Corporate Response to Covid-19 Design and Wellness
What can we do in workplaces in the short and long term to limit the spread of Covid-19? Disease containment is not new to us in Nigeria; we had to deal with the Ebola outbreak in 2014; however, the economic fallout nationally and globally has taken us by surprise. As an interior designer, it is important to start thinking about how this pandemic will impact the way we think about design and wellness, specifically in public buildings. If these buildings were proactively designed to include features that could limit or stop the spread of diseases the benefits to the wellness of the workforce could be widespread.
I would say one of the things that would have an immediate impact is to improve the air quality in offices. We live in a humid environment, so air conditioners are a necessity. In most offices, however, only 25% of the air is actually from the outside. The rest is recirculated air, which means its already been breathed by other occupants.
The circulated air of offices can lead to the spread of microbes. According to Krissi Hewitt (director of institutional research at North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics), the life of the microbial is circulated through the air and inside the HVAC systems in indoor environments. She goes on to say, “Maintenance of systems and filtration has an impact on how contaminants flow through the air, so buildings that have not been properly serviced to maintain appropriate circulation, filtration, humidity, and temperatures can contribute to higher amounts of microorganisms moving through the systems.”
Exposure to air pollution, from pollens to spores, bacteria, and viruses, has a direct effect on the immune systems of humans due to the lack of sufficient air quality and can cause or intensify a range of disorders, including allergies to diseases like COVID-19. Maintaining a safe indoor air quality, therefore, becomes a basic but critical requirement. While this is true at all times, in times of a more significant health crisis, it is necessary not only to prevent the direct transmission of a virus but also to help the immune systems of individuals to survive more severe impacts from an infectious epidemic.
The simplest solution to having better air circulation is to merely open windows at any given opportunity; however, in our environment, this can lead to discomfort from heat over an extended period. Another immediate short-term option to improve our air quality in corporate spaces is by installing air filtration systems to support current HVAC systems for the benefit of employees. The type of air filters required will vary from office to office and needs to be carefully evaluated. Although standard air filters are not designed to prevent viruses from spreading, they are necessary to mitigate the risk, as viruses tend to attach to airborne particulate matters. Thus, regular filters with high filtration efficiency are crucial to reducing the risk of diseases transmitted through the air. Regular HAVAC servicing is now more critical than ever. We need to look beyond having HVAC systems solely as a cooling system in the long term.
We need to have an excellent integrated HVAC/air filtration system installed in new buildings from the outset; offices need to think about installing office climate control systems. Top-quality filtration systems use a tight mesh that removes dust and particles far too small to be seen by the naked eye. Ceiling filtration units ensure clean air is spread evenly, and the best units offer automation to adjust their filtration rate depending on outdoor pollution. I want to add that these systems do come at the cost, but the positive impact on the office environment is immense. China’s widespread implementation of this technology to combat poor air quality is believed to have helped its office staff return more quickly to their workplaces.
The general global consensus is that to reduce the spread of contagion we need to have increased automation in public spaces. With COVID-19 speeding up the development of all forms of touch-less technology is accelerated—automatic doors, voice-activated elevators, hands-free light switches, and temperature sensors.
The new headquarters of Bee’ay designed by Zaha Hadid Architects in Sharjah may be a glimpse of the future. It is filled with what Zaha calls ‘contactless pathways,’ whereby employees have a pretty much a hands-free experience in the building. Office doors open automatically using motion sensors and facial recognition, while lifts can be ordered from a smartphone and even a coffee. Most offices in this environment can’t afford to go this far, but we need to start thinking about how to use technology to limit contact with surfaces. Incorporating automation and voice activation tools in an office building could instantly minimise touch-points and limit the chance of exposure to germs.
While touch-free, sensor-flush toilets and faucets are being used in our offices now, we also need to think about how automated and voice-activated doors could also become more standardised at office building entrances. In designing a new office, a consideration might even be to consider, for instance, airport restrooms, many of which already offer door-free navigation. This strategy adds a convenience factor for travellers carrying luggage, but it also dramatically reduces the need to touch different surfaces, like door handles, which could transmit bacteria or viruses. For future buildings, this could be a key consideration, particularly for guest WCs that are off large lobbies.
As designers, we need to consider the kinds of fabrics and finishes we work with and should increasingly call on anti-germ materials and finishes, including those that already exist—like copper—and those that will inevitably be developed. These are points to consider in the long term. What can Nigerian companies do now?
It sounds obvious, but levels of cleaning must be intensified. The new trend here now is co-working offices. These work environments, referred to as dynamic, activity-based, or mobile, encourage workers to use different seats throughout the day to accomplish various tasks. People often use a reservation system or first-come, first-get approach to choose the best work setting that day. The critical concern for workers would be the cleanliness of shared workstations. In other words, many of the high-touch areas in offices could be vectors for the spread of the virus. And the more colleagues that touch them the higher the risk of contamination.
Companies should provide disinfectant wipes and hand sanitisers throughout the office, not just at entry points, which is the current practice, but especially in shared areas. With the current concerns of cleanliness and hygiene in the workspace, organisations using dynamic workplace strategies need to implement a heightened level of cleaning and sanitising protocols immediately. Organisations should implement cleaning protocols for not only workstations, but include conference rooms, collaborative areas, cafes, reception, and other common areas. Another option could be for companies to reduce this dynamic, activity-based seating and have designated workspaces in the short term. To keep employees healthy, you must create a safe and clean work environment.
For the past view years, we have been designing with openness in mind; everything has been about breaking down barriers between teams and workers for easy collaboration and workflow. Cost savings on square footage and the slightly insane notion that you may not need privacy or space to concentrate on the open-plan office also contributed. So, what do we do about open offices and social distancing now? Unless you have excess funds sitting in the bank for you to reconfigure and expand your office space, you are left with limited options. The option which we have now adapted to and forcibly accepted is working from home. For some of your workers, that might be the right answer.
Collaboration depends more on technology than proximity. Yes, some teams benefit from open office floor plans, but many do just as well without one. The productivity returns on open offices are spotty at best. There’s a much easier business case for video conferencing systems. Ensuring you have the right policies and controls to give staff the ability to work from home in the long term is critical. Of course, the proper scheduling arrangement must be considered for those who come into the office. Offices will likely still be open but will have restrictions.
This takes me to my last and final point. Will the world’s legions of new homeworkers want to return to their workplaces, and will employers want them back, when remote working could save them money? I think the answer is a resounding YES! We love to see people, socialise, discuss; we want people also to see us! From the employer’s perspective, we have not yet been able to eliminate that idea of, “you are not working if you are at home.” Though many studies have shown that working from home not only benefits employees by eliminating their daily commutes, it also increases productivity and leads to healthier lifestyles. I just learned that some companies are treating the mandated lockdown as holiday leave! Shocking! In this part of the world, employers still need to see their workers and employees value the communal ambience of working in an office space.