Business leaders are struggling with the next steps for bringing employees back to the office. The only thing most business leaders can agree on is, “It’s complicated.”
Top-of-mind for senior leaders is keeping the office safe for employees who do return to the office. The answer has proven to be complicated for two reasons. First, most businesses had no established procedures for bringing employees to the office during a pandemic. Second, no matter what safety procedures are adopted, employees will have to adjust and adapt to their new work environment, and employee sentiment will need to reach a level of confidence and trust.
Cushman and Wakefield, in the Netherlands, have received a lot of attention for their 6-foot office. While the concept is a start, as we learn more about COVID-19, it has become abundantly clear that providing an office that allows social distancing is only the beginning. There is no such thing as a risk-free workspace, but there are ways to create a low-risk office. Companies that want to create a low-risk office will need to take a multi-faceted approach.
Currently, insurance companies do not cover COVID-19 tests for employee screening. Therefore, companies are having to find alternate, cost-effective systems for assessing employee health.
UnitedHealth Group and Microsoft have partnered to create ProtectWell™. The app combines UnitedHealth Group’s clinical and data analytics and Microsoft’s Healthcare Bot service powered by Microsoft Azure, a service being used by the CDC to track and triage COVID19 symptoms globally utilizing AI.
UnitedHealth Group and Microsoft’s employees are currently using ProtectWell™, and it is available to any company free of charge. The employee downloads the app and then responds to a series of questions determining their potential exposure to COVID-19. Then they are either cleared to go to work or directed to be tested. The results are sent to the employee and employer.
Unlike many other apps on the market, this one does not provide contact tracing or tracking. Microsoft’s healthcare bot will provide symptom screening within the app, and UnitedHealth will maintain control of the health data. Employee’s personal health information and personnel records need to be separated according to occupational health and safety mandates.
ServiceNow has released a suite of four apps designed for preparing employees to return, health screening, contact tracing, and safety management. Uber, Coca Cola European Partners, BankUnited, the state of North Carolina are among four hundred employers in the middle of implementation.
Maintaining six feet between people becomes more complicated when more employees are at the workplace. Employers are using chair mats that create 6 feet visual reminders and posting guidelines and using workplace utilization software to control the number of people that can be in conference rooms and elevators. Several companies are closing the breakroom and staggering shifts for when teams come into the office.
While always important, office cleanliness and safety has taken on more importance and urgency since COVID-19. Companies are turning to the CDC and OSHA for guidance. OSHA recommends giving employees Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), including masks to employees as they enter the building, and implementing rigorous cleaning standards to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The CDC recommends Increasing ventilation rates and improving central air filtration standards in the office. Recently, ASHRAE (the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers), the authority on building system standards for over 100 years, radically revised their guidelines for building filtration systems from a MERV 6 rating to a MERV 13 or higher rating. For context, MERV 16 filters are used in hospitals.
The task of keeping surfaces continually clean is overwhelming. Three Scientists are working on methods to drastically reduce the spread of disease through the use of antimicrobial coatings on high traffic surfaces such as door handles, the use of UV lighting. The scientists are also testing the health of buildings by testing surfaces, air filters, and air return grills. Some building owners are already utilizing the antimicrobial coatings on doors, handrails, and elevators. For companies building out a new location, there are also antimicrobial countertops and other surfaces available.
People have asked if the technologies that airlines are using could be used in commercial buildings. Cleaning with UV rays is getting a lot of attention, as is the case with Boeing’s new self-cleaning bathroom; however, using UV rays can be harmful and should be assessed carefully.
Delta is using a fogging system that coats all of the surfaces of the plane cabin with “a high-grade, EPA-registered disinfectant and virucide that Delta states are safe and highly effective against many communicable diseases, including coronaviruses.”
Could fogging be used to disinfect office buildings? The CDC has issued a disinfecting protocol utilizing EPA approved chemicals to limit the spread of COVID 19. It includes wiping all surfaces, which creates friction that provides maximum contact with the virus resulting in more significant risk reduction. Fogging alone does not meet the EPA registered label requirements unless the surfaces have been appropriately pre-cleaned. There are health risks associated with the increase in chemicals being used to sanitize surfaces. Understanding how to use these chemicals is paramount to mitigating additional health risks.
No one would argue that this is “back to work as usual.” For many going back to the office during the pandemic will be stressful. The CDC encourages employers to connect employees to employee assistance program (EAP) resources.
First and foremost, be transparent with your employees. Clearly, communicate to employees why specific procedures are being used and how these systems will protect them. This includes informing employees how it will be communicated to them if a co-worker tests positive for COVID-19, including what happens next.
While it is painful to contemplate unplanned costs while navigating this unprecedented economic disaster, there is a silver lining. Countless studies with empirical data show that improving elements of the built environment, the physical space built for workers, can have a direct impact on productivity. For example, according to a study by Harvard, good indoor air quality is the single most significant influencer of workplace health and results in significantly improved cognitive function. Increasing ventilation alone can improve productivity valued at $6500 to $7500 per person.
The economic impact has had severe implications for most businesses across the nation. However, this moment in time is a black swan moment for building owners and companies to create a more resilient office space. At the most basic level, health drives human performance and productivity. Employee productivity and retaining top talent are top priorities for businesses.
Businesses and building owners who are aggressive and early adopters of comprehensive safety and wellness initiatives will dominate the market. Going forward, employees and tenants will expect nothing less than a healthy and safe work environment.
A leader has the responsibility to embrace the change and guide their team through this change, achieving the ultimate goal – improved productivity through technology and increased value-add to the enterprise through data-driven decisions. – Judy Romano
CompTIA’s analysis of federal employment data showed that U.S. companies had approximately 918,000 unfilled IT jobs for a three month period last year.