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.
Returning to Work: Facilities Management
The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the way that we think about the office. We've explored all of the facilities changes that you'll need to retrofit, renovate, or rebuild your various spaces.
The Complete Guide to Furniture Cleaning
Here at NBF, we're serious about keeping things clean around the office. So much so that we've written about it fairly extensively over the years. Now, let's look at some of the most common office furniture materials and how to keep them squeaky clean.
Of course, not all materials can stand up to all solvents. Consult your manufacturer to see if they have specific recommendations for general maintenance, deep cleaning, and disinfecting. New cleaning agents and solvents enter the market constantly, making it more important to be aware of what chemicals do and don't work on different items.
For immediate sanitization and to prevent the further spread of germs, occasional and sporadic use of disinfectants is OK. Don't rely on cleaning wipes or disinfectant sprays as a substitute for routine or deep cleaning, but as a matter of public safety, furniture should always be designed to withstand occasional use.
For desks, file storage, bookcases, and other office mainstays, only a few materials can provide a stylish look that stands up to regular use. Most office furniture is constructed from durable scratch and stain-resistant laminate or veneers that mimic the natural appeal of solid wood. Both materials have their benefits but caring for each material differs dramatically.
Other furniture, such as reception seating or anything in a healthcare setting, will often feature durable materials that can handle more rigorous solvents. These pieces are designed for environments with high levels of human contact or spaces prone to messes and other hazards.
Laminate finishes have come a long way over the years. These days, laminate desks are often more popular than their wood or veneer counterparts, thanks to their durability. This finish boasts resistance to heat, scratches, and stains, making it just right for high-traffic areas, spaces that encounter rigorous wear and tear, or offices that need furniture that's built to last.
Warm, soapy water is preferred for cleaning laminate surfaces. Mix a few drops of dish detergent into a bucket of water and go to town. While this almost sounds too easy to be true, laminate is naturally less porous than natural surfaces, making it vital to take care of germs and buildup on the surface. Always rinse with clean water after scrubbing, ensuring that there's no soap residue after cleaning.
Avoid abrasive chemicals, especially bleach and ammonia-based cleaners or those with any sort of grit. These aggressive solvents can change the color of your finish, dulling it with repeated cleanings. While it's the most resilient of furniture finishes, long-term maintenance will help your furniture look great for much longer.
See more details on laminate care here.
Veneers combine the many brilliant attributes of both man-made and natural surfaces. These pieces are finished with an extremely thin layer of real wood bonded to a lighter, less expensive wood or manufactured board. This creates furniture with all the natural beauty of solid wood yet is easier to move and costs significantly less overall. Like most natural materials, veneers are easier to damage and require a higher level of maintenance than their laminate counterparts.
It's key to be gentle with wood veneer. Use a microfiber or cotton cloth and, if necessary, highly-diluted mild, soapy water for everyday cleaning. It's tempting to use aerosol furniture polish with its high shine and lovely smell, but these oil- and wax-based cleaners leave harmful residue and buildup on surfaces. As with laminate, avoid harsh cleaners, such as bleach or ammonia, at all costs.
With veneers, the best defense is a good offense. Actively care for your veneer furniture by dusting routinely, actively managing scuffs and scratches with polish, and always using coasters for drinks and mats for hot food. Combined with effective cleaning, this will keep your veneer furniture looking great for years to come.
See more details on wood veneer care here.
Plastics and Man-Made
Not all plastic and plastic-like materials are the same. Manufactured surfaces have differing degrees of porousness and cleanability. In the office or home, it's safe to rely on soap and water as you would with laminate or veneers. You could also use a diluted vinegar mixture for regular washing. Plastics are typically more resilient to common disinfectants and household cleaners, making it easy to use bottled solutions or wipes for a quick cleanup.
Healthcare environments follow a completely different set of rules and regulations when it comes to their man-made materials. The wide variety of materials available, as well as the degrees of solvents used, vary dramatically. In most situations, contact your manufacturer to make sure that your surfaces can be used with the required cleaning agents.
While its use isn't as common in office environments, some furniture pieces are made from powder-coated metal, stainless steel, aluminum, and chrome-plated elements. While these are often accents or only part of the construction, they still require cleaning and care along the way. Most metal surfaces can be cleaned with the same simple dish detergent and water combination mentioned above, but some have a few more requirements:
Powder coating should never be cleaned with any abrasive cleaning agents or sponges, as this can very easily damage the coating.
Chrome plating will easily show scuffs and scratches, lending itself to nonabrasive cleaners and sponges. Be sure to thoroughly dry the finish to prevent watermarks, and use a clean microfiber cloth (without any additives) in circular motions to bring to a polish.
Brushed aluminum and stainless steel can be easily cleaned with a simple solution of vinegar and water and, as with chrome, should be dried thoroughly to prevent water spots.
Copper, brass, and other decorative metals are often used as hardware or small accents and can usually be cleaned with the same nonabrasive solvents used to clean laminate or wood veneers.
Not all materials are created equal, and that's especially true when evaluating upholstery types. When purchasing furniture, you probably made upholstery decisions based on several factors—durability, cleanability, and style—with varying degrees of quality for each type of upholstery.
There have also been major changes in technology and coatings for all types of upholstery. Especially within the world of fabrics, new coatings and treatments have made specialty textiles available for healthcare environments that would otherwise require a less porous solution. As always, consult the manufacturer to confirm the capabilities of your chosen material. Material care tags will provide the most specific and accurate information for furniture care.
Just as you would dust a solid surface, it's wise to always start with vacuuming your seating with a hose or upholstery cleaning attachment to ensure that crumbs, dirt, and other debris won't get in the way of cleaning. Outside of professional deep cleaning, fabric requires minimal day-to-day cleaning beyond vacuuming consistently and wiping down with a mild solution on a damp towel.
You should clean deeper stains immediately. If you don't know the trick for a specific type of stain, start with the basics and work your way up. Begin with a towel or sponge and plain water, using a dabbing (never dragging) motion to soak up as much of the stain as possible. Next, add a bit of dish detergent and continue to dab. For more stubborn stains, move on to a stronger vinegar or alcohol solution and continue to dab. Despite the harsh scent, these usually dissipate after a while, though the area should still be finished with a pat of plain water.
If you're still not seeing the results you want, hit the closet or the laundry room for stain-specific solvents that can get tougher or older blemishes out of your fabric. As best you can, try to patch test these items on an out-of-sight area to ensure they won't rapidly fade the fabric. Avoid bleach at all costs, as it can leave white marks or degrade the fabric quickly.
Mesh office chairs offer cooling breathability that's great for stuffy office environments. As a bonus, they're easy to care for. The mesh fibers are usually made from a more durable synthetic material that's highly resistant to staining as long as you clean it regularly. From time to time, vacuum up crumbs and dirt as part of your regular cleaning schedule and run a damp cloth over the mesh to remove any buildup.
Mesh chairs often come with a seat upholstered in a different material, such as fabric, polyurethane, or even leather. Make sure you're using the appropriate cleaning materials on all parts of the chair.
Often called faux leather when referring to office chairs, polyurethane is a popular choice if you want a fabric that looks great, can mimic any number of textures and is incredibly easy to clean. From your stately executive chair to guest rooms everywhere, a polyurethane alternative can be a stylish alternative to fabrics or more durable (and expensive) materials.
As always, the best easy clean comes from a light soapy mixture on a damp cloth. Along with your other surfaces, dish soap works just fine. Since it's synthetic, you can also rely on other household cleaners, such as a vinegar solution, to clean crevices or creases that catch extra buildup.
While these are great for high-traffic office, reception, and some hospitality environments, there's a degree of porousness that's not well-suited for healthcare or some food service areas that require deeper cleaning due to more hazardous materials.
Not only is vinyl the most durable option, but it's often cost-effective as well. Vinyl comes in a variety of styles and grades to suit a variety of environments. When selecting furniture, be aware of your requirements while selecting an upholstery. Especially when shopping for healthcare furniture, select a vinyl that's designed to stand up to the solvents required for your specialty or institution. Differences in durability can match your needs.
Because of its inherent toughness, you can clean vinyl with any number of solvents. For nonhealthcare environments, choose what best matches your industry. Be sure to wipe down your furniture to eliminate dust and debris before cleaning with a damp cloth and whichever cleaner you choose. After, rinse your vinyl with plain water to remove any excess solvent to ensure your upholstery lasts as long as possible.
See more details about cleaning healthcare furniture here.
Luxury comes with a price. Leather furniture can be appealing, but it also comes with higher maintenance needs and more complicated processes. Along with that, the higher the grade of leather, the more rigorous your care needs to be. No matter what, use a leather conditioner every so often to provide deeper nourishment between cleanings.
Because of its specific needs, premade leather cleaners contain the necessary cleaning compounds and hydrating compounds to take care of day-to-day care. Patch test the cleaner first and simply spray them on and wipe them off regularly.
For a more home-grown solution, use one part vinegar and two parts linseed oil to form a highly effective cleaning compound. This takes a bit of time, so rub the mixture onto your chair and let it sit until dry, usually over a few hours, before using a clean cloth to rub it in and reach a high shine.
As for stains, use a cotton ball dipped in alcohol in dabbing or circular motions until the stain fades, then be sure to apply leather conditioner so the area doesn't become dried out or cracked from the harsh alcohol solution. Ideally, patch test an out-of-the-way area to ensure the fading isn't too intense. If the stain isn't too deep, begin with a less diluted vinegar solution to see if this gentler method is effective.
See more details on cleaning leather upholstery.