Any C-suite manager looking to get employees back to the office has likely spent more time thinking about indoor air quality and ventilation in the past year and a half than at any other point in their life prior to the pandemic.
Because healthy buildings are the latest incentive to get employees back into the office. Of course, when people get back to their personal work they are concerned about how safe they will be. Companies continue to assure their employees that desks, computer keyboards, elevator buttons, and any other public surface are adequately sanitized.
But now they’re also paying more attention to how healthy the air in these buildings is – and what impact this can have on not only preventing the spread of Covid-19 and other respiratory diseases, but also how air quality can affect cognitive function.
“I don’t think business people see the power of buildings that not only protect people from disease but also lead to better performance,” said Joseph G. Allen, associate professor and director of the TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard of the Harvard Healthy Buildings program at the CNBC Workforce Executive Council Summit on Wednesday. “Better ventilation leads to a significantly better cognitive performance of the employees. This is good for the health and productivity of the workers.”
“Droplet dogma is over”
Allen said the increased interest in indoor air quality comes from a better understanding of the spread of Covid-19. Cleaning surfaces and following the two meter distance rule made sense if it was believed that the virus was spread by droplets that were expelled when coughing or sneezing and that these droplets could not travel further than two meters.
The reality is that Covid-19 is spread through breath aerosols that travel well over two meters, Allen said. “When we talk, cough, sneeze, or just breathe, we are constantly releasing different-sized aerosols,” he added. “When we are infected, these particles carry the virus and can travel through any room and stay in the air for hours. The droplet dogma is over. “
A ventilated room or building means that these breath aerosols can accumulate and infect someone well beyond this 1.80 m distance. “All of the major outbreaks we’ve seen share the same characteristics,” said Allen. “Time indoors in an under-ventilated room. Whether it’s a spin course, choir rehearsals or a restaurant. It’s the same basic factors that drive the transmission.”
Companies can counteract this, said Allen. “Just as we have made great strides in public health in the areas of sanitation, water quality and food safety, indoor air quality will be a part of this conversation,” he said.
Employees wear protective masks in a JLL office in Menlo Park, California, United States on Tuesday, September 15, 2020.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Spice up buildings
The first step is for facility managers to determine what systems are in place and whether they are working as intended. “It seems obvious, but a lot of the time we put equipment in and then leave it for 10 or 15 years and never tune it like we do with our cars,” explained Allen.
Maximizing the amount of outside air that enters the building is another step that needs to be taken. And finally, Allen said that air filters should be upgraded to the so-called MERV 13. (MERV stands for Minimum Efficiency Report Value.) He explained that a typical building has a MERV 8 filter that captures about 20% of the airborne particulates. A MERV 13 filter captures approximately 90% or more of these particles.
These higher quality filters not only improve air quality to reduce the spread of viruses, but can also help workers improve their performance.
Allen’s team at Harvard recently published a study that looked at workers from around the world for a year. Everyone had air quality sensors on their desks. A specially developed smartphone app enabled these workers to carry out short cognitive function tests. Allen found that people with better ventilation and lower particle concentrations performed significantly better on these tests than people who work in areas with poor air quality.
“The beauty of all of this is that healthy building strategies help protect against infectious diseases, but are also good for the health, productivity and performance of workers,” said Allen.
In his 2020 book, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, co-authored with Harvard Business School professor John D. Macomber, Allen says they show how better air quality and Ventilation to Win for Business. His Harvard research and financial simulations found that the benefits of increased ventilation alone are estimated to be between $ 6,500 and $ 7,500 per person per year. In an April 2020 article in the Harvard Business Review co-authored with Macomber, Allen quotes researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who estimate that improving indoor air quality in offices could add up to $ 20 billion to the US economy annually.
“Since the late 1970s, in response to the global energy crisis, we began streamlining our buildings while cutting off air flow to save energy,” said Allen. We have ushered in the era of sick building.
“It’s no surprise that we have high levels of indoor air pollution and sick buildings where people cannot concentrate in conference rooms and feel constantly sleepy at work,” he said.
And contrary to what many think, not only new, modern buildings can be health-oriented. “Any building can be a healthy building, and it’s not heavy and not that expensive,” he added. “In fact, I would say that healthy buildings are not expensive. Sick buildings are expensive. “
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