As we envision a safe return to workplace of the employees post CoVID, technology and materials will play a key role in success of this process. As an immediate response to the pandemic, communication technology has emerged as the topmost technology driver. Remote working is critical, and collaboration tools are a must have for a productive environment. With mass quarantines and complete lock-downs, the epidemic has ignited and amplified the debate over the future of work.
Yet, the virus definitely won’t kill the concept of working in standard office buildings. As companies plan how to bring their workforce together again in the office, numerous calculations are being made to provide an environment that will keep workers safe, healthy, and productive and allay fears.
The following 4 concepts A-B-C-D are a good place to start thinking about the technologies and materials that will be the key to managing the Post-CoVID Workplace.
“A” for Automated:
Employees could eliminate the need to press communal buttons by using their smartphone to send a command to the elevator. Conference rooms could be fitted out with voice-activated technologies to control lighting, audio and visual equipment. Passing through doors or flushing the toilet would require a simple wave. Contactless pathways at the office entrance, whereby employees rarely need to touch the building with their hands, and office doors open automatically using motion sensors and facial recognition.
Simple technology like Amazon Alexa for Business, for example, could become a new interface and remove the need for physically pushing a button or touching a surface in an office. There are other apps helping to make the next iteration of the office a contactless one; such as using near-field communication instead of keycards to give employees access to a building or lift system via their smartphone, or to buy food and drink from cash-free workplace canteens.
Successful implementation depends on what level of existing technology is already in place.
“B” for Breathable:
It may not be possible to return to the workplace until HVAC systems are properly adjusted. The relationship between HVAC and viral spread is still being studied but use of operable windows, or other ways of natural ventilation where available, is going to be a part of the future breathable office.
Air filtration systems will need radical technology upgrade, including installation of passive features like HEPA Filters, Activated Carbon Filters and Active Devices like UV and Electrostatic Precipitation. Methods used in “clean rooms” for technical facilities and healthcare can filter virus particles, but may not be practical or affordable for most workplaces.
“C” for Clean:
Technology investments can make a building perform better for people while also improving public health. Touchless surfaces make a significant difference in both perceived and real cleanliness. Smart lighting reduces contact with shared surfaces, and it can also be customized to each user’s preferences.
One of the guiding principles is choosing materials that can withstand heavy cleaning using caustic products. Porous surfaces like natural oiled wood will be avoided, with a preference for stone or laminates. Fabrics and Carpets will be used that can withstand heavy and frequent shampooing. These more durable materials are not necessarily costlier than the more familiar alternatives. Few organisations will have a budget for an expensive refit. Work practices may continue to evolve, so it is important to keep close coordination with maintenance personnel.
Restrooms are critical to the user experience of spaces, and pantries offer refreshments and socialization. Most occupants of the building will use one or both of these spaces every day. They include plumbing fixtures and, in the case of pantries, food handling. Toilet facilities that were merely adequate pre-COVID may now actually seem problematic to users. Adding spray disinfectant units and lids with UVC or Far-UVC lamps to toilets and at a minimum, adding lids to toilets that do not already have them to minimize contaminant dispersion could be the short term solutions. Installing new hands-free toilets with built-in sanitization mechanisms, UVC lamps or Far-UVC systems to aid in stall sanitization could be long term solutions.
Occupancy sensors can support multiple components of the clean workplace. For example, they can enable maintenance staff to see which spaces are being used—and need to be cleaned—and which spaces have not been occupied since the previous cleaning.
Society’s heightened awareness of contagious diseases could usher in a new type of office – one that has elements in common with a hospital. If nothing else, the idea of coming to work while sick could become socially unacceptable. On the other end of the spectrum is a focus on health and hygiene so pronounced that it gives new meaning to the idea of working in a sterile environment.
“D” for Data:
All workplace strategies should be informed by social data. In addition to providing valuable social data that will make the return to the office more successful—such as who should be at work at the same time and how they will be seated—this engagement also lays critical groundwork for any contact-tracing efforts that may become necessary if an employee becomes ill.
Social data can be paired with information from building systems to map employee interactions. Building security systems already offer records of the comings and goings of employees and visitors. Room booking apps and occupancy sensors can provide data on who has shared space. Colleagues who may have been exposed can then be alerted and either seek treatment or take mitigation actions. Maintenance staff can prioritize areas that may be contaminated.
BIM will be able to integrate the facility and the person who works there. Mobile IOT will be able to track every individual and would be useful for detection and other purposes. This is the first time the current generation has experienced a pandemic. Whatever happens in the months ahead, and even if a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available, it seems likely that the experience of living through a pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the way we work and how our workplaces function. The opportunity for the workplace is to move forward, not backward. And technology and materials will play the key role in the Post-COVID workplace.
Dinabandhu Patra, Owner, Across & Beyond Development Consultancy