There is a lot of angst spread among our employees around re-entry. As governors prepare to ease social distancing requirements and allow non-essential staff to return to shared workspaces, employees are no doubt feeling uneasy. If you have taken a walk in your neighborhood, you have seen people look away as they pass, many times holding rather than risk a whiff of the virus. This mostly unconscious response will follow us into the workplace, but our colleagues will be passing by on the street, they’ll be sitting next to us. Given this reality, I have been thinking a lot about the things I can do to make our employees feel better about coming back to work in our office.
First, a look at my limitations. These are the current conditions of our workspace:
- We do not own our building.
- We do not manage the control system for heating, cooling, or fresh air.
- We do not know the current filtration mechanism in the HVAC equipment.
- We have control of our VAV boxes, but we do not have control of the heat for one of our areas, and the building owner doesn’t appear to care.
- We installed access control at the door, but the doors are opened with a handle, requiring each person who enters to contact the handle.
At every turn here, it is important to avoid the “quick fix.”
Now, what the industry recommends and a quick analysis of where that leaves me and my office:
- “Ventilation and filtration provided by heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems can reduce the airborne concentration of SARS-CoV-2 and thus the risk of transmission through the air.”
- This sounds simple enough, but this is a powerful statement from ASHRAE.
- ASHRAE recommends MERV-13 filters and UV filters and that’s about it.
- This leads me to believe I should beware of untested filtration technologies.
- Increase outdoor air ventilation (disable demand-controlled ventilation and open outdoor air dampers to 100% as indoor and outdoor conditions permit).
- This makes sense on paper, but there are lots of logistical challenges here.
- Improve central air and other HVAC filtration to MERV-13 (ASHRAE 2017b) or the highest level achievable.
- Agree, but as mentioned above, we do not know the current filtration mechanism in the HVAC equipment for our leased space.
- Keep systems running longer hours (24/7 if possible).
- This sounds expensive and out of my control as a tenant.
- Add portable room air cleaners with HEPA or high-MERV filters with due consideration to the clean air delivery rate (AHAM 2015).
- This is something we can probably do autonomously from building operations. I like that.
In addition to my comments about our organization’s specific situation, some of these suggestions are over the top and are not practical for most commercial buildings in general. For example, most cooling capacity is not designed to operate with 100% outside air, especially during the hot months. As a side note, our analytics and development team have some good idea on strategies to help with this challenge, but that is for another article. However, most of the recommendations outlined above are good discussion points even if the building systems are constrained and can’t implement all of them.
Other areas to consider
What about the other aspects of the workplace beyond the HVAC systems? OSHA has prepared Guidance for Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, where specific guidelines are recommended for getting back to work. These are extensive guidelines and will be difficult to put in place in all workplaces as they are currently configured. Updating the configurations to support the new guidelines may be feasible for the Fortune 100 companies, but honestly it is not on my radar. Our tenant improvement (TI) was completed a little over a year ago and it would be extremely costly to remake our space in a COVID-19 friendly way.
We don’t have to look very far to see our clients and large vendors managing the social distancing requirements by shifting work hours by teams, so smaller numbers of employees are entering the building or floor. Others are identifying groups or individuals who can or are willing to work from home indefinitely. A modified version of these options may work for us, with the limitation that we only have so much square footage to work with. Above all, we will mostly need to remain flexible as new requirements come out every day, like the increasing numbers of cities and counties making it a requirement to wear masks in public.
Now, back to the original question: What can I do to make our employees more comfortable? We have been thinking of a commonsense approach that will be valuable to us now and when we get beyond social distancing requirements.
The practical steps we're taking in our office
Here is an outline of what we’re thinking:
- Given we are not in control of most of the environmental control systems, monitoring is key. Ideally this monitoring would be provided by the building owner, but this is not always practical and I need to act now.
- From a monitoring perspective, we will install non-camera-based presence detection to provide abstracted tracking of each body in our space. This will also allow us to understand and confirm how the policies are being followed by employees.
- We can’t test the air for a virus, but a good air quality sensor will confirm that the air is clean. We can know the filters are working and ventilation rates are adequate. We can correlate particulate concentration, CO2, etc. with ventilation rates since we do have control of the VAV boxes in our space, and even control them as needed.
- It is not simple to reorganize all of my cubicles to allow for 6’ between each person. We will create a schedule to allow “early friends” and “late friends” allowing specific teams to be in the office during specific hours. We will have strict policy around the number of people allowed in an office or conference room.
- For the things we do not control, we will use this information to communicate with our building management team to help them maintain a safe space for us.
- We will provide the building management access to the information we gather from our network of sensors.
- We will post this information, near-real-time, for our employees to monitor the current conditions of the space, from an environmental and space utilization perspective.
This list may seem overwhelming to some, especially those who are unfamiliar with building controls and HVAC systems, but it’s easy to see now that many of these things should have been done already. In so many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent global response has given us the opportunity to reflect on the energy and time we put into the physical environment we provide for our employees.
Even as our four entities are all in the building automation and controls industry working with some of the largest property management firms in the world, we have not been taking the simple steps outlined above in our own workplaces. As I mentioned above, there will be a “post-social-distancing era” but all these steps will still apply. It only took a pandemic and global economic shut down for us all to realize the importance of monitoring air quality and occupancy, but hey, better late than never, right?
OTI is a master systems integrator and building system contractor with experience installing and integrating air quality monitoring sensors including those for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide (CO2), temperature and humidity, as well as occupancy sensors that comply with California’s PII regulations.
Combined in an easy to deploy solution for small and mid-size buildings, these sensors and pre-programmed controllers can supply building owners, tenants and customers with valuable information regarding the health of indoor spaces. For more information on OTI’s COVID-19 building re-entry solution, call us at (888) 684-8454, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or fill in the form found here and we will be in touch ASAP.