Return to Work Planning for COVID-19
After months of quarantine and social distancing, ArchitectureEL is preparing to reopen and bring employees back to the work environment. This article examines the steps and considerations businesses should evaluate to create a safe, productive office environment.
Like countless businesses across the country, ArchitectureEL adapted its business model to the necessity for quarantine and social distancing. This included configuring computers for employees to take home to use as remote work stations, scheduling online meetings for staff and client management, and restricting office occupancy to periodic solo visits. On site meetings were eliminated, or conducted as independent inspections. As the weeks wore on, PPE standards were established, and internal discussions turned to if not when, but how, we would provide a work environment our employees would feel safe to work in and our clients confident to visit. What emerged was a four part plan that illustrates how dramatically the office environment must change, and how thoughtful planning and design can help chart a path forward.
Office Planning and Layout We began by critically examining the office layout. [See Figure1] As architects, we had the benefit of an up to date floor plan of the office on which to base our evaluation. We critiqued our plan according to the primary requirements to inhibit transmission of the virus between office occupants.
- High touch zones: Places such as reception areas, conference tables, and break areas are susceptible to high degrees of touch and hence viral transfer. Mitigating touch zones primarily requires a rigorous house cleaning regimen. A pre-day, mid-day, and post day wipe down schedule was established to keep these areas free of contamination. These areas are required to be wiped down after each use as well. This is the first line of defense in the office use plan.
- Office pedestrian traffic: The circulation pattern of the office was scrutinized. Two-way pedestrian traffic should be minimized or eliminated, as this arrangement has a greater risk of exposure to the passersby. A one-way circulation pattern was minimizes face to face exposure. In the case of the AEL office, this meant circulating around a central wall separating the reception area, and identifying areas where masks should be worn if a particular work space is occupied.
- Separation of work areas: Persons working at desks should not be less than 6 feet apart. This presents a problem for most office layouts, where desks and cubicles are next to each other. Two solutions to this issue were considered; occupying every other desk on an alternating schedule, or installing full height partitions to reduce exposure between the neighboring desks. The scattered occupation/scheduling option proved to be most practical for the ArchitectureEL operations plan. Even with partitions installed between desks, the risk of exposure would be much greater with the higher occupancy and shared air space. When separation of reception, personnel work space, conference and common areas were taken into account, it was determined that the practical maximum occupancy ofthe AEL office space was reduced from 10 to 3 or 4 persons. [See Figure 2] This is a drastic change from the prior occupancy, and illustrates the dramatic impact COVID planning has on the office environment.
Scheduling Once a scattered office scheme was adopted as the most practical solution, the next task was to determine a schedule for occupying the office. The AEL office is a matrix of teams and their respective projects. A rotating schedule of project managers with overlap between team members allowed the office to meet at half the former capacity. The schedule is flexible and adaptable, and is expected to vary week by week. An upside to the weeks of quarantine and working remotely is that the project teams learned how to work effectively from home. This new skill became an asset in the return to work strategy. Persons are encouraged to work from home whenever feasible, and create a workable balance between the office and home working environment. While many found working from home challenging due to school closures and other factors, this arrangement has great potential to provide a benefit and improve the work/life balance long term. When managed properly, working from home eliminates commutes, allows flexibility for personal schedules, and contributes to office health by significantly reducing potential contact and exposure. Says Kevin Rothschild-Shea, Principal of ArchitectureEL: “I do not think we will return to a 100% office based work environment. Working from home has showed us that we have the technology and capability to function effectively wherever we are located, and I would hate to lose that. I would rather apply it to our benefit to provide a more varied, flexible and positive relationship with our work”.
Protocols and Procedures Having established optimal seating and scheduling arrangements, standard operating procedures were drafted to reinforce best practices for the health of the office occupants. ArchitectureEL broke this down into three facets:
- Verification and reporting: Employees agreed to sign a commitment letter to adopt and adhere to the new measures put in place as a vital tool to keep the office healthy. To this end, every staff member is responsible for monitoring their temperature, signing a daily register verifying their temperature is within acceptable range, and informing management if they have been in contact with a person who tested positive or has reason to believe they are infected with COVID-19.
- On-site meetings: The Meetings on site are to be conducted solo whenever possible. Arrangements can be made for a building or site to be accessible to the AEL representative, who may conduct inspections and perform necessary tasks without coming into contact with another person. Appropriate PPE is to be worn at all times. If a meeting with additional persons is required, meetings will be conducted outside or within a well ventilated space. All persons are to wear PPE and space themselves a minimum of six feet apart. Meetings are to be of the shortest possible duration for the task required.
- In Office Work: When working in the office, employees occupy desks as outlined in the office occupation plan, noting that certain areas of the office require wearing PPE if a desk adjoining that area is occupied. Employees are encouraged to work from home when practical, and limit their time in the office during times of high occupation.
Office Environment While seating layouts, rotating schedules, and hygienic practices significantly reduce the opportunity for exposure to and transmission of COVID-19, a lingering element of risk remains, that of the indoor air shared by those occupying the office. Upon examining the earliest known cases of the spread of COVID- 19, researchers determined that an infected person in a restaurant was able to spread the virus to a great number of the other diners by way of the HVAC system. This means that personnel in an office environment may be exposed to the virus even if spread out from each other. Mandating masks at all times seemed impractical. Treating the interior air to reduce the likelihood of transmission is possible, and can be achieved in three primary ways:
- Increased ventilation: Increasing the amount of outside air brought into the office helps to turn over and dilute the amount of air recycled by the occupants, and the ArchitectureEL office has a shared HVAC system, but is fortunate to have operable windows. Increasing air exchange at the HVAC system increases energy consumption. An ERV, or Energy Recovery Ventilator, will reduce the amount of energy wasted through the increased air turnover. Windows may be opened on fair days, but such days are limited in number in Western New England.
- Air filtration/UV sterilization: In addition to adjusting the amount of outside air taken into the indoor environment, the air passing through the HVAC system may be aggressively filtered and sterilized. Filters are available that will effectively trap viral particles. The clean air may then be exposed to ultraviolet radiation to further sanitize the air before returning it to the office space. While air filtering may appear to be an effective solution, there are significant drawbacks to this approach that go beyond the cost of adding the equipment to the system. High capacity filters extract a higher energy use toll on the system. Electrostatic filters perform better in this regard but come at a higher cost. Filters must also be maintained or replaced regularly to remain effective and energy efficient. Lastly, it is not possible to move all the air served by the system through the filter. There will be pockets of static air that never make their way through the system.
- Bi-polar ionization: This technology performs in the opposite way of a filter. Rather than attempt to pass the entire interior air volume through a filter, charged ions are generated and dispensed into the spaces, either by way of a stand-alone unit or via the HVAC system. The charged particles attach themselves to the dust and contaminates in the air, causing them to drop to the ground. Moreover, the ionic activity effectively neutralizes viruses, mold, bacteria and airborne dust. In this way, the space itself becomes a filter. The technology is proven, relatively inexpensive, and in wide use in hospitals and high occupant venues. The cleaner air does have a byproduct in the form of dust buildup. Housekeeping measures should be increased accordingly to wipe down the dust that will accumulate on horizontal surfaces. System maintenance requires replacing the unit’s tubes every two years.
After consideration of the options above, ArchitectureEL opted to install a stand-alone bi-polar ionization system. In addition to being the least impact and an effective option to battle coronavirus, the cleaner air will also be of benefit to those with allergies or other respiratory problems.
Conclusion The coronavirus outbreak has dramatically changed the office landscape. Return to work planning to requires an in depth analysis of how a business functions, and how it can adapt to accommodate best practices to avoid transmission between personnel and foster a healthy work environment. In addition to office planning, personnel schedules, housekeeping, PPE protocols and mechanical systems must work in concert to provide an effective safeguard against exposure to corona virus and other emerging pathogens. ArchitectureEL provides the planning and expertise to meet the needs of this new standard in the workplace.