Can we virus-proof the office?

Safety and reassurance will be paramount when we eventually return to work

May 2020

Words by Katie Puckett

Over the coming weeks, WSP will be looking in detail at how the office will evolve in a post-COVID world, from how we’ll behave around our long-lost colleagues to how a working from home revolution will affect demand for commercial space. How can employers transform their spaces into FOMO-inducing, must-go destinations, and what role will smart technologies play in all of this? Will sustainability be supported or hindered by the adaptations we’ve made? And what about resilience? We know that our closely networked, globalized world puts us at higher risk of future pandemics, so what does a “flexible” office mean in this context?

“This is going to completely change the way we design offices and other buildings”

Austin Wikner, London head of building services, WSP

But one of the first questions for returning office workers will be: is it safe? Infection prevention and control has never been a parameter for office design, and with our new knowledge and sensitivity around the spread of disease, how will we feel about sharing desks, kitchens and lifts with hundreds of other people? “This is going to completely change the way we design offices and other buildings,” says Austin Wikner, head of building services in London for WSP. “Isolation and separation have only ever been considered in healthcare and laboratory settings. Now we’re going to have to rip up the rulebook for office design and see how we can introduce some of these things.”

There are many tried-and-tested strategies from healthcare and high-performance buildings that could be transferred to offices. These come with varying levels of disruption and viability, and there are always trade-offs in performance versus energy, cost or experience. There are also strategies that can promote health more broadly within a building but may not tackle coronavirus specifically. The conundrum for building owners and employers will be how much they need to change to make us feel comfortable, and what compromises are worth it. We’ll discuss how this will interplay with the economics of changing occupier demand later in the series. But first we need to understand what can be done.

Could a virus-proof office exist?

In theory, yes. “We could produce a virus-proof office – but that office would look like the highest-level containment lab and everyone would be in a plastic jumpsuit with a hose attached,” says Kevin Cassidy, WSP’s national healthcare lead in Canada.

In turning the office into a clinical environment, we could certainly risk diminishing its appeal and effectiveness. Over recent decades, knowledge workers have been crammed into increasingly dense open-plan layouts and encouraged to interact as freely and frequently as possible. Unfortunately, the conditions that promote the generation of ideas are also perfect for the spread of disease. “The reality is that the human factors involved have a lot more to do with transmission than the physical environment does,” says Cassidy. “There are a lot of technologies that we use in hospitals, but the question is, how much of that can we integrate in the office in a way that is cost competitive and gives people a level of comfort without intruding into their lives in a very blatant way?”

A related question is whether a virus-proof office would even be a good thing: “If you lived in a virus-free environment, you would lose your immune system, and then as soon as you were exposed to viruses, you would have a hard time fighting them,” says Gary Pomerantz, a building systems specialist and executive vice president at WSP in New York. “Before we jump to conclusions and make the air so clean that there’s nothing in it but air, we ought to find out if that’s good for people.”

“If you lived in a virus-free environment, you would lose your immune system"

Gary Pomerantz, executive vice president, WSP

How does disease spread in an office?

This is a crucial question and one that lacks a definitive answer. What we do know is that COVID-19 is spread from person to person through small droplets expelled by coughing, sneezing or speaking. These are relatively heavy and, in still air, do not travel far before sinking to the ground – hence the WHO recommendation that we keep at least 1m or 3ft apart. But the virus can survive on surfaces for a period of time from a few hours to several days. It spreads when we touch infected surfaces, and can be transmitted if we then touch our noses, eyes or mouths and ingest the particles. This means that in the case of this disease, the three main areas of focus will be people themselves, surfaces, and how air-handling systems that create turbulence may help the droplets to travel further.

Unlike the coronavirus that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002-03, the strain responsible for COVID-19 is not thought to be carried by fine particles called aerosols, so is not truly airborne. But future threats could transmit in a very different way, Cassidy points out. “We could change everything to fix COVID-19, but that might not be right for the next thing. We need to find a balance that is going to give us the largest, broadest degree of protection from whatever comes down the road.”

“We could change everything to fix COVID-19, but that might not be right for the next thing”

Kevin Cassidy, national healthcare lead for Canada, WSP

How can we minimize contact?

Part of the solution will always be managing human behaviour – this is the case even in highly technical healthcare settings, points out Jonathan Ramajoo, head of healthcare at WSP in Australia. “Every time a nurse enters a patient room, before they do anything, they sanitize their hands and they wash them again before they leave. Good hand hygiene is the fundamental thing,” he says.

Until a vaccine or effective treatment is found, physical distancing measures will need to remain in place. Reducing the number of people in the office at any one time, introducing one-way circulation systems, and limiting occupancy of confined spaces such as conference or meeting rooms could all help to limit contact. There are also technologies such as thermal scanning that could be implemented to identify those who may be suffering from infection – we’ll consider the effectiveness (as well as the ethics) of these later in the series.

Existing offices may not easily accommodate this: ideally, there would be separate entry and exit routes, but many buildings do not have two entrances and this would be an expensive modification. Taking the stairs could become a more attractive option than the lift, but this is problematic for wheelchair users or people with limited mobility and, beyond three or four storeys, all but the super-fit. We’ll look at the challenges of vertical transportation in detail in a separate article.

Wikner suggests that layouts could be more decentralized so that common facilities like tea and coffee points serve fewer people. “Where you might have one per floor serving 100 people, you might want to put in distributed centres that serve only 10 or 20 or 30 people but you have four or five per floor,” he says.

The more touch-points we can remove as people move through buildings, the lower the risk. Automatic doors and contactless security could help to do this, as could motion-sensing taps, soap dispensers, hand dryers and toilet flushes in bathrooms, and even voice-activated coffee machines. “None of this is new technology and it’s not particularly difficult to install, but everything comes down to money,” says Wikner. “A touch-free tap is more expensive than a normal one. To provide a motor and a sensor on a door costs money and uses energy.”

Where touch is unavoidable, antimicrobial coatings or materials such as copper and alloys including brass and bronze can deactivate microorganisms that land on them. “These solutions can be easily imported from the healthcare environment,” says Tomer Zarhi, mechanical manager in the healthcare team at WSP in Canada. “Antimicrobial surfaces could be implemented, but especially important are cleanable, durable surfaces.”

“Every time a nurse enters a patient room, they sanitize their hands. Good hand hygiene is the fundamental thing”

Jonathan Ramajoo, head of healthcare, Australia, WSP

There are trade-offs: should kitchen cupboards be replaced with open shelving to remove that touchpoint? Or would that leave crockery prone to droplets in the air? Should we close kitchens while the risks of transmission are high? Or would the risks increase further as people come in and out of the building more frequently to buy coffee?

And what about your commute? In major cities, many office workers travel in on crowded public transport systems. “That’s the weak point,” says Justin Turnpenny, who leads WSP’s fit-out team in London. “My commute is a half-hour train journey and the majority of the time it’s standing room only. You can create a safe working environment for your nine-to-five, but getting there and getting home is much more difficult.” (Read more about public transit responses to COVID-19 in WSP’s white papers for Canada and Australia.)

One solution could be to introduce flexible working hours so that people can avoid peak times – though this will have a knock-on effect on team collaboration, which might defeat the purpose of coming into the office in the first place.

Do air-handling units spread the virus?

The role of air-conditioning and ventilation systems is one of the hottest topics, and one of the most complex. We’ll focus in detail on this aspect in part three, next week.

Is a clean desk policy enough?

No. The relative cleanliness of assigned seating versus hot desks has been much discussed – who will want to sit at a desk after someone else? Actually, it’s more likely to go the other way. Offices will need to get closer to “terminal” cleaning practices from healthcare or laboratory settings. This might not be to the point of fumigating spaces with vaporized bleach, as in some laboratories, but it does mean no more personal items left overnight, as well as no desk phones or shared keyboards.

“Ideally, the new agile environment is a desk with a plug for your laptop and that’s it,” says Zarhi. “There’s no way of doing terminal cleaning when you have personal items.” Jack Maynard, who leads WSP’s mechanical and electrical business in Canada, is working on a reintegration plan for an office right now, and his first job is to get rid of the clutter: “A cleaner coming through is not going to touch the picture of your kids or your personal artefacts. So the idea is to depersonalize – nobody has space anymore and we will do a deep clean every night. So you show up to a station that you know has been well cleaned the night before and that’s your station for the day.” Enhanced cleaning regimes could add significantly to running costs.

“Ideally, the new agile environment is a desk with a plug for your laptop and that’s it”

Tomer Zarhi, mechanical manager, healthcare, WSP

Who’s going to pay for all this?

In the commercial sector, many of the costs of owning and operating a building are passed on to tenants. “So there needs to be a conversation between the building owner and the tenant about what is important to them,” says Maynard. Companies already make trade-offs, he points out, between giving employees more space and offering perks like free cappuccinos and yoga classes. “Lately they’ve been reducing square footage and focusing more on services. It will be very interesting to see how that changes.”

Turnpenny thinks occupier demand for buildings that promote health will drive greater adoption of standards such as WELL and Fitwel. “More people are going to want to work in those buildings because they do have enhanced ventilation, better air quality and sanitation. There will be much more emphasis going forwards on providing a work environment that is better for people’s health.” WELL buildings still have to meet low-energy regulations, so it can be done. “It is harder to achieve and there are costs associated with more efficient plant, but they don’t necessarily end up as running costs.” We’ll be covering the role that wellness standards could play in a separate article.

Measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 will also work against seasonal flu and the common cold, so the reduction in employee sick days – if it could be quantified – could be factored into the payback. “We have done studies of the impact of indoor air quality on labour costs within healthcare facilities and we can prove pretty easily that it’s a good investment,” says Cassidy. On the other hand, we don’t yet know how people will react to perceived threats or their assumed remedies. Might more health-conscious employees refuse to come to buildings where they don’t feel safe or, in more litigious societies, even try to sue if they become ill in a sub-optimal environment…? Workplace safety expert Doug Crann argues that companies that fail to address these concerns risk irrevocable damage to business continuity, culture and trust in their leadership.

But perhaps the greatest risk is that by trying to make buildings safer, we take away the things that make people want to visit them in the first place. Before we try to make the office more like a clinical environment, we need to ask ourselves whether that’s really what we want.

If COVID-19 spurs the nascent trend for more healthful office environments, it will be welcomed by many. But it may, in the end, come down to economics. Just as the pandemic is forcing us to reconsider established strategies for controlling the office environment, it is also shining a very powerful spotlight on the ways that we have traditionally occupied and valued those spaces. That’s something WSP will be exploring later in the series.

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