Return To The Office: Why Indoor Air Quality Should Be The Top Priority

Return To The Office: Why Indoor Air Quality Should Be The Top Priority
As more companies welcome workers back to the office, indoor air quality is coming under intense focus.
  • As more companies welcome workers back to the office, indoor air quality is coming under intense focus. 
  • Given the nature of the coronavirus, many individuals are concerned about the air quality of their workspace. 
  • HVAC systems, occupancy, and building layout and design all play important roles in limiting the spread of the virus indoors. 

With the vaccine rollout well underway in many countries, companies are gearing up to welcome workers back into the office.  

Surveys of employee sentiment have consistently found that employees want their organizations to prioritize their health and wellness in order for them to feel comfortable going back to the office. Given the nature of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, many individuals are particularly concerned about the air quality of public spaces.  

The concerns are not unfounded; the EPA has found that indoor air can be 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air.  

The negative effects of poor indoor air quality have been widely documented. The EPA lists the following health effects that poor indoor air quality can have on humans: 

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. 
  • Headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. 
  • Respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer. 

The EPA further notes that “episodes of Legionnaires’ disease, a form of pneumonia caused by exposure to the Legionella bacterium, have been associated with buildings with poorly maintained air conditioning or heating systems.” 

Poor indoor air quality can also trigger asthma attacks and lead to sick building syndrome.  

Why Workplace Air Quality Matters Now More than Ever 

Just as the pandemic has reinforced our habits of regular and thorough handwashing, it has also brought to light the importance of good indoor air quality. 

Last year, government organizations confirmed that “spread of COVID-19 may also occur via airborne particles in indoor environments, in some circumstances beyond the 2 m (about 6 ft) range encouraged by some social distancing recommendations.” 

More worryingly, however, is a Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health study that suggests that “long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe Covid-19 outcomes.” 

While the study noted that most fine particulate matter comes from fuel combustion, it also noted that fine particulate matter can come from some indoor sources like: 

  • Tobacco products 
  • Building and furniture materials  
  • Newly installed flooring, upholstery or carpet 
  • Certain pressed wood products 
  • Cleaning products 
  • Excess moisture.  

According to the EPA, building layout and design, as well as occupancy and HVAC systems all play an important role in how the virus could potentially spread indoors. For workplace environments, this means that companies and facilities management need to make sure that workspaces are well ventilated at all times, especially now that workers begin to return to the office.  

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    The EPA recommends the following strategies to improve indoor air quality in buildings: 

    • Increase ventilation with outdoor air 
    • Increase ventilation with air filtration systems 
    • Use of portable air cleaners to supplement increased HVAC system ventilation and filtration.  

    A Shift in Tenant Demands 

    Building owners and their respective tenants are asking for increased focus on indoor air quality. Some governments, as a result, are responding.  

    Take for example the UK government.  

    News sources reported early this year that: 

    “New offices and commercial properties will have to install better ventilation systems to help to reduce the spread of airborne diseases such as Covid-19, under government proposals. 

    Offices would need to have systems that can provide fresh air at 50 per cent higher rates than the existing minimum standards. This would enable an ‘increased ventilation rate to be used during a period when infection rates are raised, such as in a future pandemic’.”  

    The proposal would also require ventilation systems to prevent air recirculating between different areas unless filtering technology is in place.  

    Implications for Flexible Workspace Providers 

    If companies and employees are demanding more control over indoor air quality, then flexible workspace operators need to take note.  

    The flexible workspace industry was hard hit by the pandemic, and operators hoping to attract and retain members in the future will need to increase their focus on air quality and provide a wellness focused experience.  

    Already, we are seeing leading players taking action to respond to new tenant demands. Industrious’ upcoming location in partnership with Granite Properties will pursue the Fitwel Certification, which includes an Indoor Air Quality Standard.  

    This, however, doesn’t mean that operators will need to pursue a Fitwel Certification or WELL Building Standard; it only means that they will need to be able to respond to any questions members have about their quality, ideally providing some measurements and data points in order to fully calm any fears and help people feel more comfortable at work.  

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