As the Shelter In Place order is lifted for many States or Cities in the near term, the office environment will have significant new guidelines and safety measures to provide further safeguards from spreading the Covid-19 virus, and still allowing the business world to function in an environment where a least some of the workforce can return to see each other face to face and communicate without a computer screen.
Over the last 4 – 5 years the planning of office space has increasingly become denser to maximize the number of employees and collaborative working environment, as well as to become more efficient and cut overhead. Enter Covid 19, and this fast-paced transition to densification came to a screeching halt as fast as a Ferrari LaFerrari can come to a complete stop in 136 feet!
Below is a recap of several discussions with tenants, architects, property managers and healthcare professionals relative to areas most impacted for new guidelines and upgraded procedures for office buildings beginning 2nd quarter 2020. This is going to be a significant change, but through multiple interviews and discussions, the details below will provide some additional ideas or advice on various approaches for building guidelines as well as interior office spaces. What we know today will continue to be updated, but with the estimation of a vaccine in 18 – 24 months, the current question is how to adapt for the short term.
Overall Building Impact
Whether you are in a single tenant office building or multi-tenant high-rise, common areas of the building (restrooms, mailroom, loading dock, elevators, etc.) will be impacted. Below is some feedback to consider:
A. For existing buildings, the circulation of fresh air (number of air transfers per hour) will be increased.
B. Components relative to HVAC will include optimal humidity, air quality and improved filtration.
C. For new office building construction, increasing the size of the equipment to more efficiently handle the air transfer volume and create better air quality is a consideration. This could be a long-term solution and there is no downside for better air quality in the future.
A. Janitorial cleaning performed 2 – 3 times per day throughout all of the common areas, focusing on wiping all surfaces with antibacterial cleaners.
B. In common area restrooms, initially taping off every other stall to maintain the distance requirement and switch out the stalls daily was one approach to accomplishing distance guidelines.
C. Touchless faucets, soap dispensers, and hand towel dispensers would be ideal. Frequent review by janitorial staff to insure all are working properly and restocked is a good approach. Hand Sanitizer in all areas of the building – readily accessible from every door or entry/exit point. Iftouchless technology is not an option, a focus on hand sanitizer becomes more important to allow cleaning of hands before and after touching any surface. Preferably, wipes or some disposable towels are placed at every area where doors would need to be touched and the use of
wipes or towels would be used to touch the surface instead of hands.
D. The touchless door for restrooms in buildings is an initial thought for allowing access without touching a surface; however, has the technology improved so that it performs consistently? Another thought to allow touchless entry is a design of restrooms for new buildings that would allow open access where a hallway is designed similar to airport restrooms.
E. Centralized location for trash with touchless access if possible, and frequent daily emptying of trash receptacles that will prevent further contamination. Also, separate receptacles for disposal of PPE that would be handled as healthcare waste.
F. For a long-term effect, some office tenants are considering installation of UVC lighting to help with ongoing sanitation; however, this procedure comes with some expense and is time-consuming.
G. Electro-static cleaning – spraying electronically charge mist onto surfaces or objects. The positively charged particles cling to the surface for the disinfecting agent to sanitize. This could be used for additional cleaning in elevators, and other shared surfaces.
H. Elevator cabs will require more frequent cleaning; however, the amount of cleaning and type of cleaning might differ depending on the surfaces and building. One creative idea from an existing building owner was to install A Styrofoam block inside the elevator with multiple toothpicks available to the riders. Instead of using their hands to push the floors, they would select a toothpick and dispose of upon existing the elevator at the trash receptable. Maybe not an aesthetically pleasing solution but was a solution for what they could address quickly.
I. Elevators marked with arrows indicating where individuals can stand to keep distance restrictions have been implemented in several properties. Depending on the size of the elevator cab, this may allow one person per ride on more. Landlords are indicating with tape or other means where standing locations are allowed and/or how many passengers is acceptable with maintaining social distancing.
J. Touchless elevator keypads are preferable and likely will become a standard in office building upgrades and new construction. Some thoughts are relative to a destination dispatch, or specific cars designated to just one floor of the building (depending on the size of the building). Other companies are considering sensors that key to their employee badges to work with the elevator for specific floors.
K. Stairwells will be more widely used due to the lessened volume of the elevator cabs. If buildings have two sets of stairwells, consider making one set to be used toward upward floors, and the other set to be used toward going down only to prevent people from running into each other on the stairwell.
L. Café or common kitchen areas would be closed for the near future. If café or food vending Is in place, only food that is prepackaged and dispensed from a machine would be allowed and preferably with a touchless purchase system in place. No coffee or other containers that require touch or common use will be allowed. No permanent dishware will be allowed.
Several of the items/ideas listed above could also be transferred to the individual office space. In addition to those items, each tenant and/or individual building will require additional guidelines and a lot of communication with employees on new practices and procedures, timelines, and discuss with employees their concerns or questions when returning to the office. I don’t think there will be any better option than ongoing communication with all tenants/employees as this process continues to evolve. In addition, verification of information to confirm accuracy is increasingly important. I’ve provided some additional feedback and discussion for individual office spaces below.
Tenant Office Space/ Employee Workflow
A. Phasing in the workforce appears to be the most likely approach. Alternating days or weeks for each department and/or group to meet 50% guideline criteria is what most office users are implementing. For example, 2 – 3 departments that have shared workflows may be able to work in the office on Monday and Wednesday, and 2 – 3 alternating departments may be working on Tuesday and Thursday and sign up for working in the office on Friday. There are many variations, depending on the company, but the concept allows the employees to spread out and still maintain guidelines while being able to collaborate and work on projects more effectively.
B. PPE is a necessity for all employees. Confirming that all employees have access to masks and hand sanitizer/wipes is a priority from all discussions.
C. Identify if any employees/Departments are more productive working from home on a consistent basis, and confirm implementation of ongoing video calls, follow up and guidelines. If some employees can work at home as effective as they previously were in the office, and this does not disrupt the business and continuity, we see that some employees will continue to try and work at home full time.
D. Meeting/Conference rooms will only be allowed for up to 50% capacity. Two different thoughts emerged in various discussions. The first headset is to remove chairs in conference rooms. By removing two chairs for everyone that is left and storing extra furniture in empty office space or storage area, this allows the guidelines of 6’ to be maintained and also the additional guideline of 10 or fewer in a group setting (based on the size of the conference room). The other headset was to keep all chairs at the table and allow employees to sit only in every 3rd chair. The concept was that if the chairs are removed, the spacing could change for the remaining chairs as employees shift their chairs during a meeting. Keeping the vacant chairs insured that the required space was maintained.
E. Entrance/Reception area – remove chairs or waiting seats to accommodate with distancing requirements, remove pens, magazines, marketing materials – anything that visitors could touch and leave behind.
i. Consider a screen around reception desk for additional protection.
ii. Monitor and prevent visitors who are not essential to the business or have no appointment to meet with an employee.
iii. Designate one location for deliveries and keep it disinfected.
F. All surfaces in the office will be disinfected an thoroughly cleaned prior to allowing employees to return. Upon returning to the office, all personal possessions would be removed from desks/cubicles and taken home with employees. Janitorial staff would clean all furniture, and removal of personal items will assist in an easier process for disinfecting of surfaces to be wiped down completely every night.
G. All handsets and keyboards are completely cleaned and cannot be shared – all desks and/or equipment must be assigned to one person for the initial time period. Each employee could be furnished with wipes/cleaner to allow their own self-monitoring of cleaning their equipment. Cleaning anything that would come close to the face or hands every day is essential.
H. If cubicles are in the office, employees may only sit in every other one (depending on the size and location). Consider plexiglass or fabric panels to enhance separation. Note that it has been reported that Covid-19 can live up to 3 days on plastic but less time on more porous surfaces; however, these are estimates and there is no universal conclusion on how long the virus can live on specific surfaces. If surfaces are cleaned properly, the virus shouldn’t linger very long. There were some discussions about using high wall cubicles in the future; however, a good observation was made that using high wall cubicles could provide a false sense of security for employees and they may stop taking necessary precautions.
I. For prevention of employees coming too close or mistakenly running into each other, consider putting up directional indicators on the paths that should be taken so there is less risk of a collision or close proximity.
J. Checking Employee Temperatures Daily is another criterion that most guidelines enforce. In discussions on this topic, some companies were checking temperatures of employees daily either through infra-red process or thermal imaging technology. Other companies are placing a health care professional in their lobby to give daily temperatures and interact with specific questions for the employees to determine if they may have other symptoms and need further evaluation.
K. Some large organizations are using the RFID chips in their employee badges to do contract tracing, and if they test positive, the company controls notifying others that have been in close proximity. Other companies are looking at the new apps by Apple and Google that will track employees/individuals, but a good question is how invasive will these apps be, and will employees be comfortable with being tracked by external methods?
L. All coffee bars and kitchens will initially be closed unless there are touchless appliances that allows dispensing of liquid/ice. Only prepackaged foods would be available, and disposal of remaining packages and waste would be in a touchless garbage receptacle (ideally) that is emptied regularly to prevent the contamination of other areas. (As noted with overall building guidelines)
M. If ordering new furniture and/or modifying existing, does it make sense to only focus on bleachable fabrics and or wipeable surfaces? The answer to this question is up to each company, if the level of cleaning can be accomplished with existing but focusing on the short term is still a good guideline in my opinion.
Summary: Pandemic Office Environment
Overall, in speaking with multiple sources, we are still learning about the impact of Covid-19, and all of the answers are not available at this point. Some companies will decide to take deeper measures, and others may work with the best practices that they can implement given their current situation. In either instance, the focus for now is on the short-term success of adapting to the changes in the office environment. As more information is identified, more informed decisions on long term planning and procedures for the office environment can be determined.
I was reminded that the world, after 9/11, was fearful to return to their offices and there is some similarity in this situation. However, as we see new technology and behaviors evolving to adapt to this threat, the office environment will be transformed and adjust to the “new normal”.