Four questions to ask before going back to the office

This article was originally published on Quartz.

Time’s passing has left many questions unanswered about the mutating virus behind Covid-19 illnesses and deaths.

Nevertheless, many large and small companies are planning reopenings or have already begun welcoming people back to the office, redesigning spaces in an effort to get employees back. The grand experiment that sent knowledge workers home to toil from their bedrooms and living rooms is moving into a new phase, as the world waits for an effective vaccine and braces for expected waves of widespread outbreaks.

Is it safe for you to go back to work before a vaccine is available? There are simply too many factors for anyone to offer certainty. But there are other questions worth thinking through as we contemplate the looming return of non-essential workers to their offices. For example:

Why are we doing this?

The pandemic has prompted a massive shift in how the world is thinking about office life. Instead of asking when we can go back to our offices, it may make more sense to ask why—and how—you are being asked to return.

Speaking on a webinar in April, John Macomber, senior lecturer of business administration at Harvard Business School, estimated that the coronavirus pandemic had accelerated working from home’s acceptability “by 20 years.” Businesses no longer have grounds to insist on people sitting in traffic to go into work, and missing that time with family, especially when office workers do most of their jobs virtually, often messaging each other online when they’re sitting in the same room.

Jim Underhill, CEO of Cresa, a commercial real estate advisory firm that serves corporate tenants exclusively, goes further, arguing that people are not going back—at least, not to the office life we had, with hundreds or thousands of employees showing up at the same building every day, often to be squeezed into a densely packed, open-plan office. “Call it a de-consolidation of space, rather than having everyone come into one massive office in the cities, though they will remain the hub,” he told Quartz.

To find more space for the people who do need to be there in person, corporate offices are already planning to do things like space out desks and invite people to stagger the days they’re in the office. Many say they are shooting for something like 30% occupancy. Indeed, surveys show that most companies plan to take up less space in the future. The next step may be to open smaller, satellite offices, outside of downtown cores in suburban districts, Underhill suggested. This may be one way to preserve or foster company culture without relying solely on screens and virtual hijinks.

Commercial real estate giant Tishman Speyer has meanwhile expanded its co-working concept, Studio, to new urban properties, and expects to find clients in the large companies that need additional space and flexibility.

How do I feel about sharing my daily temperature, and being tracked?

It has been five months since millions of Americans had a normal day at the office, riding elevators up and down the building freely, and flashing their ID as they rushed past a doorman. In that time, however, some surveillance technology that would have been considered borderline sci-fi and too invasive to suit most peoples’ taste before the pandemic has already been installed in major office complexes. Some are concerned about the likelihood of this technology sticking around once the pandemic is over.

These developments were on Macomber’s mind, too, as he imagined what property managers might do to protect their real estate assets by protecting the people who use them. He foresees elevators, escalators, and revolving doors with thermal sensors, retina scans, facial scans, and technology that stores time-series information about your temperature and pulse. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all to have property owners say, ‘l want this to be the safest building, as well as the healthiest building, as well as the greenest building, so this is what I’m going to do,’” he told the audience.

But Macomber was not certain that commercial landlords and corporate leaders would drive this revolution. It could be that employees will decide to readily offer up their information, finding inventive ways to share data from their Fitbit or phones, he said. Or, perhaps, a government agency will enforce monitoring systems in the name of public health, meaning regulations could change from state to state or city to city.

However, it doesn’t appear that any government can form enough of a consensus to make that kind of change happen immediately, the professor noted.

As with much of the way this pandemic has been handled to date, in the US at least, what happens next may be up to the biggest players in the private sector, and the rest of us should at least start paying attention.

How healthy is my office building?

Many employees are feeling nostalgic for their pre-pandemic office rituals. But most are not going to repopulate often air-sealed buildings without a few inquiries about how companies or landlords are managing the environment to minimize infection risks. On the jobs rating website Glassdoor, people were already questioning employer decisions around Covid-19 in April, according to Joseph Allen, assistant professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health who spoke on the webinar with Macomber. (They are also the co-authors of a new, timely book called Healthy Buildings.)

Acutely aware of the pressures they face, of course, employers are bracing for lawsuits in the wake of the pandemic, even while questions of liability or how to evaluate who would be at fault if an employee or customer acquired the virus in a workplace are unsettled. In the US, there are no enforceable federal regulations around Covid-19 safety at work.

Employees will understandably be preoccupied with the possibility of contracting the virus by inhaling the droplets spouted by infected persons, or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching one’s eyes, nose, or mouth, although that form of transmission has proven to be less of a concern. But what’s emerged as perhaps the most difficult threat to evade exists in the air itself: virus-loaded aerosols that can ride on air currents and linger in a room for hours.

Whether the virus can be carried through a building’s ventilation system or pipes is still unclear, but some researchers have found the virus floating in aerosols within the hospital rooms of Covid-19 patients and others suspect virus-loaded aerosols sickened customers at a Hong Kong restaurant who sat close to a carrier.

Fortunate are those employees in older office buildings where the windows actually open, allowing outdoor air to dilute potentially dangerous aerosols, Allan explained. But even in buildings without windows, the existing circulation system can usually be modified to allow a greater ratio of outdoor air into the mix. To be sure, such an adjustment is more expensive for the property owner. Then again, it’s not as expensive as making tenants sick, Macomber and Allen pointed out. Besides, even slight improvements in indoor air quality have also been linked to better cognition and executive function in robust studies conducted by Allen and fellow Harvard researchers.

It’s also possible to prevent the spread of airborne contaminants by installing better filters. Hospitals use air filters that achieve a MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) rating of at least 13, meaning they would take 80% of airborne viral particles out of circulation, as Allen explained in a New York Times op-ed. Most office buildings currently use filters that only capture about 20% of the same matter. He suggested offices upgrade to the best possible filter that’s compatible with their existing systems.

That level of engagement with environmental questions may be too intense for some people, but it does appear that a building’s readiness for viruses like the coronavirus, and any epidemics or even weather disasters (like wildfires) that might follow this pandemic, will become part of what an employer will need to consider when recruiting future hires and retaining the folks they already employ.

”Employees are going to be interviewing your buildings,” Macomber said. Just as with any market, star talent who have the necessary currency—the skills and the track record to make job-hopping a cinch—will look for better offers if your building is found lacking.

For the same reasons, companies may also embrace third-party endorsements, like WELL building certification from the International Well Building Institute (IWBI), Macomber said. Or, at the very least, such programs will gain huge visibility and sophistication because of surging demand. People might seek the reassurance of someone who is not their employer or their employer’s landlord before they’ll feel comfortable about a building’s defences.

Indeed, Paul Scialla, IWBI founder and CEO of Delos, the institute’s research and consulting arm, told Quartz that he was spending about 15 hours per day on the phone talking to business leaders and landlords as well as schools, hospitals, and other types of organizations about Covid-19. Demand for his firm’s expertise has surged about 50-fold, he estimated. “The broader notion of wellness real estate, and what this company has done for years in terms of merging the health and the building sciences, and understanding that what surrounds us is very acutely relevant to our health and wellbeing—this just took that learning curve to zero,” he said.

The science of keeping a building healthy is not universal; the kinds of safeguards required will depend on a building’s type, its location, age, the way it’s used, and more, Scalia also said, so there is no checklist to bring to your employer. Still, he urges employees to be curious about protocols, air circulation, and disinfection agents, and what happens between cleanings, knowing however, that, “There’s no perfect solution with cleaning, at least not yet.”

How can I protect other people?

No one would blame you for being worried about your personal safety when you first enter that once-familiar building, the place that was your second home. People have been cocooning in their actual homes for months, insisting on contactless deliveries, feeling cozy, if stir crazy, and reading vivid accounts of the coronavirus burning a path of infections within enclosed spaces.

Still, Allen insisted that worrying about your personal protection isn’t what will collectively keep us healthy. He advised directing that energy toward the welfare of others and asking what you can do to protect your coworkers. The goal, he said, is to foster social trust. Until the day companies can provide accurate, daily rapid testing at the door, your job is to behave as if you have the ability to infect a great number of people and their families. Imagine you’re an asymptomatic carrier, as you’ve hopefully been doing for the past several months, and if everyone adopts that position, we will all be well protected by the concern of compassion of the entire workforce.

Practically speaking, this translates into a lot of what we’re already doing, as Allen also explained, washing your hands frequently, using hand sanitizer when washing is impossible, wearing masks in common areas, bringing your own mug, respecting physical distancing guidelines, even if the rules ask you to walk the long way around one-way corridors—which some companies have created—to see a colleague who would be much closer if you ignored the signs.

Doing these things inside an office may feel awkward at first, but that’s always true when we adjust our behavior in the face of new or newly recognized risks. “Maybe it’s the way you didn’t have to wear a hardhat on a construction site,” and now it’s second nature, Macomber said. At one time, you didn’t have to wear a helmet when cycling, you didn’t need seat belts, he added, and now “you’re going to the office and you’ll be wearing a mask, you’ll be washing your hands more. It gets priced in.”