note that barriers should be of sufficient height, and social distancing measures should be maintained as best as possible.
An innovation that's been popping up in the hospitality industry has come from an unlikely source—the shower. Transparent shower curtains, hung from the ceiling, can serve as temporary barriers between tables and, in the right environment, can be nonintrusive and less awkward than sourcing large, standing-height acrylic partitions.
To best clean up after eating, cleaning supplies must go beyond simple sanitary wipes. Place several cleaning caddies equipped with food-grade solvents and paper towels to encourage thorough cleanup. If possible, purchase pop-up dispensers for towels, as they reduce touchpoints on paper goods.
That's not to say that disinfecting wipes aren't a powerful tool in quick-touch areas, such as appliances, microwaves, refrigerators, vending machines, the sink, and any other space. Try to keep these goods in strategic places to encourage use but make it clear in signage and policy that a more effective solvent should be used to wipe down one's dining area after use.
No matter what—wash your hands before you eat. Now more than ever, this step is absolutely necessary. Place appropriate signage indicating that hand sanitizer isn't totally adequate; direct employees to wash their hands before engaging with appliances, refrigerators, or any other breakroom supplies.
You use it? You lose it—in the trash, that is. Single-use items are preferred to commingled supplies and can remain beneficial even beyond return to work preparations:
Individually-Wrapped Utensils: Seek out single-use forks, spoons, and knives; stay away from packages that combine all 3 to avoid waste.
Single-Serve Condiments: Instead of shared supplies in the fridge or pumps of creamer on the counter, stick with prepackaged condiments and amenities. Many of these can also be shelf-stable.
Napkins: To avoid cross-contamination, purchase napkin holders that only allow you to grab 1 at a time. Bonus: Dispensers with holders on the side can serve as a spot for quick tips or notes.
Paper Dishes: Use paper plates, bowls, and cups to keep dirty dishes from piling up in the sink or dishwasher.
Try to maintain scarcity on all single-use items. By only putting out a small number of supplies at a time, the chances of contaminating an entire stack or bin of items become lower. Instead, replenish small amounts as needed.
All About Appliances
Refrigerators are constantly in use and high in risk. Strategically-placed wipes can take care of touchpoints, but on the inside, lunch bags and food items are a more complicated situation. All employees should bring their lunches completely contained in a washable bag instead of disposable paper. Every night, all belongings should be taken home and washed accordingly.
While it's tempting to keep one's own salad dressing or condiments in the refrigerator, these should be prohibited. Replace truly communal goods with single-serve packaging that's ideally table stable. Without lunch bags or condiments, the refrigerator should be completely emptied at the end of each business day.
Small Appliances: Microwaves, Toasters, Toaster Ovens, Etc.
After refrigerators, small appliances are one of the highest communal-use items. Adequate spacing, ample signage, and plentiful cleaning supplies should be present between all small appliances, encouraging a complete wipe-down after every use. Provide these guidelines in area-appropriate signage.
For breakrooms with multiple microwaves, spread multiple stations for heating up food throughout the area. These spread-out spots reduce congestion and encourage individual wipe-downs between use. Providing a cleaning caddie at each station also increases access from tables in the area.
Outside of typical lunch hours, coffee makers see a lot of active use on a casual basis. Next to each coffee maker, provide hand sanitizer to use before use or small disinfecting wipes to keep handles and knobs clean. Routinely wipe down these touchpoints with stronger solvents.
If possible, have certain staff members approved to make communal coffee, ensuring they follow the proper procedures while cleaning the carafes between use. Thankfully, coffee is usually hot enough to discourage virus and bacterial growth in the final product, but this doesn't prevent the touchpoints from becoming contaminated.
For the time being, shut off stand-alone ice makers and those that might be in communal refrigerators. Even when scoops are provided, these amenities are in proximity to hands and, consequently, mouths, creating unnecessary spread.
Low-touch vending machines, when accompanied by disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer, are low-risk and can tide employees over who may otherwise leave the building for snacks and beverages. As kiosk-based vending services become more popular, those become high-touch areas that don't have the same easy-to-clean properties as a contained system. Suspend these services in the interim and opt to resume their use at later phases of your return to work.
Water Fountains and Water Coolers
Compared to a faucet or a water jug, water fountains (or, as a Wisconsin company, we might say "bubblers" around NBF HQ) put faces in proximity to the water source. Prohibit their use as personal fountains and place disinfecting wipes nearby to encourage using them to fill water bottles or cups instead. As for jugs, these function similarly to coffee or hot water dispensers, requiring a small amount of touch that should be accompanied by a quick wipe.
To keep germs at bay, opt for covered garbage cans that are either foot-operated or feature a restricted opening to reduce airflow. Conversely, a fully-covered can with a lifted lid can increase unnecessary touch. While aluminum holds the virus for a shorter time, maintaining adequate can and glass recycling management retains similar requirements.
Paper, by its nature, is still heavily porous and should be treated carefully in recycling operations.
Manage Egress Points
As they are often large spaces, lunchrooms and breakrooms often have multiple points of egress, some of which might lead outside. To control traffic flow, limit the use of doors or implement in-and-out wayfinding for entry and exit. Remember, these points of egress exist for a reason, and doors should be marked clearly with signage but left unlocked in case of emergency.
Aside from paper, fabric is one of the most porous materials that can hold on to COVID-19 and other bacteria. Even antimicrobial coatings and water-resistant shields can't completely stop the spread of viruses, germs, and more. At the start of your return to work, eliminate any additional soft seating, such as couches or lounge chairs. While these can be gradually reintroduced, their lack of cleanability can prove problematic.
The Great Outdoors
If your organization has an outdoor patio, you're in luck—this added real estate provides the opportunity to add more well-spaced seating with a little bit of sunshine.
Follow the same guidelines as you would for indoor spaces—the great outdoors doesn't eliminate risk—but consider adding more single-person seating for relaxation and reflection. Whether it's a lounge chair or simple bench seat, ensure that these items are made from durable resin or another washable, nonporous plastic.