PODCAST: How tech and building management are keeping offices healthy in a COVID-19 world
Floor stickers and ultraviolet cleaning are being deployed to contain the spread of virus in buildings
For many workers the office will look and feel very different to before COVID-19 shutdowns, with new behaviours required, building management rules re-written, and technology taking centre stage.
As workers adopt guidelines including around the use of lifts, fixed desks, and following distancing stickers on the floor, building owners are experimenting with technology, such as ultraviolet cleaning to keep heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems germ-free.
These new workplace measures aim not just to contain the spread of the virus, but also negativity and ambiguity, says Tony Wyllie, head of consulting – Asia Pacific, JLL.
“People will return to the office if they experience safety, and that includes minimising surface contact, systematic cleaning, high-quality air filtration systems, and design that allows effective distancing and movement without affecting functionality,” Wyllie says.
Building owners and tenants are proceeding cautiously with reopening up their workplaces, with a survey of 700 tenants by Australian office landlord Dexus showing just under a quarter of their workforces will have returned by the end of May. Up to 43 per cent will be back by June, 50 per cent by July and 71 per cent by August.
But as offices slowly start to populate again, every day is bringing new lessons. Already in Australia, a guideline for distancing in lifts of one person per four square metres has been ditched in favour of people standing 1.5 metres apart, following concerns by landlords of creating choke points in lobbies and increasing transmission risk.
As well as operational considerations, workers’ mental wellbeing is a focus, says Wyllie.
“Building managers are facing a whole new set of questions from workers, including, ‘how do I know when my desk was last sanitised, do I need to clean the meeting room when I’ve finished, and what’s etiquette in bathrooms?’.
“Yes, these are practical issues, but communicating them up front is reassuring to workers who want to know that no stone is left unturned when it comes to their health.”
Businesses preparing for life on the other side of lockdown have been taking one of three approaches to maintaining safe distancing and reducing contact in their working environments, says Wyllie.
The first is as a minimalist approach, which involves splitting a workforce into shifts to lower densities in an office, and bringing in extra cleaning, but largely leaving workers to practice their own distancing and hygiene.
The second, and most common approach, is described by Wyllie as the “tape and Perspex” approach, with markings on the floor to enforce distancing, and tape prohibiting use of certain desks or chairs. Meanwhile, ‘sneeze screens’ are installed to protect workers, and there are rules about the number of people allowed in a meeting room.
The third approach involves the minor reconfiguration and repurposing of space, including erecting new walls, and repurposing large meeting rooms or breakout spaces with additional desks – an approach taken on the basis that “it is a safer and more productive environment for workers,” Wyllie says.
End-of-trip facilities, including showers, locker rooms, and bike racks, have become one of the greatest points of conjecture around reopening buildings, says Andrew Borger, head of office developments at Australian property company Charter Hall.
“Pre Covid, end-of-trips were very much designed on the basis that people were doing their exercise around work. But moving forward, they are likely to play a broader role, with social distancing reducing the capacity of public transport and forcing more people to walk, run or cycle,” Borger says.
While end-of-trips will reopen with far higher cleaning regimes in the short term, building owners will be planning for higher densities in these facilities in the future, Borger adds.
Technology will be a major asset to organisations in combating the spread of the virus. City buildings in Hong Kong, which has come through previous major virus outbreaks, already feature high-tech solutions such as ultra-violet cleaning of escalator belts, and firms in Australian are following suit.
The pandemic is expected to accelerate a shift towards contactless and other technology.
Charter Hall, which has been investing in mobile phone security passes for building entry across its new office developments, is turning its focus to contactless bathrooms.
“At the moment, on average, there are nine touch points using a cubicle within a toilet, and we're designing to get that down to three,” says Borger. “And we think with further technology we can get that down to zero. So we're looking to fast-track that into our new developments as a starting point.”
The company is also installing ultraviolet cleaning technology in HVAC systems in its new developments, “where we can actually kill up to 99 percent of any bacteria that comes into the system,” he says.
“A lot of this technology will have been considered a nice-to-have in the past, but in the return to work, and in the new world as we know it, these will become must-haves to ensure employees feel comfortable and can still be productive in the workplace.”