How can we keep people healthy in commercial buildings?

Landlords and building occupiers are working together to combat the spread of the coronavirus when we return to work

The global coronavirus pandemic has transformed the real estate industry, making it even more important that buildings are designed to keep employees healthy. In a recent webinar hosted by WeWork, I sat down with Paul Scialla, founder of both Delos, a wellness real estate company, and the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), to discuss the spatial, environmental, and behavioral elements of the workplace that keep people healthy.

Delos has been applying health sciences to buildings for eight years, trying to understand how office environments impact the humans that occupy them. They have researched and tested factors such as air quality, natural lighting, water, and acoustics in the workplace and mapped them to health outcomes. Their findings have quickly moved from a summary of “nice to have” workplace elements to necessary considerations in today’s climate.

“At the end of the day, why do we create places or spaces? We create them for the people that occupy them,” says Scialla. “If we can constantly and passively enhance their health, well-being, and productivity through fours walls and a roof, that’s a huge win.”

Building occupiers and landlords know that the coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on how we utilize our spaces, and individuals are understandably concerned about staying healthy. As workplaces and cities begin to open back up, businesses that focus resources on an evidence- and science-based approach can instill the right level of confidence for employees to return to the workplace. This is something that WeWork is doing in our own spaces.

A blueprint for better health 

Going forward, businesses will prioritize policies that keep employees healthy in the new workplace. Luckily, behavioral, health, and building scientists have been long examining the factors that can do so, and their findings can offer some clarity for the commercial real estate industry to take the right measures. The International WELL Building Standard outlines four broad steps to combat the spread of COVID-19 or any other pathogen: prevention, preparedness, resilience, and recovery.

Delos focuses on the three ways infection might spread in a building—via the air, surfaces, and people’s behavior—and tailors its strategy according to the specifics of each, says Scialla. Social distancing is the first line of defense. In public places that means ensuring at least six feet of distance between each person. Wearing masks and face coverings has been proven to dramatically reduce virus transmission, especially when all parties are wearing one. In addition to reducing transmission, wearing a mask is also common courtesy and a show of respect to others. 

WeWork Redstone in Newport Beach.

Delos believes that a key issue for commercial buildings will be to upgrade workspaces with better air-filtration and ventilation systems. For those on a budget, Scialla says there are affordable $400 to $500 freestanding air-filtration systems that can provide the appropriate level of filtration required to remove particles of the coronavirus from the air. (But proper analysis is required to analyze how they fit with existing HVAC systems.) 

Other approaches to reduce virus transmission are still being researched. These include maintaining relative humidity ranges of 40 percent to 60 percent and utilizing ultraviolet light within the air-filtration systems. 

What it’ll be like for employees 

Employees who enter buildings want to feel assured that not only are they taking the proper steps to stay healthy, but that their colleagues, neighbors, and others who enter their workplace are doing so as well. It is essential that landlords, building operators, and businesses communicate those measures—and any other changes—widely and clearly. One bad actor can undo all of the good measures put in place.

Offices will be less dense. Employees will see new workspace layouts. They will experience new social distancing protocols, such as staggered start times. Right now in China, a country that has just reopened after months of coronavirus lockdown, it can take up to 40 minutes in an elevator to get to your floor because only two people are allowed to ride inside at the same time.

On a positive note, employees may have more options as to which office locations they can go to. Many companies are moving toward a hub-and-spoke office model, with one central office and several satellite locations. This reduces the amount of people in any one location and lowers the risk that employees will become infected during a long commute on public transportation. It also allows those who have children to be closer to home, which is a big concern with schools still closed in many countries. 

Other companies are introducing an alternating A team/B team schedule in which employees go to the office every other workday and work from home on other days. This is now doable as both employees and employers have become more comfortable working from home.

Scialla believes a more effective solution is to get the most essential employees back to the office first, and then have employees who are more capable of doing their jobs from home return back to the office later. For those who do return, they may find in the future that wellness amenities will likely shift from an employee perk to a necessary requirement, especially when it comes to healthcare.

For businesses, implementing training to educate employees on these new measures and sharing completion percentages among the workforce will help rebuild trust among those who enter the office. Tracking metrics such as air quality, humidity, and individuals’ temperatures will make sure the policies are working. Providing engaging content in a transparent manner will give occupants the confidence to return.

Taking the lead in the new workplace 

Scialla sees incredible value in allowing workers to return to work—specifically to a work environment that is safe and promotes health. While working from home can be just as productive in some cases as going into the office, it doesn’t offer the same level of collaboration as being in the same space as colleagues. “We lose a certain amount of innovation if our entire workforces operate from their homes,” says Scialla. Not to mention the challenges that employees face if they also must simultaneously take care of kids at home. 

WeWork Avenida Eugenio Garza Sada 1892 in Monterrey.

When you take out the random conversations in the hallways, you also reduce the possibility of impromptu brainstorm sessions and sharing new ideas. There are limitations to exploring new perspectives when it isn’t listed on the agenda for a scheduled Zoom call. Coworking spaces, which are flexible by nature, can shine if we implement and scale gold standards in health measures for our global community. 

Organizations that take a strong stance in terms of health and safety will instill confidence in returning to the office during these uncertain times. Getting particular with the details paints a clear picture of what tenants, employees, and partners can expect when going back to work. Landlords who have a duty to provide a safe building to occupants, and tenants who have a duty to provide safe workplaces for employees can work together to achieve a sustainable return to work.

“This is about clarity, confidence, science, and communication,” says Scialla of the road to reopening commercial spaces. 

Seema Bhangar, senior manager of the global indoor environmental quality program at WeWork, contributed to this article.

Alex Shoer is the director of strategy at WeWork and former enterprise strategy head for APAC at WeWork. Prior to WeWork, Shoer cofounded Seeder Energy, which specializes in green building, renewable energy, and energy efficiency for commercial and industrial buildings.

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