Can Standing Desks Really Slow Down the Spread of the Coronavirus?

March 17, 2021
remote worker standing desk home office
The time to start thinking about how your employees can remain productive when sequestered at home is now.

In the three weeks that have transpired since we first published this article our world has changed. Where we live in Seattle, streets and highways have cleared out to the point that there is no such thing as rush hour anymore. The morning morning commute feels like a carryover from Sunday night as hundreds of thousands of workers and students have been told to stay home.

While Seattle has been at ground-zero of the Covid-19 epidemic within the United States the virus has now spread nationally, with confirmed cases and fatalities from the virus are mounting daily. What has happened here in Seattle will be rolling out nationally in a matter of weeks. With 35 governors having declared a state of emergency tens of millions of workers and students have been sent to work or study from home.

While Google may have been the first company to institute work-from-home protocols nationwide we’re seeing national and international trade shows from the E3 Gaming Conference to the Geneva Motor Show cancelled. As airlines, cruise ship operators and the entire hospitality industry reel from the sudden reduction in travel the nation’s health care system is bracing for impact.

The real reason governments and employers are taking aggressive and immediate actions

It’s harder to contain the covid19 virus with its 5-day asymptomatic incubation period than influenza or other coronavirus strains we’ve seen before, which means that a single worker in an office can infect an extraordinary number of co-workers before their symptoms arise and they seek medical attention or self-isolate.

working from home during coronavirusTests are still hard to get, and even once they are distributed in the millions we don’t have enough health care workers and labs to process them all. The US has been extremely slow to roll out testing as compared to other top countries where the virus has been widespread, as shown in this graph (March 9th, 2020). Which just increases the odds that community spread is already wide-spread in many areas of the country.

The most pressing concern is how covid19 is set to completely overwhelm our hospitals and clinics. At the moment not everyone can even get tested. The capacity chokepoints have dictated restricting testing only to health care workers and first responders on the front line, and those individuals who already show all the symptoms and have compromising co-morbidities such as respiratory ailments, cancer or diabetes, and are above a certain age.

Testing capacity will open up over time but hospitals are already warning that they will very soon lack the beds to handle the influx, and especially may not have enough respirator equipment, especially in rural areas.

This is the fundamental reason that, despite covid19’s apparent uncontainability, we all need to work together to slow the rate of spread so that we minimize the predictable impact to our health care facilities. Once all the beds are taken by serious coronavirus cases requiring hospitalization there is a high risk of hospitals having to turn away accident victims and everyone else who needs a bed.

Step 1 is to slow it down, step 2 is to reverse the course of the viral spread

With its draconian autocratic government moves, China has demonstrated to the rest of the world that the virus spread can be slowed down and reversed. They’ve now had days with no new infections reported. But western countries don’t have that kind of government power to sequester hundreds of millions of people to their homes and halt the entire national transportation network. So what is it going to take here?

Let’s talk science for just a moment. The R0, or rate of attack of a virus, is a measure of how many other people will become infecting by each person who contracts it. In order to stop the spread of a virus the R0 needs to get well below 1.0.

The key to combating the novel coronavirus is to slow down its rate of spread (Ro).

The challenge with COVID-19 is the difficulty in detecting symptoms early, or even having the test kits to determine whether the individual has the common cold or common flu, and not COVID-19. This virus is spreading across borders rapidly; experts predict 40% to 70% of the global population will eventually become infected. We recommend reading this Scientific American article to learn more about the later stages of the battle against something like covid19, if you’re interested.

The setup for a massive disruption of productivity

We will all have to continue to go to work every day and keep life as normal as possible, while being mindful of any behavior that unnecessarily increases our exposure to the virus. It’s important to recognize that, at some point, virtually every school, church, restaurant, airport, cruise ship, shopping mall, prison facility, conference center and commercial office is going to get that first case of coronavirus (or even first suspected but unconfirmed case) and immediately close down for disinfection in the hopes of stopping any further spread. As epidemiological experts have been espousing daily in the media now, it’s no longer a question of if, it’s only a question of when.

covid-19 school closureFor workers who have kids in daycare or school the apprehension is that they’ll receive a text alert telling them to come pick up their children because a possible coronavirus case has been encountered. The minimum period of time they’ll need to stay home with their kids will be two weeks, and they won’t have any other options for dropping their kids off elsewhere so long as they came from that school with the suspected outbreak.

Daycare facilities will empty briskly at the first sign of a suspected case. Have you ever seen a daycare facility that didn’t have a bunch of kids wiping their snot on every toy and surface? No. This is going to force many parents to work from home; they will simply have no choice.

The same thing is going to happen in every workplace. At the first sign of symptoms from “employee zero” everyone will be sent home and asked to stay there to self-quarantine for at least 14 days. Obviously this is going to impact productivity in a very, very big way, and that’s why the stock markets are reacting the way they are. Many factories and offices and schools and transportation companies are going to be going offline at unpredictable times. We wrote this article on just how how bad the impact of COVID-19 has already been on our own office fitness industry.

Getting ahead of it

Smart employers are not waiting for that first case to crop up in their offices before reacting to the situation. They understand that waiting until it happens may be waiting too long, and making it harder to contain the spread. These companies are already telling their desk workers that if they can work from home they should plan to do so no later than the first report of an outbreak in their community, if not right away.

There are many things employers can do to make the transition to working remotely easier, including providing high-bandwidth VPN or remote desktop software for connecting to the companies’ secure servers and on-premises computers, providing extra sick days to those who actually get infected (including part-time workers and hourly workers who normally don’t get paid sick leave), and making sure that they have a decent home office setup.

While a lot of people have a home computer they can work from for short sprints, not everyone has a good, productive setup for spending an entire 8-hr workday at home. Hunching over a laptop at the kitchen counter or on the dining table may be ok for an hour or two, but not all day. So now is a very good time to investigate options for provisioning employees with a sit-stand workstation at home just like many of them already have at the office. Including all the ergonomic accouterments such as monitor arms, standing mats, keyboard trays and so forth. In some cases perhaps even an under-desk treadmill, because when schools and offices are closed so will be gyms and yoga studios. For optimal productivity these people will need some movement during their workday.

Taking these measures now will ensure that employees are ready to go, ready to be productive by the time those first calls come in from schools, or the first case is reported on company premises. And that, at the end of the day, will have a tremendous impact on slowing down the spread of the virus in our workplaces and communities.

OK, so what kind of workstations are best to send to employees’ homes?

Tackling a complex desk assembly job may not be something employees will want to do at home

As we explore in our primer on how hard is it to assemble a standing desk? there are several good options today for quick-install standing desks. Where most standing desks require assembly skills, a good toolbox, a large area for assembly, and a one to two hour time budget to put together—not something every employee is going to be into—there are excellent standing desks available today, e.g. the iMovR Lander and Lander Lite, that assemble in as little as three minutes, with no tools or mechanical skills required (part of iMovR’s “work@home collection”).

These factory pre-assembled desks cost only slightly more than the “IKEA kit” standing desks that are made in China and sold cheap on Amazon, but the cost increment can be less than the cost of hiring an installation contractor, and don’t involve yet another potentially infectious person entering your employee’s household and disrupting their work space. The other bonus is that these desks are also factory-tested, so the chance of anything going wrong with the desk assembly and impacting your workers’ productivity are very slim.

It also bears a small mention that certain desktops are going to be easier to keep clean of germs (this goes for both home office and commercial office environments). Conventional high-pressure-laminate desktops can accumulate bacteria in the glue seams, and cleaning them with harsh chemicals will slowly erode the glue and lead to the edge banding peeling off at the corners. Powder-coated tops can be stripped of their paint by harsh cleaners. That’s why “health care furniture” features 3D-laminated, hermetically-sealed surface panels, that can be cleaned with harsh chemicals and take spills without ever getting damaged. Learn more in our primer on desk top materials for standing desks.

Financing and reimbursement options, tax deductions

Of course finding the capital to properly equip all office workers to work from home may be a challenge for some employers, especially those that are already feeling the impact of the economic slowdown in their own industry sectors. While the most progressive employers will purchase the desks outright and have them shipped to their employees’ homes, others may offer a reimbursement plan.

In the latter case employees can do their own shopping and buy exactly what they want, with the company offering to reimburse perhaps $500, $1,000 or $1,500 of the expense. The gesture will still be appreciated by the employees, and they may prefer to pick something out that matches their decor more ideally over having the same company-issued desk as everyone else.

Workers who decide to purchase a standing desk for their home office out of their own pocket, unable to get reimbursement from their employer, will at least be able deduct the expense from their income taxes.

Learn more about how the coronavirus has impacted the office fitness industry.

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