At the turn of the year, the COVID-19 pandemic is sadly still affecting many regions. Countries are struggling with high case rates and increased strain on healthcare systems, which could both potentially be exacerbated by the emergence of the Omicron variant. Nevertheless, officials at the World Health Organization believe that the pandemic will end in 2022, as vaccination and improved treatments proliferate.
How will this new reality impact the way work is done in office buildings? And how can business leaders and facility managers prepare for a post-COVID world?
Shining a Light on Indoor Spaces
When the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged in late 2019, it posed a unique challenge to scientists and health care leaders, who had to build knowledge on every aspect of this new pathogen quickly - including understanding its transmission paths and the most effective mitigation strategies.
In this context, the pandemic has shone a light on the built environment, raising public and political awareness of the role that indoor air quality and ventilation play in determining our health. As the EPA notes, poorly-ventilated indoor spaces increase the risk of infection.
This does not mean that indoor spaces should be forever shunned - business and society cannot function without them! However, as building managers, an increased focus on health, safety, and infection control measures is crucial as employees gradually return from their homes to the office.
Employees Want to Return to Healthier Buildings
While it’s difficult to predict what the future holds - we could be in for a repeat of the Roaring Twenties that came in the wake of the Spanish Flu - it seems safe to assume that today’s workforce has grown increasingly health-conscious, especially when it comes to respiratory diseases. As workers gradually return to in-person work, they are naturally concerned about their safety, as well as the broader societal implications of minimizing the spread of disease.
As an employer, you cannot afford to ignore these concerns. Incorporating health concerns in a building’s design is no longer a luxury item on your to-do list - it’s a necessity that you need to get right if you want your workers back to productive work at the office. For example, 82% of millennials surveyed mentioned indoor air quality data would make them feel safer returning to offices.
I don’t think business people realize the power of buildings to not only keep people safe from disease but to lead to better performance.”
- Joseph Allen, Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health associate professor (source)
With labor shortages making the race for global talent more competitive than ever, an investment in healthy buildings and indoor air quality can help companies differentiate themselves, attract new talent and retain existing staff.
The Pivotal Role of Ventilation and Air Quality
So, it’s important to make your buildings as healthy and COVID-safe as possible. But what does this mean in practice?
Among other important interventions that we’ll cover below, a growing body of research is highlighting the importance of keeping indoor spaces ventilated to prevent viral spread.
An April 2021 article on the British Medical Journal notes:
If we accept that someone in an indoor environment can inhale enough virus to cause infection when more than 2 m away from the original source—even after the original source has left—then air replacement or air cleaning mechanisms become much more important. This means opening windows or installing or upgrading heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems…
Similarly, the CDC stresses that:
…improving ventilation (air flow) can help prevent virus particles from accumulating in the air in your home. Good ventilation, along with other preventive actions, like staying 6 feet apart and wearing masks, can help prevent you from getting and spreading COVID-19.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also notes that “ventilation… is a very important factor in preventing the virus from spreading indoors”.
Ventilation is so important because the knowledge we have gained in the past two years indicates that airborne transmission is a major driver of coronavirus spread. Hence, focusing only on measures such as hygiene and distancing will not be enough to ensure a safe return to the office, and it is imperative to incorporate ventilation best practices into your healthy building strategy.
7 Actionable Strategies to Ensure a Safe Return to the Office
- Ventilation: as we’ve covered above, this should be your first and foremost focus. Identify poorly ventilated spaces by monitoring CO2 levels, and ensure mechanical ventilation and HVAC systems are properly maintained so that indoor spaces get a constant stream of fresh air. (Read more about indoor air quality and HVAC systems)
Reducing contact: The goal of an office is for people to communicate and collaborate, so complete separation between coworkers is impossible and undesirable. However, you can look at steps to reduce density and mixing in some contexts, including designating spaces for teams, cohorting employees, and limiting capacity in meeting rooms.
Spacing and distancing: Get creative about furniture and fixings to create more space between workstations and encourage the use of outdoor spaces (terraces, rooftops) where available.
Hygiene: Regular cleaning of surfaces and encouraging handwashing helps to prevent the spread of disease - both SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens.
Testing: Encouraging employees and visitors to regularly get tested for COVID-19 if they experience symptoms can significantly reduce the chance of infection at the workplace. Many workplaces have taken the extra step of providing rapid antigen tests with quick turnaround times to employees (see details on the CDC website).
Vaccination: While vaccine mandates are controversial and the legal requirements are different between countries and between states, research has shown that vaccinated individuals are much less likely to carry and transmit COVID-19.
PPE: Face masks have been shown to be effective in reducing transmission of COVID-19. Encouraging or mandating the use of masks in communal spaces is an important mitigation, including higher-quality masks such as N95s for at-risk employees.
Towards a COVID-Free Workplace
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, and increased awareness of respiratory viruses is going to be a feature of our lives for years to come. To thrive in this environment, businesses will need to adapt the way their offices are built, designed, and managed, and to implement proven strategies to promote the health and wellbeing of employees.
If you’d like to learn more about combatting COVID-19 through indoor air quality management, check out our recent webinar to hear our answers to questions such as:
- How often should the office be sanitized?
- How many people can be allowed in one meeting room?
- Is the air circulation strong enough to lower the risk of the virus spreading?
You can watch the webinar on-demand, free, right here: