Creating a safe and healthy work environment has always been a lure used by employers to attract the best talent and motivate them to be comfortable and productive in the office. What has changed in the last year is what “safe and healthy” looks like. As we approach a year since COVID truly began making an impact in western countries, our commercial office buildings are now starting to take a long-term view of this new health and safety environment in order to give employees the confidence to return to work. The last year has proven that widespread work-from-home (WFH) is possible, now the buildings sector is striving to prove that safe and healthy workplaces are also possible in the post-pandemic era.
A Pew Research Center study in December found that 71% of workers in the US are working from home, versus just 20% before the pandemic. While stay-at-home orders and corporate safety policies are the clear and obvious reason for this, the experience of working from home for so long has convinced employees they can WFH and many have found they prefer it. The same study reported that 54% of workers would want to continue working from home even after the pandemic ends, presenting a potentially catastrophic shift for the commercial real estate sector. The sector has responded with a new range of workplace health and safety initiatives led by smart building technologies.
Contact with surfaces has proven to be a key concern for the spread of infection, which is a real problem for buildings where the same door handles, light switches, elevator buttons, sinks, and toilets are used by a wide range of occupants. While additional cleaning must be part of any solution, it has become clear that no feasible level of cleaning can keep up with the many surfaces shared by the hundreds of occupants in our multi-story commercial buildings. The answer must be to minimize contact with surfaces altogether, using smartphone controls and the contactless technology that has become commonplace in card payment processes.
“The contactless theme will go beyond payment and into access control, via NFC, RFID, Bluetooth or contactless cards, in transport systems and buildings. In an effort to stimulate economic activity, our office buildings will become proving grounds for “hands-free” technology as points of contact between humans and physical surfaces are assessed for alternatives,” our 2020 IoT report predicts. “We will see hands-free controls for building devices such as light switches, thermostats, elevators, vending machines, coffee machines, dispensers, etc., based on RFID, movement sensors, haptic, smartphone, or voice control.”
At the recently completed Zero Irving building in New York City, set to open later this year, state-of-the-art contactless technology will allow workers to reach their desks without touching any common surfaces on their way. Employees at the building will use an app on their smartphone to trigger the building’s electric revolving doors, then open the security turnstiles automatically, the same app can also be used to control the elevator to take them to their floor where they can walk into their office safely. This street-to-desk contactless experience has been designed to minimize contact with surfaces and, therefore, limit the spread of infection.
“It’s a completely touchless experience for visitors to the building. Not only is this great for public health, but it also aids in the efficiency of how the building operates,” said Spencer Levine, president of RAL Companies, the developers of the Zero Irvine building. “We also have new air quality monitoring stations on every floor. This allows for real-time monitoring of the indoor air quality in all of the building’s common spaces,” he continued.
According to ASHRAE, using combinations of filters and air cleaners that achieve MERV 13 or better levels of performance for air recirculated by HVAC systems is a core recommendation for reducing exposure to airborne infectious diseases. Meanwhile, public health information during the pandemic has made a clear distinction between the rate of transmission between indoor and outdoor air-quality environments. This has prompted commercial building designers to bring the outdoors indoor through ventilation systems and architectural design concepts.
In the new building at 141 Willoughby Ave in Brooklyn, HVAC systems have been adapted to provide 10% outdoor air through its ventilation, a 77% increase of the outdoor air code in New York City. “In addition to the increased level of outside air throughout the building, tenants will be able to further increase their outside air for a total of 40%+ outside air at their option through dedicated louver systems provided to each tenant floor,” said Cooper Kramer, Managing Director at the building’s development firm, Savanna.
Air quality is an obvious improvement for buildings striving to reduce infection rates of occupants, but invisible air quality improvements do little to encourage people back to the office and make them feel safe. While contactless technology and vigilant cleaning practices offer a visible symbol of protection that helps occupants feel safe in the workplace environment, air quality needs to be explained to have any impact on employee confidence. New buildings will, therefore, find new ways to display air quality enhancements to demonstrate health improvements in commercial buildings.
“We feel like indoor air quality measurements are the types of measurements that will be displayed everywhere in commercial property going forward, just the same way we look at the weather,” said Julie Goudie, communications manager at Sterling Bay, a major developer in the Chicago area.
Through contactless systems and air quality improvements, our commercial buildings are striving to create safer and healthier buildings in response to the pandemic. These technologies also lay the foundation for a range of comfort and productivity enhancements that enterprise tenants have long demanded in the workplace. However, in order to tackle the rapid shift towards remote working that has been unequivocally accelerated by the pandemic, the commercial real estate sector must now double-down on its human-centric approach and set a significantly higher bar for health and safety in the workplace.
“A lot of these improvements have gone from being nice to have before the pandemic, to things our buildings now must have because of the pandemic. We're trying to create the best, healthiest, and safest environment to give people the confidence to know that when they come back to the office, it’ll be safe,” said Paul Teti, senior vice president of leasing and asset management at Columbia Property Trust in New York City. “What's really resonating with people, is the approach to design that suggests that you're really thinking about every employee's experience as they inhabit the building.”