In 2008, Sumedha Joshi wrote, “The sick building syndrome (SBS) is used to describe a situation in which the occupants of a building experience acute health- or comfort-related effects that seem to be linked directly to the time spent in the building. No specific illness or cause can be identified. The complainants may be localized in a particular room or zone or may be widespread throughout the building.”
Even further back, in 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) talked about SBS in an Indoor Air Facts publication. Several SBS-related causes were reported, including chemical contaminants, biological contaminants (e.g., molds and viruses) and even radon and asbestos.
Fast-forward to 2020 with the current pandemic. Here’s what Dr. Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard, wrote in the New York Times: “Proper ventilation, filtration, and humidity reduce the spread of pathogens like the new coronavirus.” He talks about buildings as a historical example that are highly efficient at spreading disease and mentions that “when people cough or sneeze, they expel not only large droplets but also smaller airborne particles called droplet nuclei, which can stay aloft and be transported around buildings.” We can see examples such as cruise ships being environments that spread the virus rapidly.
Being a high-tech entrepreneur and executive, I think back on this idea that “open workspace” offices for startups and progressive organizations increase collaboration. Most have found it does not; in fact, open workspace office collaboration can decrease employee interaction by roughly 80%, as reported by the Harvard Business Review. It meant to create a positive environment of collaboration for our employees by taking down the walls and forcing them to work in an open area with each other.
The Harvard Business Review article goes on to mention how “Many common assumptions about office architecture and collaboration are outdated or wrong. Although the open-office design is intended to encourage us to interact face-to-face, it gives us permission not to. The ‘accidental collisions’ facilitated by open offices and free spaces can be counterproductive. In many instances, ‘copresence’ via an open office or a digital channel does not result in productive collaboration.”
I bring this up as we think about sending our employees back to our buildings and offices again. This idea of an open workspace and being close to each other makes me downright scared of a retransmission of the virus through corporate America.
What should executives and facility maintenance professionals be thinking about as we enter this new norm? Is the industry ready for our staff to go back to work in our offices and buildings?
There are standards for building maintenance, such as SFG20 in the U.K., that touch upon maintaining a healthy building. Right now we exist in times where buildings have been shut down, emptied and stale from a health concern. Water systems have been turned off or are sitting stagnate. Air conditioners are not running. There are many areas to consider when looking at the readiness of your buildings to accept workers again. These include duct cleaning, natural ventilation availability, building occupancy strategy, air filter changes, the addition of in-room air cleaners and perhaps even new dress codes for staff members.
The Center for Active Design recommends five ways to optimize your buildings for COVID-19 prevention:
1. Increase ventilation
2. Post educational handwashing signage
3. Strengthen cleaning protocols
4. Maintain optimal humidity
5. Filter indoor air with HEPA filters
The New York City Health Department has also suggested ways to keep city commercial buildings safe by making sure all common areas are cleaned and disinfected. Besides having alcohol-based sanitizers available in common areas, encourage people entering and leaving the building to wash their hands. People in the building should practice physical distancing and avoid getting in crowded elevators. Common areas like lounges, playrooms and game rooms should be shut down. All of these are recommendations could be considered best practices in the new normal.
Facility managers can no longer have a reactive maintenance posture and wait for people to get sick in their buildings. They need to transition to what the industry calls moving from reactive to a “planned and preventive” maintenance posture. The facility maintenance industry has been looking to migrate everyone to a condition-based maintenance (CBM) strategy. CBM means that maintenance should only be performed when specific indicators show signs of decreasing performance or upcoming failure. With the pandemic, this means that facilities maintenance software must be updated to incorporate new controls in helping facilities teams stay organized in the execution of these “new normal” best practices.
Many companies are considering moving to a new “hub-centric” model for their workforce. The idea is that you create regional employee centers in various cities. Employees are not expected to show up daily but to continue to work remotely. They show up at these work centers (hubs) refreshed to collaborate on tech jams and code sprints.
In 2017, this was thought to be a way of attracting tech talent. Now it may be a way of protecting our tech talent and keeping engineering teams healthy. As the CTO for a software company that is focused on running productive (and healthy) engineering teams, this seems like a viable alternative to limit the recurrence of spreading disease. Co-working facilities, like WeWork, may offer a more cost-effective way to enable these hub-centric collaboration centers. The hubs are still buildings that need to follow industry best practices to keep all staff and visitors healthy.