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Back to work: Is a healthy office even possible?

Article by Marshal Sterio, CEO - Surgically Clean Air

Back in March 2020, no one was really sure how long the coronavirus pandemic would last, and as businesses quickly shut down their regular operations, people thought that the disruption might last for a few months before they were able to return to what we used to think of as “normal”. More than 2 ½ years later, we are all still reeling from not only the loss of more than 200,000 people in the UK, but also the massive destruction that affected just about every aspect of our lives. And despite a successful vaccination program and public health initiatives that curtailed the number of hospitalisations and deaths, the reality is that the pandemic is still a daily part of all of our lives. 

This is creating massive cognitive dissonance. On one hand, people are burned out from years of lockdowns and social distancing and are proceeding as if COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror. On the other hand, variations of the virus appear every few months and threaten to derail all of the progress that we have made in getting through the worst global epidemic in a century. Nowhere is this dichotomy playing out in sharper relief than back-to-work policies which are requiring employees to go back into offices after more than two years of remote work. This is where workforce executives are playing a critical role in balancing these new mandates with the health of their employees and their families. 

When the pandemic first hit the UK in early 2020, more than 80% of office workers suddenly found themselves working from home. This was the “new normal” until 2021, when restrictions eased, and people were allowed to return to their previous places of business. In this climate, hybrid working became the norm: according to the Office of National Statistics, nearly 40 percent of Britons worked at least partly from home even after restrictions on office work ended. But as we move into the closing months of 2022, more and more companies are requiring their teams to make their offices their primary places of work. This is placing significant pressure on HR teams to implement policies to support two seemingly incongruous objectives. 

The Time to Plan is Now
The reality is that all of us were completely unprepared for the novel coronavirus when it first appeared in late 2019. Public health services didn’t have the resources in place, pharmaceutical companies were caught flat-footed, and business leaders in every conceivable industry had no plan B for a global shutdown. But we know a lot more about pandemics than we did two years ago, and companies of all sizes are building contingency plans in the event that another wave of COVID (to say nothing of monkeypox or even diseases that haven’t even been discovered yet) hits our shores. 

One of the most important things that scientists have learned since 2020 is that the novel coronavirus is primarily spread through airborne transmission. We may have all been wiping down our food delivery bags during the first few months of the pandemic, but it became quickly apparent that the virus was being transmitted through the air. As a result, mask mandates became the norm throughout the world, as did social distancing requirements. Both of those measures were extremely successful in minimizing the deadly impact of the pandemic, but companies need broader strategies in place to create a more comprehensive and long-lasting solution. This has created a focus on the so-called “Office of the Future,” and HR teams are on the front lines when it comes to making this a reality. 

Creating the Healthy Office
There is no single magic button that will transform an office into a safe haven when it comes to communicable diseases. There are simply too many people coming in and out of these spaces to make that a reality. But what companies can do is reconfigure their physical spaces to minimize the chance of an outbreak. One of the Best ways to do this is to promote airflow and double down on-air filtration and purification. Most office towers built since the 1970s have closed ventilation systems, meaning that windows cannot be opened. While this is approach has merits – preventing mould and increasing energy efficiency are at the top of the list – it’s limitations became painfully obvious during the pandemic because there was no way to get fresh air into spaces where doesn’t or even hundreds of people were working. Architects are working feverishly to figure out ways to increase the availability of natural air and public spaces and offices. 

In addition to introducing outside air, companies are also investing in new technologies to supplement their existing HVAC systems to purify air even beyond legal requirements. The good news is that these systems can work in conjunction with existing infrastructure, meaning that office owners don’t need to do a “rip and replace” to keep their offices safe. They are also going out of their way to physically reconfigure their offices to minimize the potential for illness to spread. For example, large open spaces are rapidly becoming the norm so the teams can meet while maintaining physical separation for their employees. Architect Martin Henn recently wrote in Bloomberg that Companies need to radically re-imagine how their offices function to reflect the new way to work. This goes beyond safety and goes to the heart of organisational culture and values. 

Why It Matters
Creating a healthy office has obvious benefits from a public wellness standpoint, but it can also have significant damages when it comes to hiring and retaining staff. More than 80% of British workers have expressed trepidation about working in offices because of concerns about safety. After all, we may be in a trough when it comes to the number of hospitalizations for COVID-19, but we all know that new variants can easily pop up and push us back into the dark ages of lockdowns and social distancing. They can have a significant psychological effect on people when it comes to working in offices, and as illness rates spike, and uncertainty about returning to offices also manifests in the public consciousness. People need to know that their companies have their best interests in mind when they go to work. 

    Marshal Sterio is the CEO of Surgically Clean Air Inc., a Toronto-based manufacturer of portable systems that purify air by supplementing existing HVAC systems. Marshal has a long history of working in the medical device and industrial air purification industry and has worked closely with dental professionals, Fortune 500 companies, Major League Baseball clubs, the NBA, the NHL and thousands of other organizations around the world. He holds a BA in Economics from York University in Toronto, Canada.

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