Hybrid Workplaces and IAQ: How Commercial Property Owners and Operators Are Tackling a New Challenge

Until March of 2020, millions of daily commuters made their way around American cities as they moved in and out of large office buildings and other businesses. Then, a novel virus changed everything. Cities and states issued stay-at-home orders. Even businesses in areas that remained open sent their workers home to work in an attempt to avoid medical catastrophe.

“I think that what we’re seeing is pretty much unprecedented, at least in the modern era,” Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst with INRIX, told U.S. News and World Report last year.

Pishue wasn’t kidding. New York City alone saw a 63% drop in metro area travel during one April 2020 week. Business districts that were once a flurry of activity transformed into near ghost towns.

Now, as the world looks ahead to post-pandemic life, many of those former commuters don’t want to return to the daily grind in and out of the office. According to a Harris Poll survey, 37% of employees wanted flexible work benefits pre-pandemic, but that number since has grown to 56%.

Not only does remote work allow workers to avoid sharing small spaces where pathogens often flourish, but they enjoy other perks. For example, workers save extra time and money that otherwise would have been spent on commuting.

Likewise, even some businesses found they could get just as much accomplished without the overhead costs associated with a large central office. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t also benefits of a shared workspace – both for workers and their employers. An increasingly popular solution is the hybrid workplace. In fact, a Slack survey found that 72% of workers want a combination of home and office work.

Still, certain priorities changed during the pandemic, and they might never return to their pre-COVID-19 state, including a heightened awareness of indoor air quality.

How IAQ Impacts Commercial Properties

Even before anyone ever heard of COVID-19, indoor air averaged between two and five times more toxic than what is found outside, usually a result of poor ventilation or the use of chemicals. Anyone who has ever worked somewhere experiencing sick building syndrome can attest that IAQ hinders the wellness of all.

Obviously, no company wants to take the productivity hit that comes with a slew of sick workers. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency, found that poor air quality in U.S. workplaces results in $150 billion in illness-related losses each year, with $93 billion resulting from the headaches and fatigue associated with sick building syndrome. According to the World Green Building Council, workplaces with healthy indoor air experience on average 350% fewer absences from short-term sick leave each year.

Absent and sick workers aren’t the only way poor IAQ negatively affects a business. A 2015 Harvard study, for example, found that office workers exposed to high humidity and rising levels of carbon dioxide grew tired and sluggish, hindering their productivity. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and its Healthy Buildings program, improved IAQ can increase employees’ productivity by 8% and increase their overall cognitive functions by as much as 101%. Ultimately, the increased productivity and cognitive abilities were valued at about $15,500 in additional revenue per employee each year. Now that businesses experienced many of these changes over the past year, some are seeking ways to continue the trend after teams return to the office – even on a hybrid workplace basis.

Of course, many businesses don’t operate out of buildings they own, so they can only control the IAQ to a certain point. A heightened focus on IAQ in the workplace, however, has created a commercial real-estate market where air quality offers building owners and operators a significant competitive edge. According to analysis from the Global Wellness Institute, real estate assets focused on wellness fetch as much as 25% higher price premiums compared to standard assets – and that was before the pandemic-related focus on IAQ.

Likewise, a UKGBC and JLL study found that wellness-certified assets outperformed their non-certified competitors by more than 100%, resulting in an average contracted rent of about $66 per square foot, compared to $32 per square foot for properties with standard assets. This offers significant motivation for commercial property owners and operators to focus on improving the IAQ within their buildings.

Improving IAQ in Commercial Properties

So, what are the best ways for companies and commercial building operators to improve the IAQ in a hybrid workplace? The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers has provided guidance for businesses as well as property managers.

According to ASHRAE, companies should remain stringent on their hygiene and social distancing practices by performing routine cleaning and disinfection of the workplace. For example, conducting temperature and symptom screening of all workers, providing face masks and other PPE, and creating a touchless environment such as touchless light switches, doors, drawers, elevators and even trash cans. ASHRAE also recommends businesses implement a hybrid workplace so that teams can split time in the building, allowing for improved social distancing.

ASHRAE’s Guidance for Building Operations is Threefold

  1. Utilize sensors and IoT to measure real-time workplace occupancy to determine how much space really is needed to safely accommodate who is in the building at any given time. In a hybrid workplace, the traditional means of calculating needed occupancy levels, such as square footage estimates and badge data, simply don’t cut it. After all, some employees might spend every shift in the office, but others might only drop in for a few hours or work on-site only a couple of days a week. Space needs cannot reliably be determined based on schedules or even badge entries. At the same time, manual monitoring is ineffective since behavior patterns often are unreliable when people know they are being watched. Sensors like those from Density and Sensgreen capture reliable yet anonymous real-time data about how many people are in any area of a building at any given time.
  2. Ensure that HVAC systems are cleaned, fully functioning and properly maintained. Motili customers gain access to a network of more than 2,000 contractors across the United States to provide proactive HVAC management. HVAC plays a key role in controlling IAQ as it ventilates the building and filters the inside air. ASHRAE recommends a few HVAC adjustments in addition to preventative maintenance, including:
    • Increase outdoor air ventilation when lower populations are occupying the building.
    • Disable demand-controlled ventilation.
    • When possible, open outdoor air dampers as much as 100% to prevent air recirculation.
    • Improve air filtration by using MERV-13 or the highest compatible with the filter rack, then seal the edges of the filter.
    • Run HVAC systems more frequently, as often as 24/7, to increase the ventilation and air filtration.
    • Install portable room air cleaners with HEPA filters.
    • Consider using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation to deactivate certain disease-transmitting organisms, especially in areas at higher risk for pathogen transmission, such as waiting rooms, residential care facilities, shelters and prisons.
  3. Monitor IAQ and make adjustments to the workplace environment based on readings from a smart air quality monitor. Also, monitor building usage and schedule a hybrid workplace to allow for social distancing in every occupied area at any time. According to ASHRAE, social distancing and proper hygiene are more effective in battling illness than anything related to the HVAC system.
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