How To Engineer A Safe Return To The Office For Your People

This article is contributed by David Berger, Sustainability Manager at Colliers in Singapore.

From January 1, 2022, up to 50% of employees in Singapore who are fully vaccinated are allowed to return to the office to perform their duties. This makes it the top priority of employers to ensure that the health, safety and well-being of employees are safeguarded, given that COVID-19 is far from its finale, and any misstep could risk a disruption to business and lower productivity.

Similarly, any employer that places an emphasis on Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) values would also see these as a priority, as they would constitute a key component in the ‘Social’ aspect of ESG.

These, coupled with people’s growing desire to work at and be associated with companies that have an ESG agenda, are driving many organisations to engineer a safe work environment to protect the well-being of their employees.

Collaborating For A Successful Re-entry

 A successful re-entry requires close collaboration between members of the executive leadership, real estate and facilities management professionals, as well as human resources, communications, IT, legal, and other stakeholders.

“It is now the top priority of employers to ensure that the health, safety and well-being of employees are safeguarded, given that COVID-19 is far from its finale, and any misstep could risk a disruption to business and lower productivity.”

To guide building owners, operators, and tenants, on how to systematically prepare their offices for the safe return of employees, Colliers has developed a Return to Office Workbook, which contains clear guidelines and tactical recommendations for a successful launch.

Considering that most people spend more than 90% of their time indoors, it is worth going through this analytical exercise for your building and office to create a well-designed re-entry plan by evaluating issues that may have been previously overlooked.

Before delving into the details and start drawing up a re-entry plan, let us examine three important aspects every building owner, operator, and tenant should be aware of: good indoor air quality; efficient technology to safeguard health and safety; and certification for peace of mind.

Improve Indoor Air Quality

Many people are probably oblivious to the fact that the air we breathe in while in the office can be a culprit that makes you unwell. Despite its importance and profound health implications, indoor air quality had not received much attention prior to COVID-19. This, however, has come to fore, and should be one of the key aspects to improve on.

Typically, a building’s ventilation system is designed to provide the minimum levels of fresh air required by the building codes. However, these ventilation systems usually fall short of their designs, owing to installation issues, space changes, retrofits, as well as other factors.

This is of critical importance as the spread of the COVID-19 virus in poorly ventilated spaces has been well documented. Therefore, it is imperative that building owners and employers who are looking to bring people back to the office, carefully examine their ventilation systems.

In Singapore, the Building and Construction Authority, National Environment Agency, and Ministry of Health have jointly issued a guidance note on how to improve ventilation and indoor air quality in buildings, amid the COVID-19 situation. This contains recommendations that include daily maintenance checks of the system, as well as ways to increase filtration and achieve higher ventilation rates.

It is important and necessary for building managers to know how much fresh air is being supplied to the offices, and how that is measured or verified.

A holistic solution to improving indoor air quality should encompass a comprehensive assessment of the ventilation system, maximum flow rates, control strategies, ability to modulate, filtration requirements, maintenance protocols, as well as monitoring and verification. Building managers should also consider additional sensors to measure temperature, relative humidity, as well as carbon dioxide and PM2.5 levels.

Finally, a platform that provides these data real-time, should help ease some of the concerns of people returning to the office.

Be enabled technologically 

As offices were forced to close hastily at the onset of COVID-19, the IT departments of most organisations had to step in to quickly deploy stopgap solutions. Many of these technologies were crucial in enabling business continuity back then, but may not have been optimal.

Even as employees gradually return to the office, it is clear that the future of work for most, if not already, will be driven by a hybrid work model. With this work arrangement fast becoming a norm, it is important that employers critically evaluate the technology that has been deployed and determine if it is still fit for its purpose, going forward.

While we address the aspect of technology to support employees’ needs to efficiently carry out their work, it is also important to use technology to safeguard employees’ health and safety. Currently, only up to 50% of employees who are fully vaccinated are permitted to return to the office to work. Employers will therefore need to ensure that this limit is not exceeded, both to not run afoul of the government regulations and to protect their employees.

Owing to this, platforms to manage staff, space, and visitors will soon become the norm, and businesses will need to consider how they can effectively manage their office spaces to set capacity limits, while observing safe distancing measures.

“There is a growing desire to work at and be associated with companies that have an ESG agenda, and this is driving many organisations to engineer a safe work environment to protect the well-being of their employees.”

With the hybrid work model becoming the norm, many companies are also increasingly looking to downsize their offices. However, the common challenge every company faces is to determine what the “right” size should be. Platforms that allow organisations to manage their office spaces could provide useful data for analysing space utilisation, which will help determine the appropriate office space required.

Of course, to attract people to return to the office, companies can also use such technology to allay the concerns about overcrowding. A transparent office management system that provides staff with the relevant data instantaneously, would provide more visibility of when it will be safer to return to work in the office.

Be Sure That You Are Doing It Right

Organisations need to know that they are doing the right things in the right way, when developing and implementing a successful re-entry plan. One efficient method of validating their plans would be to do so through a certification programme.

The WELL Health-Safety Rating, for example, provides a science-based framework to help buildings and organisations address issues regarding the health, safety, and well-being of their people.

Through the programme, organisations will be able to confidently prepare their workspaces for re-entry in a post-COVID-19 environment, and the measures and strategies applied will help instil confidence and trust in occupants and the broader community.

While originally designed to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, the strategies set forth in the programme are broad-reaching and cover a wide range of aspects, including emergency preparedness and employee well-being. A third-party certification also demonstrates a higher level of rigour and commitment that should help everyone feel more reassured about returning to the office.

These Are Just The ABCs

These are but a few of the many aspects that need to be considered when creating and implementing a successful re-entry plan. Some of these strategies may only be temporary, while others could impact most office buildings in the years to come.

If you are a building owner, manager, or tenant, it is definitely worth creating a well-designed strategy to ensure a safe return to the office for your people. After all, healthy and happy employees translate into better work performance and higher productivity.

This article is contributed by David Berger, a Colliers Real Estate Management Services expert who can help companies develop comprehensive return-to-office plans.

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