“The safety and health of UN personnel, delegates and all others on the premises is the number one priority. The physical return of personnel to the workplace will be in accordance with and will follow - not get ahead of - the loosening of restrictions by New York City and State.” – Atul Khare, Under-Secretary-General for Operational Support

5 June 2020  — Upon their return to United Nations Headquarters after months of COVID-19-induced telecommuting, UN personnel, diplomats, civil society members and resident journalists are expected to embrace new workplace measures for now: one-way pedestrian traffic, maximum two-person occupancy in elevators, mask wearing when in transit, and being seated at least 2 meters apart from colleagues.

Two men kneeling down marking the floor.

To comply with local health advisories, the United Nations Headquarters complex has remained largely closed since mid-March, with only a few hundred personnel coming to work to perform on-site functions.  However, with New York City gradually moving to ease those restrictions, the UN is also gearing up for its return to normalcy in three phases.

“The safety and health of UN personnel, delegates and all others on the premises is the number one priority,” says Atul Khare, Under-Secretary-General for Operational Support.  “The physical return of personnel to the workplace will be in accordance with and will follow - not get ahead of - the loosening of restrictions by New York City and State.”

According to the Department of Operational Support, preparations are well under way for an eventual return under Phase 1, with staff from the Facilities and Commercial Activities Service working diligently to make offices and historic conference rooms ready.

Crews have been deployed to disinfect high-density and high-touch areas in the Headquarters complex, which comprises the 39-floor Secretariat tower, the General Assembly Hall, as well as conference and library buildings.

They are deep cleaning all frequently used areas and surfaces – from lobbies, elevators and restrooms, to furniture, doorknobs, switch plates, as well as handrails, turnstiles and counters.

Personnel from the Department of Operational Support are marking corridors and walls to designate new pedestrian traffic routes to ensure that if there are queues, they will still meet physical distancing requirements. They are also installing hand-sanitizing stations in lobbies and other common areas, including at least one station on each office floor. 

Phase One

During Phase 1, only select activities will be allowed.  Maximum occupancy at the Headquarters complex will be capped at 400 people a day, as opposed to the 4,200 limit in normal times.  For annex buildings, including DC1 and DC2, maximum occupancy will also be kept to 10 per cent of the usual level.  Emphasis will be strictly on those tasks that must be performed on site, with many critical tasks continuing to be done remotely.

Staff needed to perform on-site functions will be expected to arrive wearing face coverings, but no temperature checks will be required to enter the premises.  No testing for COVID-19 will be required before their return to the workplace, but any personnel wishing to be checked for the virus may contact the Division of Healthcare Management and Occupational Safety and Health (DHMOSH) via the self-reporting portal, or visit testing locations available to the general public in their residential areas.

All persons on the premises are expected to wear face coverings when transiting common areas such as lobbies, elevators, corridors, restrooms and circulation routes on all floors, but in general are not required to put on masks at their desks.

During Phases 1 and 2, routine administrative or organizational face-to-face meetings are not permitted.

To move into Phase 1, the ‘New York on PAUSE’ executive order must be relaxed.  Improvements also must be seen in the local epidemic situation and health care capability, in accordance with city and state recommendations. 

Phase Two

In Phase 2, building occupancy will gradually increase to a maximum 1,100 personnel a day at the Headquarters complex, or about 40 per cent of normal levels.  For other buildings, 40-50 per cent occupancy will apply.  Alternate working arrangements will largely remain in place and many personnel will continue to work remotely.  Shifting from Phase 1 to 2 will require a further reduction in the epidemic and strengthening of the health care system in the host city.

Phase Three – ‘new normal’

Phase 3, which will be a ‘new normal’, would take place when workplace risks are reduced to pre-epidemic levels, and COVID-19 related restrictions are lifted by New York City and State, including those that will allow for the reopening of day-care services and public schools.  The Department of Operational Support says it is still too early to outline the work modalities that will be in place under this phase.

Seventy-fifth session of the General Assembly

The format for the General Assembly’s annual general debate in September and other high-level meetings taking place at Headquarters during the upcoming seventy-fifth session will likely change.  UN Secretary-General António Guterres has written to Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, proposing that the UN’s 193-member policymaking organ consider holding its general debate in a different format, possibly using pre-recorded messages provided by Heads of State and Government or Ministers, and limiting any physical presence in the General Assembly Hall to one person per delegation based in New York.

“COVID-19 has changed the way we live, work and interact,” Under-Secretary-General Khare says. “But we are resilient, and together we can navigate through this, while maintaining physical distancing of course.”

Note for UN personnel: As the situation evolves in the coming weeks, information concerning the three-phase plan will be updated by the Crisis Operations Group’s Operational Safety and Health Committee and Communication Working Group and posted under “our workplace” on iSeek.