Jun 25, 2021

How to Make Post-Covid Office Spaces a Safe Place for Employees

  • wellbeing at work
  • health
  • safety
Post Covid Office

Physical workspaces have some distinct advantages, including better collaboration, coordination and teamwork. In addition to the collaboration and better infrastructure, the vibe at the office also matters, and employees are eager to come back to their familiar work environments.

However, with the threat of pandemics and infectious diseases looming large as warned by the World Health Organization (WHO), forward-thinking companies realize that this enthusiasm to return to the office is also laced with some trepidation about the risks of being in close contact with so many people once again.

Employees will be returning with drastic changes in personal and social hygiene, and institutions will have to complement their efforts and expectations through tech-savvy refurbishing and retrofitting. 

Health, Safety and Well-being for Employee Confidence

Offices will have to introduce several technical interventions to address safety concerns as they adapt to the new age reality of highly potent microbes disrupting work like never before.

Most offices are designed around interaction and in the post pandemic world, we will have to look at making workplaces safer without having to compromise on essential aspects of such interactions. Air conditioning systems will have to effectively filter and treat particles. There will also have to be a high level of adherence to cleanliness and sanitation protocols. Importantly, there will have to be monitoring systems to ensure these measures are impeccably implemented.

The task of ensuring a safe work environment may seem daunting to pull off, but technology can make the process intuitive. This could be achieved with a range of interconnected devices that talk to each other and ensure the safety protocols are in place. The Internet of Things (IoT) may seem like a distant dream, but there was a time when remote working at scale also seemed decades away. Yet here we are.

Opting for open-air spaces or well-ventilated areas over confined rooms, and avoiding contact as far as possible will be a non-negotiable behavioural change we will need in the post-pandemic office.

Simple and effective ways to transform workplace safety

Workplace safety is a two-way street. The second half of 2021 is likely to be a delicate and transitional time with employees venturing back to work in their familiar office environments. Organizations would do well to adopt certain safety imperatives to build confidence, alongside asking employees to meet them halfway. 

Safety measures must start even before people enter the office, and to this end, organizations are implementing controlled transportation facilities to and from work. Moreover, the effort by several organizations to arrange vaccination drives for the employees and their families is a significant mitigating action. However, the main area of concern is the actual office space.

Administration and upkeep: After the long break, office administration teams should ensure that air conditioners are run on the fan mode for anything between two to four hours with all the doors, windows and other exhaust systems open, before beginning with any commercial operations. The filters in the air conditioner must be cleaned and sanitised before cooling is initiated on a larger scale.

Fresh air columns mandated for every person in an office environment should be maintained. The ideal humidity should be between 40%-70%. Room temperature should be maintained at 24-30°C for optimum safety from microbes. 

Even on days when there is no operation, fresh air vents should continue functioning. During office hours, exhausts in the kitchen and washrooms should operate on full blast.

Enhanced Filtration: Air filtration and air quality control are on top of everyone’s minds. Whether the coronavirus is airborne or not is still hotly debated, but undeniably, this is not the last virus that we will see in the years to come. Ventilation and filtration is therefore a top priority. In light of this, the existing HVAC system in most offices may be up for a major overhaul in the process of office reopening. Several of them are devoid of ultra-sanitization methods like UV ray disinfection and will now have to be fitted with them.

Office rooms must also be fitted with MERV 13 (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) filters / high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that can suck out more than 99% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any airborne particles even at the most penetrable particle size of 0.3 microns.

Electrostatic filters too are effective and necessary as they pick up the larger particles like human hair and lint pollens, paint particles, viruses and dirt. While the larger particles get trapped in a washable mesh the smaller particles are trapped in charged fields inside the filter.

Another very important addition to the air purification system will be the ultraviolet germicidal irradiation. This technology uses ultraviolet rays to clean and clear microbes from the air and remove particulate matter like molds, viruses and bacteria. Apart from installing them in the air ducts, the same technology may also be found in HEPA filters or separate UV irradiators can be placed in the rooms, especially higher up near the roof or when people are not around.

UV technology should be extensively deployed to ensure sanitization. UV rays can alter the DNA and prevent multiplication of the germs thereby making them less potent at causing diseases. Moreover, while installed at the supply side of the air duct system, just above the drain pan and downstream of the cooling coil, UV emitters can remove microbes from both the surface of the pan and the circulating air.

An incremental advantage is that improving the quality of the air circulating inside rooms will also help in energy efficiency as the air ducts and air conditioning vents will remain cleaner, thus cooling easier and faster.

Contact Free Environment: Contact is one of the primary modes of transmission. While behavioral changes may take time, technical interventions may result in a faster response.

Contactless face recognition systems can replace fingerprint scanners and other methods of biometric attendance at offices. Crucially, back-to-office face recognition systems will have to adapt to read faces with masks on.

Washrooms are a hotbed for infections. So, along with sanitizing them, it is also important to reduce contact with the surfaces. Sensor taps, automatic sanitiser and soap dispensers, sensor-controlled flushes and hand dryers should be installed.

Sanitization and Cleaning: Sanitization enclosures have become commonplace in the wake of the pandemic. Since employees arrive at the workplace from different locations, often using public or personal transport, a quick sanitization process can build confidence and ensure fewer infections. Before employees come back, the ducted air circulation system needs to be cleaned and sanitized. All filters, grilles, coils, diffusers and other internal surfaces need to be sanitised with prescribed chemical combinations and washed or wiped clean.

Apart from all this, the many surfaces that come into human contact most often, like tables, door knobs and chairs, must be cleaned and sanitized. Aerosol sprays, chemical solutions and UV ray sanitizers can be used for this and care must be taken to ensure the slabs, tables and surfaces, especially of spaces like kitchens, are made of hard materials that can be cleaned repeatedly and will withstand rigorous sanitization. 

Screening: Thermal cameras help detect body surface temperature alongside capturing video. With the ability to differentiate temperature variations as small as 0.05°C, these cameras can effectively trigger possible infections. A higher temperature alert, something we have all grown used to with the thermal gun's by now, could be inbuilt into such systems. These devices may also be able to detect faces from a farther distance.

Design and policy changes changes

Spread out meal timings and mandatory social distancing will have to be strictly implemented. Staggered attendance and a hybrid model between remote working and working out of office, will go a long way in minimizing the risk of infections. If the office facility has a canteen space and utensils are reused, a good UV based dishwasher would make things safer for the employees by a great measure.

The Future of Work

It takes conscious effort to reduce contact in offices but there are structural modifications that can come in handy for the longer term. Facilities like daylight linked automated blinds and automated doors that let people pass without contact and sensor modules that help in avoiding contact with surfaces like kiosk screens, ATMs, elevators etc. are some adaptations worth considering. Organizations have always been mindful of the ‘pay and purpose’ priorities of their employees; it’s now time to add a dimension to it with ‘pay, purpose and peace-of-mind’. Companies that can deliver to this new employee expectation are likely to become employers of choice in the years to come.