The New Normal Part 1: Adapting Your Office Space in a Post-COVID-19 World
By: Derek Maschek
As the COVID-19 pandemic plateaus and (hopefully) begins its decline, office managers are considering what changes need to be made to create a safe workplace. This brings good news and bad news. The good news is the most impactful changes have nothing to do with the physical characteristics of an office, but instead are about changing daily behaviors. The bad news is changing human behavior is arguably one of the hardest things to do.
Office management will need to implement protocols that effectively limit infected and potentially infected people from entering the workplace. These habits should exist all the time, but are particularly critical during a pandemic and flu season. If we can accomplish this critical priority, along with a collection of other changes, we will become much more effective at dealing with the cases in the workplace that thwart our best efforts.
Enforcing staff to refrain from coming into the office at all is the only guarantee of non-transmission in the workplace. This is the reason Work From Home orders were put in place, and why working remotely will be a growing and permanent part of business strategies moving forward. There are many studies, papers, podcasts, and books about Distributed Work and the challenges and opportunities it presents. Although that topic is related and very important, it is not what we are tackling here.
There are some changes to the workplace that can be made immediately. Each of these changes comes with a cost and an unspecifiable effect on the chance of transmission, individually or collectively. No single thing will result in a completely safe space, but making these changes collectively will attack the nature of a microscopic bug that wants nothing more than to survive and thrive, mostly by perpetuating itself.
Let’s begin with clearly identifying the problem at hand before jumping into possible solutions.
COVID-19, like so many other viral contagions, is here to stay, and we don’t know as much as we need to. The CDC states:
“The most likely route of transmission is through aerosolized respiratory droplets from infected individuals and the fact that infected and contagious individuals may be asymptomatic, especially during the early stages of incubation.”
The suggestions we hear about touching our faces and washing our hands properly are primarily driven by our knowledge of other respiratory viruses - that transmission happens through the virus traveling from the infected individual’s mouth or nose directly via air or indirectly via face-touching.
The challenges of our physical workplace are first about air, and then surfaces. Therefore, the first solutions involve separation and sanitation.
As discussed, distancing is primarily about limiting transmission from person to person through the virus particles that live in the air. The CDC recommends six-foot social distancing, a number that appears to go back to the early 20th Century, addressing heavier droplets. When sneezing, coughing, and talking in calm air conditions, the heavier droplets fall rather quickly to land on surfaces, but the accompanying airborne particles can easily travel up to 12 feet in seconds. Those infectious materials can then live in the air for hours. Give those airborne droplets a little push with a sneeze or a cough and all bets are off as it becomes an air velocity, humidity, temperature equation.
The first solution when changing your workplace is to put physical distance between people once they enter your building. In areas where people congregate, like conference rooms and waiting areas, remove furniture or mark it for non-use. Marking it for non-use is preferable as furniture can be moved back into the new gaps, and having the clear markers are a reminder of the situation. Plus, this also eliminates the cost of storing furniture. Unfortunately, it is also a little unsightly, so perhaps there’s an opportunity for the creative use of pillows, stuffed animals, or even mannequins clothed in company gear. In areas where people queue, taping off proper spacing is advisable. Remember that the six-foot rule is a minimum, so more is better if space allows.
While pure distance separation is one solution, putting up barriers would be the next best option.
The first and best barrier is over everyone’s nose and mouth. Wearing proper masks helps considerably as it not only limits the size and quantity of the particles in the air expelled, but it also reduces the “throw” of the air leaving the mouth and nose. This is a difficult habit to make and it is unreasonable to expect it for an entire uninterrupted workday, but the point is that if we all do it as much as we can, as well as we can, the safer we will all be. Having multiple strategies in place will help cover the gaps in behaviors.
Secondly, consider barriers between people at reception desks, in group seating areas, and at clusters of workstations. These are readily available in varying heights, styles, materials, and attachment systems. Air that has been pushed by lungs or mechanical systems within the office can easily push the floating particles of infection around barriers, but it will provide more protection than nothing at all. If you are looking at making this investment, it could be worth considering acoustical barriers that would have the added benefit of reducing noise levels. Additionally, there are some aesthetic options that take function and turn it into a fun design element. There is no official detailed guidance, so combining barriers with other strategies is highly advisable.
It is also worth adjusting the placement and orientation of many individuals’ primary work position to maintain maximum distances and avoid people facing each other even though they are on opposite sides of a partial wall. While many people may prefer to sit facing outwards, this position unfortunately aims that coughing, sneezing, or talking person at a walking path into which a cloud of particles may routinely float for every passerby to walk through.
Forced air mechanical systems may also play a role in spreading viruses as it actively circulates the airborne particles along with the conditioned air. Initially, one might think of reducing air velocity by reducing fan speed or increasing filtration, but systems would have to work longer and/or harder and may not as efficiently heat or cool since these systems are balanced to disperse and gather air in an engineered fashion. Adjusting these systems to change direction away from people could assist in reducing the spread of particles, but in turn could affect system performance.
Mechanical systems are designed to work with the natural circulation of air that happens with nothing but temperature contrasts. We have all experienced the cold draft emanating from glass in winter, or the heated air that radiates from surfaces warmed by sunlight. These are not localized flows of air, but are spatial circulations that can transport particles across very large spaces. Consider drawing blinds and shades closed at windows receiving direct sunlight to help limit the flow of air that would circulate up, travel along the ceiling, and then drop down as it cools, carrying the contaminated air the whole way.
Another effective strategy would be to add in a UV lamp to clean the air that passes through, just as hospital systems do. Per the National Air Filtration Association,
“The details of the system are very important (e.g., design of fixtures, lamp type, lamp placement airflow amount and mixing, etc.). Simply adding UV to an existing system without consideration of these factors has not been demonstrated to have a benefit.”
It is critical to understand that mechanical systems are designed to work a certain way, so any attempts to make a system operate outside of its original performance parameters runs the risk of being counterproductive. Always consult an expert before attempting to alter anything within your system.
Once you have addressed the air, it is time to consider the surfaces upon which our aerosolized particulates have landed.
Try to avoid touching surfaces as much as possible and thoroughly clean the ones that get touched often. Each surface requires different cleaning methods based on the frequency and types of touching. Gathering areas, collaboration spaces, and other undesignated temporarily used areas may require special attention as they may be seen as beyond any one individual’s responsibility to clean, when in fact it is everyone’s.
Throughout buildings there are moments when touching often-contaminated things can be avoided altogether; automatic doors instead of having to touch a door handle, occupancy sensors controlling general lighting instead of flipping switches, even bi-swinging doors that operate on a push with a shoulder.
Restrooms deserve their own methods as it is a common source of transmission for a wide variety of contaminants. As mentioned, designing the room to have a non-latched door that pushes outward upon exit, commonly referred to as the “clean exit”, is highly desirable. However, always be mindful and careful making a quick change due to possible ADA violations. Inside the restroom, every item except the partition doors themselves have been considered. It is the things you would touch just before leaving the bathroom that matter the most, like the door handle. There are many readily available solutions, including touchless flushing valves, faucets, soap dispensers, paper towel dispensers, and hand dryers. These systems can be hardwired, or battery powered.
Unfortunately, sometimes touching things is simply unavoidable.
One approach is for the surface to be readily sanitized. The healthcare industry has fought transmission and infection with an array of flooring, fabrics, coatings, and panels that are cleanable with powerful detergents. These typically cost considerably more than their conventional counterparts, but when utilized correctly, they can be very effective in our effort. Note that regular cleaning remains necessary for the surface to be sanitized once contaminated.
Another approach is to use anti-microbial materials that are inherently hostile towards viruses and microbes. Although these are few, most are industrially applied coatings, and all come with a notable price tag. Long-established anti-microbial champions are copper, and other alloys like bronze. Copper has impressive antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties and its “ions prevent cell respiration, punch holes in the bacterial cell membrane or disrupt the viral coat and destroy the DNA and RNA inside”. This characteristic makes it a prime candidate for frequently touched elements such as door handles, cabinet pulls, handrails, and countertops. It could be worth replacing some of the heavily touched surfaces in which cleaning after every touch is not feasible, such as main entry door pulls. There are copper sheets, laminates, and tapes that can cover over other materials when full replacement is not possible.
It is really too early to say what long term changes we will witness in our places of work. We do know we must take immediate action to create an environment that is safe for us to spend so much of our time in. Combining improved behaviors with a reasonable number of targeted alterations will be critical as we begin to adapt to our new normal. In the end, “normal” has always been a changing state of affairs, and certainly “normal” is about to change again.