Return to the office at the time of COVID-19
Posted on 29 May 2020
Categories: COVID-19 | Inside view
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

Ms. Daniela Wuerz, Senior Coordination Officer at UNOG, has been at the forefront of UNOG’s plan for the return to office. She shared with UN Today how she’s facing the enormous task ahead and how will staff be returning safely to the Palais des Nations.

It all starts on 8 June

Until now only the critical staff needed to maintain and prepare the premises are allowed in the Palais for the current preparatory phase. The second phase, that of the gradual return to office, will start on 8 June for a maximum of 30% of staff. This date coincides with the plan of the Swiss Federal Council to loosen restrictions on gatherings of more than five people, and to open all educational institutions (pending Federal Council decision on 27 May). UNOG will closely monitor the situation to decide on a gradual increase in the number of staff that may return to the premises.

With more than 40 entities within the Palais, managers are responsible for deciding who will be amongst the 30% returning to the office (based on operational requirements and the circumstances of each staff member), and UNOG has suggested precautionary measures such as rotation of staff and staggered hours. Managers have been asked to show maximum flexibility towards their staff, to enable the return to office on a voluntary basis, and to allow staff to come to the office at different times to avoid peak public transport hours. But most importantly …

Any staff who is part of the at-risk group or living with someone at risk should continue teleworking, if they are able to.

— Daniela Wuerz, Senior Coordination Officer for COVID

Copyright: Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga

Making sure we stay safe

UN Geneva will not be carrying out testing for COVID-19; only designated places in the canton of Geneva are officially allowed to undertake these tests (HUG, Hôpital de la Tour, Clinique des Grangettes, Cité Génération, among others). Taking into account the local situation and the recommendations of the host country and the UN Geneva Medical Service, it has been decided not to carry out antibody testing at this time.

Concerning masks, the Swiss Federal Council has decided not to impose their wide-spread use.  However, UNOG will be providing masks to staff whose functions prevent them from maintaining the required physical distance, such as colleagues in security and building management. Staff are also welcome to wear their own mask if they wish.

The health and safety of personnel is the first guiding principle of the return to the workplace planning, and UN Geneva is implementing a wide range of measures to provide a safe working environment. This includes sending a strong message to all personnel that

Paving the way for our safe return

Currently, the focus is on preparing the Palais for a gradual return. In order to ensure the required two-meters physical distance in office spaces, at least 9m2 must be allowed per person. To achieve this, UNOG has analyzed all office spaces and is placing stickers on office doors indicating the maximum occupancy for each room. Conference rooms will also have a revised maximum capacity. In the cafeteria and bars, plexi-glass is being fitted, only payment by card will be accepted, tables will be spaced out, and extended opening hours will be put in place. Only one person per elevator will be allowed, with priority given to those who need to use them and/or whose offices are above the fifth floor. People will also be required to enter and exit by the entrance door closest to their office, and signs on the floor will indicate the flow of foot traffic. Hand sanitizers will also be placed in all strategic areas.

Following the  recommendations from the Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (REHVA) all ventilation systems have been switched to “100% fresh air circulation only” and have increased running times. Outside air filters have been replaced and their maintenance is being strictly monitored. In other parts of the premises without automatic ventilation systems, staff are encouraged to open their windows as much as possible to ensure regular ventilation.

Copyright: UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré

We are counting on staff to stay home at the slightest sign of any symptom.

— Daniela Wuerz, Senior Coordination Officer for COVID

While it is neither feasible nor practical for cleaning crews to be continuously disinfecting every area, the cleaning protocol is being taken very seriously by the management. In addition to general cleaning, the current plan is to have all communal areas sanitized at least once per day, and offices sanitized at least once per week. Staff can also help by disinfecting their own personal space (desk and equipment) daily, for which disinfectant and wipes are being provided in every office.

Each staff can contribute to keeping our premises clean, by washing their hands and using hand sanitizer regularly, and by disinfecting their own office spaces as well.

— Daniela Wuerz, Senior Coordination Officer for COVID

Conferences, guided tours, and the Ariana Park

Visitors to the Palais will have to wait a bit longer before being able to come to the Palais des Nations again. Also, for the few conferences that will resume, strict measures will be put in place on the maximum number of participants, physical distancing, etc. Happily, the Ariana Park will be open, even if staff will be asked to respect the two-metre distance rule.

Slowly but surely, we’ll return to our workplace. And even if it will be “business as unusual”, we will all be happy to see our colleagues again!

* Catherine Louise Peck Arif is President of the UNOG Staff Coordinating Council, and Froylan Silveira Alberti is Assistant of the UNOG Staff Coordinating Council.