Virus prompts businesses to rethink office spaces to enhance employee safety

Owner James Swanson poses by a blackjack table with protective polycarbonate barriers at Screaming Images Thursday, May 7, 2020. The blackjack tables have received a lot of attention but the barriers have a variety of applications in business and office space.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, James Swanson’s Las Vegas printing company was busy making advertising wraps that go on buildings and big signs for events like the Electric Daisy Carnival and Life is Beautiful music festivals.

And in Las Vegas, ground-zero for massive convention s, concerts, rodeos, sporting events, you name it, business was booming — until just a couple months ago.

COVID 19 Protective Barriers

Sean Southam and owner James Swanson look over a protective polycarbonate barrier at Screaming Images Thursday, May 7, 2020. The barriers have a variety of applications in gaming, business and office space. Launch slideshow »

In mid-March, Gov. Steve Sisolak took the unprecedented step of ordering the immediate closure of casinos and other nonessential businesses statewide in an urgent attempt to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Only now are some restaurants, stores and hair salons slowly starting to reopen.

With its normal business wiped out literally overnight, Swanson’s company, Screaming Images on South Decatur Boulevard, was forced to make a U-turn.

Instead of producing advertising pieces, the company shifted its focus to manufacturing polycarbonate dividers for casinos, commercial vehicles and offices.

The panels serve as barriers to help impede the spread of the virus, which is primarily transmitted from person to person by airborne respiratory droplets.

“This isn’t what I thought I’d be doing, but we’re getting slammed now,” Swanson said. “All of a sudden, this has all blown up.”

Other businesses are also finding themselves adjusting to the post-pandemic world by helping companies adapt their offices to provide for added employee protections.

Customers are looking at everything from redesigning offices to provide more social distancing to adding taller dividers between work stations to installing voice-activated bathroom doors.

Tom van Betten, vice president of strategic partnerships at Matter Real Estate, said there’s little doubt COVID-19 will cause lasting changes in what many workspaces look like.

“There’s carpet systems now that have a 6-foot circle around a person’s chair so people will know not to step into that circle,” van Betten said. “We’re already seeing all kinds of different physical barrier products popping up, essentially sneeze guards.”

“I think there will be a new security and safety industry that comes out of this,” he said.

During a recent afternoon, a worker at Screaming Images was busy cutting sheets of polycarbonate — a tough, clear plastic — for an order by sportsbook operator William Hill.

The finished piece, a trademarked product called Shareshield, will serve as a divider between customers and employees at the ticket counter.

The company is also making partitions to separate players at casino table games.

“I think the gaming barrier and slots barrier stuff will last maybe three or six months and then go away,” Swanson said. “I think stuff like the transaction barriers — they go anywhere that you have an employee talking to a customer — isn’t going to go away quickly. I think that’s going to become a new normal.”

Swanson said casinos are only the tip of the iceberg. “We figure we’ll do business with salons, tattoo parlors, health clubs, barber shops, strip clubs, offices, anywhere,” he said.

Quentin Abramo, founder of Faciliteq Business Interiors in downtown Las Vegas, said there’s been a rapid shift in what companies and organizations are seeking.

“It used to be very accepted that you’d pack as many people into square footage as you could. Now, there’s a six-foot diameter social distancing recommendation,” said Abramo, who has been selling office furniture since 1983.

Abramo said discussions about workplace interiors are suddenly focused on things like limiting the number of chairs in conference rooms and redirecting foot traffic to keep more distance between people.

“Companies have to adapt. It’s about the security and safety of their employees,” Abramo said.

Companies are also focusing on cleaning and sanitation, and Abramo said he’s been hearing a lot of talk about technology such as voice-activated bathroom doors.

Brian Labus, a professor at the UNLV School of Public Health, said there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach for offices when to prevent the spread of diseases at the workplace.

“I do expect we’ll see more and more of the dividers, at least temporarily, as a way to protect employees and customers,” Labus said. “If you have a divider, somebody won’t be able to cough directly on you, which is what we’re trying to avoid. Those will work in some situations but wouldn’t make sense in other situations.”

Heather Bressler, Las Vegas market president for commercial furniture supply and interior design firm Henriksen/Butler, said many companies are still planning how they will respond to the pandemic.

“We’ve been hearing a lot about traffic flow in work areas and other social distancing measures. We’ve heard from people who want to have a stand made where they can check employee temperatures,” she said.

Some casino operators, including Wynn Resorts, have said they will check employees and guests for high temperatures when resorts on the Strip eventually reopen.

van Betten said most companies will be willing to invest in keeping their employees healthy to help avoid the crippling expense of another economic shutdown.

“We think the cost of this, to most enterprises, is just unacceptable. Even if the next pandemic is years away, people are willing to prepare for that today,” he said.