By Jason Fischer
With COVID-19 vaccination efforts fully ramped up, U.S. employers are accelerating their plans to bring employees back to the office. Recently, PwC’s US Remote Work Survey found 75% of executives anticipate at least half their employees will be back in the office this month. While remote work has proven to be successful by many measures, few leaders believe their company culture can be sustained, and thrive, in a purely remote work setup long-term. Most recently, leaders from the tech and finance sectors have shared plans that by this summer and into the fall their workforce will return to a fully in-person or hybrid format.
Ensuring corporate buildings are safe for return—and getting people to trust it is safe to do so—will take more than messaging. Morning Consult’s survey found nearly 40% of remote workers would still feel uncomfortable returning. Perhaps this hesitancy stems from a mix of news: emerging COVID-19 strains, shifting social distancing guidelines, and even recent MIT research stating that airborne pathogen droplets still present a challenge in a safe return to an indoor environment.
Yet, a return to office is critical to many workplace cultures, just as an eventual return to pre-pandemic occupancy is vital to the economy—particularly small business—and the ability to do the things our society loves doing indoors, such as going to sporting events and experiencing the arts. To return to these experiences, there needs to be peace of mind when it comes to addressing the public’s health and wellness inside buildings.
The question then, is how do we verify the health of our buildings, ease safety concerns, and develop trust with office employees? Building owners, operators, and employers must seek verification from experts in the safety and science fields that their facilities are safe. Simply put, during a public health crisis, we must lead with science.
Many factors account for what makes a building healthy. Humidity levels, air ventilation, temperature, lighting, the presence of chemical-emitting materials, and plumbing all affect the health of the occupants of any building. Yet since the 1970s, buildings have been constructed to be airtight and more energy efficient. Some of these changes have unintentionally led to negative impacts, such as decreased ventilation. Following thousands of building evaluations in support of promoting the health of indoor environments and office reopenings, UL’s scientists and engineers have realized three key learnings:
- Air quality and ventilation matter most: Indoor air quality (IAQ) needs to be directly managed by looking at several factors, such as ventilation. HVAC systems need to be evaluated to ensure they are fully operational, properly maintained, and set for optimal comfort and performance. Other strategies like increased filtration and ventilation may also be appropriate, but make those decisions in context of the potential ramifications. For example, increasing outside air ventilation may be a good way to increase air exchange, but recognize the possible trade-offs such as increased strain on the mechanical system and energy cost.
- There are new rules of engagement: Engineering new rules of engagement to reduce transmission risk is critical to successful re-occupancy. Whether requiring temperature checks at the entrance or limiting occupancy in the lobby, it is important to formulate a plan to control traffic in typically congested areas. However, it is also important that safety professionals identify the potential impacts of measures taken and the possible unintended consequences. For example, by limiting traffic flow in a building, you may inadvertently cause a fire hazard if points of egress are locked.
- Even with a vaccine, triage protocols are needed: Not everyone is or will be vaccinated. Of particular importance are protocols enacted if building occupants become infected. Think through exposure protocols—if an employee tests positive for COVID-19, determine how contact tracing will be conducted and how potentially exposed individuals are notified.
Expectations around the return to work requires employers, building owners and commercial real estate leaders to focus on indoor environments differently today. Environments must promote the health and well-being of its occupants, not just for the return to the workplace, but also for the public as we inch closer to spending more of our time indoors together. To really safeguard health, we must lead with science and verify that buildings are prepared to welcome employees, patrons, fans, and guests back.
Fischer is the President of Enterprise and Advisory Services at UL. He leads UL’s SaaS and Advisory business, connecting data and science to protect customer value chains by enhancing product quality, optimizing supply chains, and advancing enterprise sustainability. He previously served as Senior Vice President of UL’s Field Engineering Group, which conducts all product inspections, audits, management system assessments, supply chain evaluations, and field engineering evaluation activities. Fischer has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia and an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.