Firms step up safety measures as more employees head back to work

Some banning hot-desking, others catering meals for staff, limiting physical interactions

Medical device maker Racer Technology's chief executive Willy Koh says infection and exposure risks are actually lower when its employees are at work as about 70 per cent of its production staff work in clean rooms and are required to wear protective
Medical device maker Racer Technology's chief executive Willy Koh says infection and exposure risks are actually lower when its employees are at work as about 70 per cent of its production staff work in clean rooms and are required to wear protective gear such as face masks and gowns. PHOTO: RACER TECHNOLOGY

With more employees heading back to on-site work this week, companies are taking steps to prevent exposure to the virus both within and outside the office.

Some are banning hot-desking to prevent the spread of Covid-19, while others are catering so staff do not have to go out for lunch.

To avoid employees having to mix with crowds on public transport, some firms have even arranged for private transport.

Around 75 per cent of the economy is expected to resume operations in phase one after the circuit breaker is lifted on Tuesday.

But only one-third of workers are anticipated to return to work on-site, up from 17 per cent currently. Most will still be expected to continue working from home.

Precision manufacturer Akribis Systems, which has a staff strength of about 250, has had about 60 per cent of its staff working at its Ang Mo Kio facility during the circuit breaker.

Another 60 to 70 employees, such as engineers and planners, will be back on-site from this week, but the maximum number of workers at the facility will be capped at 215, said chief executive Leow Yong Peng.

The company had adopted hot-desking in August last year, but has since suspended that practice and reconfigured its office space to comply with safe distancing measures.

"Engineers are now working at temporary workstations on the production floor instead of in the offices, to prevent staff from mixing across different work areas," Mr Leow said.

Insurer Prudential, which is reopening its customer service centre at Marina One from Tuesday, is requiring its customer service staff to wear face masks, face shields and gloves when speaking to customers.

Tables are disinfected after serving each customer, who will use disposable stylus pens to sign digital documents. Air purifiers have also been installed in the customer service centre and the firm's offices, said Prudential Singapore head of corporate affairs Tan Ping Ping.

Several firms, like MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company, have stopped using biometric scanners and are using physical cards for security access instead, to reduce the use of high-contact systems.

At most of the buildings where DBS Bank's offices are located, lifts have been recalibrated to reduce the maximum permitted load, to reinforce safe distancing measures, a spokesman said.

Insurance company Great Eastern, which targets to have no more than 25 per cent of its employees back on-site in phase one, said it would encourage employees to keep face-to-face interactions to a minimum.

They should communicate through e-mail, telephone or teleconferencing, and eat lunch at their desks, said Mr James Lee, managing director for group human capital at Great Eastern.

Firms have also sought to reduce physical interactions among employees at the workplace, with chairs removed from common areas like conference rooms.

Medical device manufacturer Racer Technology has set up partitions in its meeting room and pantry, where employees have their meals, to ensure that safe distancing measures are adhered to during employees' break times.

Infection and exposure risks are actually lower when employees are at work, said the company's chief executive Willy Koh, as about 70 per cent of its production staff work in clean rooms where they are required to wear protective gear like face masks and gowns.

While preventing infection within the office is something which most firms feel is within their control, especially with more stringent cleaning procedures, they are more concerned about exposure risks when workers commute or go out to buy food.

To address this, some companies like Prudential and sensor manufacturer Moveon Technologies have ordered food to be delivered for their employees, absorbing the extra costs in exchange for peace of mind.

Companies including Citi and Prudential provide reimbursements for employees' private transport expenses and parking fees, encouraging employees to minimise exposure risk outside of their homes and the workplace.

Moveon Technologies chief executive Chee Teck Lee said that the firm has been arranging for employees to get to work by taxi or private-hire vehicle during the circuit breaker, but may not continue to do so from phase one.

"With stricter measures being enforced on trains and buses, it will probably be safe enough for employees to commute to work by public transport," he said.

Acknowledging that crowds on public transport may be an issue, Mr Chee said the company will evaluate its transport policy and how to best stagger its work hours in the coming weeks so its staff would not have to travel during peak commute periods.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan noted in a Facebook post earlier this month that public transport operators have stepped up their cleaning regime, and applied an anti-microbial chemical coating on frequently touched surfaces.

Frequency of trains and buses will also revert to the maximum to accommodate an expected increase in commuters from June 2, he said.

Moveon's Mr Chee said that while there are extensive measures that firms and building managers can take to ensure that infection risks are reduced, preventing virus spread in the workplace is a responsibility which both employers and employees share.

Mr Ken Ho, a mechanical engineer at Akribis, shares these sentiments, and said he makes it a point to wash his hands frequently and clean the surfaces he touches, like door handles, with alcohol wipes.

"My concerns are not really for myself, but for my family... I just hope that even as this pandemic and containment measures drag out, people don't let their guard down," he added.

Preventing potential spread of virus in workplaces

1 Closing off or reducing capacity in common areas

Employees are discouraged from gathering in common areas within the office.

For example, Great Eastern is closing off most of its conference rooms, and is leaving only a handful of the largest rooms open for meetings that cannot be conducted virtually.

These rooms typically hold about 15 to 20 people, but the number of people allowed in the rooms during phase one will be capped at six, said Mr James Lee, managing director for group human capital at Great Eastern.

Medical device manufacturer Racer Technology has removed some chairs from its meeting room and set up partitions, decreasing the maximum capacity in the room, to make sure that safe distancing is kept to.

2 Stepping up cleaning measures

Medical device firm Racer Technology now employs a full-time cleaner instead of a part-time one, and all employees are reminded to disinfect the meeting room each time before it is used.

At precision manufacturer Akribis Systems, employees are rostered for cleaning duties within their work units, while the cleaning staff take charge of sanitising the main office areas.

Employers like Citi and DBS Bank are also ramping up cleaning and safety measures on-site, even if they are not increasing the number of employees working on their premises significantly in phase one.

High-touch areas such as door handles, card readers and lift buttons are disinfected every two hours and separate bins are designated for the disposal of face masks at DBS' offices. Disinfectant sprays are also placed in meeting rooms.

At Citi's offices, sdst, a self-disinfecting coating, has been applied to all door handles and lift buttons. Hand sanitisers and disinfecting wipes are also provided for staff in addition to increasing the frequency of cleaning and sanitising.

3 Offering food delivery, pooling food orders

Moveon Technologies, a sensor manufacturer, has arranged for meals for its employees to be delivered through third-party platforms or delivery apps. Its employees are not allowed to go out to buy food during their lunch break, to reduce the risk of contamination from public areas like coffee shops, said chief executive Chee Teck Lee.

Insurance company Prudential also provides lunch for its employees working in the office and customer service centre so they do not need to travel for meals.

At Akribis Systems, employees are encouraged to pool their food orders so that one person can buy lunch for colleagues in the same work unit.

4 Reconfiguration of work spaces

Hot-desking, a trend among modern offices, has been suspended in most workplaces.

Precision manufacturing firm Akribis Systems, which revamped its office and introduced hot-desking last August, will be reverting to a fixed-desk system from Tuesday when more employees return to the office. Employees from its main office space have now been split to work in three smaller areas.

Citi's limited hot-desking seats have been discontinued, and the company is rearranging workstations to be at least 2m apart.

With about 88 per cent of its staff working from home, every other desk will be left unoccupied as part of the new office layout, said Mr Abhijit Kumta, head of operations and technology for Asean and Singapore at Citi.

At co-working space JustCo, chairs have been removed from some hot desks, and furniture at communal areas has also been rearranged.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 31, 2020, with the headline Firms step up safety measures as more employees head back to work. Subscribe