The breakroom is often the focal point of the office. It’s a place where coworkers can chat, bounce ideas off each other, or get an all-important caffeine boost (or two). However, the COVID-19 pandemic means office managers need to get creative to make sure employees get a well-deserved break or caffeine hit without exposure to unnecessary risk. Read on to learn how to help keep employees safe and healthy when eating snacks and meals in the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Safety guidelines for food in the office
Take these steps to ensure your breakroom remains a safe, healthy place.
Encourage sick employees to stay home
A sure-fire way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 anywhere in the office is to encourage sick employees not to come in, according to recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Employees who have signs or symptoms of COVID-19 or who have been in close contact with an individual with COVID-19 should notify their supervisors and stay home.
Employers should encourage their employees to self-screen and not come into work if any of the following are present.
- Symptoms of COVID-19, including cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- A fever of 100.4 degrees or higher
- Evaluation for COVID-19, for instance, after a known exposure to someone with COVID-19
- Quarantine after a COVID-19 diagnosis
Keep in mind that screening for COVID-19 will not detect all cases of the virus. Many individuals are asymptomatic or only present with mild symptoms and may pass the self-screening even while carrying the virus. Because of this reality, it’s important to also take measures to create a safer work environment. Next, we will provide tips for how to keep your breakroom clean and socially distanced — while still caffeinated!
Disinfect, disinfect, disinfect
So far, data suggests people cannot get COVID-19 through eating properly handled food. However, the coronavirus can live on surfaces for several hours and even up to several days. Thus, even if your granola bar is safe inside the wrapper, if you set it unwrapped on a dirty counter, you may pick up the virus along with your snack.
For that reason, it’s important to disinfect the breakroom often. Wipe down high-touch surfaces such as door handles, the coffee machine, and light switches multiple times a day. Preferably, ask employees to clean these locations after every use. Disinfect the entire breakroom, including the floors and counters, at least daily.
Consider posting signs on the breakroom door and throughout the room to update visitors with the most recent disinfection date. This information can help employees decide if they’re comfortable entering the breakroom.
Provide soap and hand sanitizer
Give employees plenty of time for breaks, and remind them to wash their hand with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before eating or touching breakroom equipment. Use signage to reinforce proper hand-washing techniques. Make it fun by suggesting songs to sing in the 20 seconds it takes to scrub hands.
Provide hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol in multiple places throughout the office, including throughout the breakroom (especially if you don’t have a sink). Consider placing sanitizer by the door and next to high-touch surfaces such as the refrigerator or microwave. Invest in a no-touch hand sanitizer dispenser to avoid multiple hands touching the pump.
Mandate mask usage in communal areas
COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets. These droplets travel through the air when infected people cough, sneeze, or even talk. A person who breathes in virus particles can get sick.
Because breakrooms are often a place where people gather to chat, respiratory droplets could circulate through the air and potentially into employees’ airways if your employees don’t take safety precautions.
The CDC recommends people wear a mask as a simple, effective, way to reduce the spray and inhalation of droplets. Encourage your employees to wear masks and show them the proper way to wear a mask covering the mouth and nose.
Promote social distancing
Gathering outdoors is much less risky than gathering indoors, according to the CDC. If possible, and if weather permits, encourage employees to congregate and eat in outdoor areas.
If eating outside isn’t possible, practice social distancing inside. The CDC recommends people stay at least 6 feet apart, or about two arms’ lengths, from people outside their households. Add decals to the floor at 6-foot intervals to encourage employees to follow social distancing recommendations. This way, your team will know where to stand in the coffee line without crowding one another.
Keep social distancing in mind when setting up the breakroom as well. Move tables and chairs apart. If social distancing to 6 feet is not possible, consider adding barricades or dividers to reduce the spread of germs.
Reduce the flow of traffic into and out of the breakroom by creating a reservation system for breakroom usage. Stagger the times people can use the breakroom, limit the number of people who can enter at any time, and leave time between shifts to wipe down high-touch surfaces.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, COVID-19 may spread indoors via airborne particles. Increased ventilation, when done properly, helps to reduce airborne contaminants, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
If your breakroom has a window, leave it open if it’s safe to do so. Keep your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems running, and make sure the filters are clean and high-quality. You may also consider using office air purifiers to help filter and purify the air further.
Reduce the spread of germs in the breakroom
Now that your employees can social distance in your clean, well-ventilated breakroom, go to the next level by reducing the shared surfaces that they touch. Here are some tips.
Remove bulk snack containers
Although your employees may miss the cereal bar and candy bins, it’s safer to temporarily remove them. Instead, offer your employees healthy individually wrapped snacks such as granola bars, cheese sticks, individually bagged baby carrots, or packaged popcorn. Display the snacks so employees can snag one without touching others.
Skip shared flatware.
In addition to potential issues with inadequate cleaning and sterilizing, a drawer or pile of shared utensils and cutlery can spread germs. Instead, encourage employees to bring their own and keep them at their workstations when not in use. Or provide disposable cutlery. Sustainable options are available.
Invest in a touchless coffee machine.
Consider low-contact coffee brewing methods, such as machines that don’t require users to touch coffee or water when brewing a cup. Replace a communal milk carton or sugar bowl with individually wrapped creamers and sugar packets.
Consider boxed-lunch catering.
Temporarily gone are the days of buffet lunches. Instead, order pre-boxed lunches that employees can grab and take to their workstations or to a safe seating area. Display boxed meals with enough space for employees to grab one without touching others’ food. Alternatively, deliver boxes to employees’ workstations.
Communicate the Breakroom Rules
Announce your breakroom rules and post signs reminding employees of the proper safety procedures in the office and breakroom.
After implementation, you may notice some rules don’t work. Also, as scientists learn more about COVID-19, you may need to shift your best practices. Reassess the office rules regularly and change them as needed to protect your employees.
What About Remote Workers?
The CDC recommends employees work from home if they can. Staying home is safer. In a study published in November 2020, employees who went into work or school were two times more likely to get COVID-19 than workers who stayed at home. If you can, encourage employees to work from home to reduce the number of employees in the office and make social distancing easier.
While your employees won’t have a “breakroom” in their at-home offices, you can still offer them some of the same perks. Consider incentivizing your employees to work from home by offering them food stipends or delivery vouchers. Even once a week, or as a special bonus, these treats can make remote employees feel connected and valued.
The breakroom may not look like it used to. But by following best practices, you can help foster community and create a safer environment for your employees.