How Safe Will Offices Really Be When They Reopen?
Published: Oct 07, 2020
As the Covid-19 delta variant gives rise to new hotspots, it's understandable that workers nationwide are wondering how it will affect the return to offices. John Macomber is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, veteran of the real estate industry, and co-author of Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity (Harvard University Press; April 21, 2020). Recently, Macomber was featured on Harvard Business Review’s IdeaCast podcast, where he reflected on changes companies will (and won't) be making to offices to account for Covid, the metrics companies need to use to monitor the safety of their offices, what offices are likely to look like in the future, and more. Here are four major takeaways from that podcast:
1. Green buildings don’t necessarily mean healthy buildings.
According to Macomber, there’s a big problem with many new buildings deemed to be "green." And that problem is they’re not very healthy. They don’t have good ventilation and don’t keep out moisture or dust, and so the air quality inside of them is anything but exemplary. Which was a problem pre-Covid, and is an even bigger problem now.
Macomber points out that, in the past, there wasn’t too much research into the correlation between air quality and productivity. However, in recent years, there have been many studies that now prove a strong connection. And the connection is this: poor air quality, poor ventilation, and too much noise, among other factors, dramatically drag down employee productivity, not to mention employee health.
What this all means going forward, in the age of Covid, is that buildings—even and especially new buildings—will have to be reconfigured and updated in order to provide proper standards of safety to the employees who inhabit them.
2. Employers will likely make significant improvements to buildings where knowledge workers work but will not likely improve buildings further down their supply chains.
The good news, according to Macomber, is there are many relatively easy and inexpensive improvements that employers, landlords, and building operators can make to create safer buildings in the age of Covid. While Macomber admits that no building is going to be 100 percent safe, the following improvements can effectively improve air quality and aren’t too costly: updating air filtrations systems, changing filters often, installing air ionization technology, closely monitoring air quality, updating ducts, running fans often, and adding UV light (to high air so it’s well above eye level; eyes don’t like UV light).
The bad news, according to Macomber, is companies “aren’t going to care too deeply” about improving their facilities further down their supply chains. Which is to say, they won’t have too much economic incentive to improve them. This means manufacturing plants and non-front offices will likely not get the full air-quality-update-treatment, and so some sort of government intervention and regulation will likely be needed to ensure the safety of those facilities.
3. When offices reopen, there are six key health performance indicators that employers should track.
According to Macomber, there are two kinds of health performance indicators that can be tracked in buildings: those inside the buildings themselves and those inside the people who occupy those buildings. Macomber notes that the ultimate objective of using these indicators isn’t to have healthy buildings but “healthy humans.” As for how to reach that objective, he says it’s important to pay attention to six key metrics: settings, screenings, sensors, standards, surveys, and statistics.
Settings refer to things like the temperature settings of buildings. Screenings refer to actions such as testing saliva to screen for Covid or taking employees’ temperatures (which Macomber admits “is not a great screen”). Sensors refer to devices attached to employees to monitor their temperatures or blood oxygen levels, or devices attached to buildings to, say, measure CO2 levels in the air.
As for standards, Macomber says that while there aren’t really any current building standards other than building codes and the minimum heating and ventilating codes, self-governing groups (but not government groups) will likely create new standards to address Covid. Meanwhile, surveys refer to asking people questions before they enter a building (Do you have symptoms? Have you been in contact with someone who’s had symptoms? Have you had a Covid test?) and after they exit (Were you able to keep a distance of six feet from your colleagues? Do you think the place feels clean? How would you rate the cleanliness?).
And statistics refer to how all of the above metrics can be measured—that is, they can all be put into statistics. And these statistics are the means by which individuals, groups of individuals, companies, landlords, tenants, schools, and students will be able to evaluate the health of buildings and the people who use them.
4. Post-Covid, offices won’t look too different than they do now; it’s the employees who occupy them that will account for most of the difference.
Macomber doesn’t think offices will look too much different in the future than they do now. He says the biggest structural differences will likely be larger cubicles, so people can keep their distance from each other, ventilation over cubicles, and slightly reconfigured restrooms. He also notes it’s possible that, contrary to what some observers have predicted and even if more employees are working remotely, employers will occupy more office space post-Covid, not less (also for social distancing purposes).
The major differences inside offices of the future, according to Macomber, will have less to do with the buildings themselves than with the employees inside them—specifically with employees’ habits. Fewer face-to-face meetings, more video chatting, more online conferencing, and less business travel will all be commonplace in the future, according to Macomber, even post-Covid. And a return to mask-wearing and hand-sanitizing, when needed. In other words, employee habits, more than health concerns (“which can be managed,” says Macomber), will drive the changes in the office of the future.
That said, certain employers will make drastic changes to their offices—and will use their offices as competitive advantages. According to Macomber, it’s likely that some of the big tech firms like Apple as well as many of the big investment banks and law firms will use their newly updated, reconfigured, safe, and healthy buildings as differentiating factors when recruiting new employees.