Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Who guarantees your workplace is safe for return?

Building health is today a top priority for owners and tenants, but how do we know our offices are safe to re-enter

Published: Jun 8, 2020 07:02:03 PM IST

Who guarantees your workplace is safe for return?Image: Getty Images

As we start to think about returning to work, shopping, and recreation, there is much talk about transformed workplaces and innovative social distancing designs. But how will companies, workers, and customers have confidence that these new measures will actually be effective at protecting them?
Beyond what we can do as individuals to reduce our risks of exposure, are there objective measures employers can use to validate what is effective? The answer, fortunately, is yes.

Many claims will be made over the next few weeks and months that stores, restaurants, offices, and processing plants are now at a level of reasonable safety to open up. Much media attention has been paid to easing restrictions—basically increasing the available supply of offices, restaurants, colleges, stores, and factories.

The demand side should be of equal or greater concern: Will shoppers, diners, students, and workers feel safe returning? How can they be comfortable that the space is safe beyond just taking someone’s word for it?

Cautious and shell-shocked employees and customers—as well as skittish lenders and insurance companies—can be expected to look for some objective standard of reasonable care before they will concur that indoor environments are reasonably safe. There are likely to be do-it-yourselfers, top shelf evaluators—and charlatans. You will need to be able to tell them apart.

What to ask for: What gets measured gets doneHere are key requirements to ask of any service provider offering to certify your work setting as a healthy building. These best practices apply for employers, employees, and customers alike.

Our research over many decades in public health and in commercial real estate suggests that several categories of Health Performance Indicators can offer up objective data about the current status of a building and identify meaningful fluctuations over time. How are these HPIs gathered and interpreted? With a combination of settings, sensors, screening for symptoms, surveys, and evaluation of statistics. There are many, but here are examples of each.

Settings: Air flow and other engineering steps. Before you think of moving back into your office building or shop, you should check on basic metrics that any building manager should easily be able to evaluate, including fresh air volume, fan capacity, and filtration effectiveness. We have seen many organizations pinch pennies to save on electricity charges or filter-replacement expenses, at the cost of thousands of dollars in lost time, reduced productivity, and suboptimal indoor air working conditions. Ventilation and air quality are crucial healthy buildings tools in fighting viruses and maintaining health.

Temperature and humidity can have significant impact on disease transmission. Most people associate low humidity with the winter, but improperly tuned air conditioning can also drop indoor summertime humidity levels well below the 50-60 percent recommended to minimize viral transmission.

Sensors: Air quality and other measurable conditions. While it’s not currently possible to test directly for coronaviruses in the air, other measures like particulate counts, carbon dioxide (CO2 )concentration, and the presence of volatile organic compounds are excellent proxies for overall system performance. These take the pulse of your workspaces just as a doctor would record your physical pulse, offering a quick and continuous check that everything is performing as it should.

As an illustration, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are about 410 parts per million (or ppm). Our double-blind experiments showed measurable cognitive impairment at concentrations ranging to 1,400 ppm, a level frequently encountered in a classroom or conference room. Stuffy or ill-ventilated rooms often measure higher.

Most commercial office buildings have fairly sophisticated air temperature and humidity sensors, but the data is seldom shared with tenant companies and individuals. However, in today’s tech-enabled world, apartment renters, concerned employees, and small-business owners can purchase their own low-cost indoor air quality monitors to measure these factors in real time, independent of what the landlord or plant manager may be saying, giving them a measure of confidence that what they are being told about the health of their work environment is true.

Screening: Who can come in? Many organizations are conducting body temperature tests before allowing workers, vendors, or customers into a space. Some go even further, preparing for biometric screening via rapid testing for active infection to detect if someone has COVID-19 before they enter the building. This measure is already employed at places like the White House, hospitals, and some commercial facilities.
Surveys: Workers need monitoring, too. What will it take for you and your employees to feel safe? Will they be comfortable with their desk or workbench setup? Will it be enough to have physical distancing markers on the floor or Plexiglass shields in elevators or thermal scanning when people come to work or shop? Will employees consistently stand too close or not cover their mouth and nose when sneezing? Employers will want to turn to basics such as taking surveys of employee sentiment or requiring workers to self-certify through an app that they are symptom-free each morning.

Statistics: Is there evidence that it’s working? Finally, employers will want to keep track of incremental sick days and health care expenditures. These can all be tabulated with statistics. In the scariest downside, what legal actions can we expect from workers or shoppers or diners? In the best upside, what perceptions and indicators of healthy environments led to more productivity and confidence (and revenue)? Right now, assessments of “excess deaths” are in the news as a proxy for the true fatality figures of COVID-19. These are simply statistical comparisons of a current readout compared to historic trends. The same techniques can be used to quantify healthy building performance and changes over time.

Returning to the new normal office
Returning to our shared spaces is not just a matter of masks, disinfectants, and six-foot circles. Even though governments may give a cautious green light to reopening of businesses, every one of us, as consumers and workers, will ultimately decide our own comfort levels with the proposed mitigations. Businesses will have to persuasively communicate the actions they are taking.

As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done. And every one of us will want to know exactly what is being done.

Joseph Allen is an assistant professor of exposure science at the T.H. Chan Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Healthy Buildings program there. John Macomber is a senior lecturer in the Finance Unit at Harvard Business School.

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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