Commentary: Safe return to workplaces needs thoughtful plans on layouts, lifts, ventilation and more
Office spaces must help safeguard employees’ health and put in place extra measures as economies restart, says JLL’s Albert Ovidi.
SINGAPORE: Following the outbreak of COVID-19 earlier this year, cities around the world moved swiftly to mandate working from home.
In Singapore, the Government strongly encouraged employers to let employees stay at home to work when the country raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level to orange in February to minimise interactions and the transmission of the virus.
It later made it mandatory to do so as a default where possible, when the circuit breaker measures were introduced in April.
EARLY IMPERATIVES TO WORK FROM HOME
The rationale for working from home (WFH) is clear. Offices tend to be densely populated with people in close proximity. Prior to COVID-19, it wasn’t a habit in most countries, including Singapore, to wear a mask if one had the sniffles, and employees might go to work despite feeling unwell.
A 2013 study by The University of Arizona showed germs can spread from a person’s hands to the surfaces of an office in four hours. These include common high touch spots like table tops, lift buttons, coffee machines and refrigerator handles.
Another study from the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health published this year revealed employees working in open-plan workspaces face a 12 per cent higher risk of sick leave than those with their own offices.
While there are differing scientific views around the transmission of COVID-19 through the air, various cases suggest it can spread through smaller droplets carried in the form of aerosols. This has led to increased consideration of fresh air flow since most modern offices use central air-conditioning systems.
Given that many of us spend around eight hours a day at work and interact frequently with colleagues, it was clear that emptying workplaces could help slow the spread of the virus. This was particularly critical in the early weeks when cases spiked.
However, avoiding the office is not seen as a sustainable long-term solution. Instead, what is key is to keep the office safe and healthy to minimise transmission.
IS WORKING FROM HOME THE NEW NORMAL?
The jury is still out on the full impact of prolonged WFH, but it’s clearly having adverse effects on businesses such as restaurants and services that cater to the office crowd.
Moreover, for some industries, the need to access on-site workstations containing sensitive information rules out WFH.
Others may find in-person collaboration much more productive. Even tech firms such as Netflix, which boasts a flexible work culture, has seen its CEO, Reed Hastings, recently point out that “not being able to get together in person … is a pure negative”.
As much as WFH may improve work-life-balance for some, many surveys including one by National University Health System's (NUHS) Mind Science Centre, have shown that over a prolonged period, the toll on mental health can be significant, with increased anxiety and stress due to the blurring of personal and professional boundaries.
NUDGING WORKERS TO KEEP SAFE
As part of Phase 2 of Singapore’s reopening, the Multi-Ministry Task Force has encouraged firms to have workers return to workplaces since end-September but with safeguards in place. We have not yet defeated the COVID-19 threat so firms that do so must focus on providing the safest office achievable with necessary measures.
Much will rely on offices maintaining a clean environment, beyond adhering to minimal standards set by government guidelines.
Encouraging employees to practice good hygiene and exercise social responsibility can make the biggest difference. The same research by The University of Arizona reveals the spread of germs in the office can be mitigated through regular cleaning of high touch surfaces, frequent washing of hands, and the use of sanitisers and cleaning wipes.
Implementing these changes can reduce the risk of infection to less than 10 per cent compared to a 40 to 90 per cent risk without them.
Small nudges can shift behaviour. At JLL’s Asia Pacific quarters in Singapore, for instance, safe distancing notices are placed at work stations and in common areas like the pantry and meeting rooms. Cleaning kits are placed in meeting rooms for employees to disinfect areas.
Capacity has also been reduced by temporarily removing 50 per cent of seating and adopting split-team arrangements, as are mandated under the Safe Management Measures issued by the Manpower Ministry, NTUC and the Singapore National Employers Federation.
Safety management officers have also been appointed to conduct regular inspections and ensure health and safety measures are strictly adhered to.
SMALL CHANGES WITH BIG DIFFERENCES
Landlords and owner-occupiers must assess their buildings and technical systems for compliance with safe distancing enforcement and regular surface cleaning. But it’s the small, specific touches that minimise contact along the journey from the front door to the office.
We have worked with clients and their buildings to recalibrate lift control to increase travel speed for a shorter travelling time and increased capacity, since social distancing limits the number of passengers in the lift.
Technology can also enable us to gather data to monitor the environment and enable quick response when a case of COVID-19 has been detected.
In Shanghai’s Baoland Plaza, a grade A office complex in the city, the owner installed equipment to obtain real-time data and employed wireless IoT sensors to monitor air quality, temperature, humidity and energy consumption.
PAY ATTENTION TO VENTILATION AND COMMON SURFACES
Offices must also be well-ventilated, with high efficiency filters, ultra-violet light technologies that kill micro-organisms, or simply have the ability to open windows, to send out airborne particles as frequently as possible and pipe in fresh outdoor air.
The pandemic has led Singapore’s Building Construction Authority to review its policies on air-conditioning and mechanical ventilation. Newer buildings may already have such air quality controls in place, for example, the upcoming Guoco Midland is equipped with an advanced air filtration system to filter up to 95 per cent of air pollutants and eradicate pathogens through UV germicidal irradiation.
Ultraviolet light systems can also be used on escalator handrails as a continuous disinfection process. Singapore-based Capitaland has installed an automated UV handrail disinfection device at Capital Tower and Galaxis.
Similarly, there is a growing move towards contactless access in buildings through the use of smart phone applications and destination control elevator systems.
The hospitality industry is leading the way in this respect through digital check-ins and mobile keys. More office buildings and companies are beginning to adopt workplace apps to do the same.
HEALTHY OFFICERS AT THE FOREFRONT
Business leaders and corporate real estate professionals are increasingly aware that buildings can help serve as the first line of defence against illnesses, as Dr Joe Allen, Healthy Buildings Director, Harvard University School of Public Health puts it.
There is a greater interest in and desire for certifications such as the WELL Building Standard, the industry’s leading health-focused global benchmark for buildings globally, which offers an actionable framework and strategies to guide corporate occupiers and building owners alike to achieve healthy environments.
In fact, the National University of Singapore’s School of Design and Environment is leading the way, as the first building in Singapore and first university in the world to achieve WELL Certified Gold last year, for meeting all 10 targets such as air, light, thermal comfort that support human health.
The real estate industry has been moving towards healthier and more sustainable offices for some time. What must now happen is an acceleration of that movement, so that companies can continue to focus on the health and safety of their people – their greatest asset.
The CNA Leadership Summit 2020: Navigating the Post-Pandemic World will discuss through a series of TV programmes and webinars how businesses and organisations have reacted to the pandemic and applied innovative practices.
More details are available at: cna.asia/leadership-summit.
Albert Ovidi is Chief Operating Officer, and Head of Property and Asset Management at JLL Asia Pacific.