Office Employees Sit Beneath R-Zero Beam Upon Return to Work

The Return to Work: What Will Set Companies Apart?

For many companies, return to work dates have become a moving target the longer the COVID pandemic lasts. Just this week, Google announced that the company is pushing back its original full reopening date (January 10, 2022) further into 2022, with no replacement date named. As employers and employees have navigated the ups and downs of adapting their work models to global pandemic conditions, COVID has accelerated key changes while laying bare some striking realities. These changes in workplace dynamics will long outlast the pandemic. Furthermore, the recent emergence of the Omicron variant has demonstrated that employers can’t wait until the pandemic is “over” to enact changes for their office environments and employees. Like many other pathogenic microorganisms (such as the common cold and the flu) that can wreak havoc in a workspace, COVID is here to stay. 

The Challenges of Return to Work Choices

One key learning from the pandemic is that employee values have shifted. Employees now have different expectations of their employers regarding health and safety at work. When asked about the return to office, over 3 in 5 pre-COVID office workers said they would look for another job if their employer did not implement sufficient infection prevention protocols at the office. Furthermore, 91% of employees now believe their employer is responsible for making sure they are safe from all infectious illnesses at the office.

A further challenge in return to work decisions is the gap between employee and employer expectations. When surveyed by McKinsey, the majority of executives said they expect employees will be on site 21-80% of the time, or 1-4 days per week. However, according to the Harvard Business Review, employees want to work from home an average of 2.5 days a week. Clearly, there is a mismatch between how frequently employees would like to return to work and how frequently their employers would like to see them at their desks.

Despite changing employee values and disparities between employees’ and employers’ expectations, evidence indicates that in-person work has clear benefits. A team of researchers studied the impact of shifting to remote work by examining the calendars, communication, and other tool utilization for over 61,000 Microsoft employees during the first six months of 2020. They found that the shift to remote work caused more siloed and static collaboration networks, which can impede knowledge transfer and reduce output quality. 

Other research validates this observation about network limitations. A report from McKinsey found that 39 percent of employees struggled to maintain a strong connection with colleagues during remote work. These struggles stemmed from the weakening of informal social networks and increasing dependence on the people and groups with whom they most identified. 

While research shows that the return to work may be critical for optimal collaboration, the transition remains challenging. For those employees who have already returned to work, McKinsey found that 45% felt significant concern about their own safety due to COVID-19. In addition, 29% worried about the risk of contracting COVID-19 and transmitting it to unvaccinated or at-risk children and loved ones. When asked about safety interventions to offset these worries, 62% of respondents reported that improved air filtration could decrease the stress they experience from returning to the office. When you consider that about 3 percent of the air we breathe in indoor environments comes from other peoples’ lungs, that desire for improved air filtration seems reasonable.

Failure to deliver against changing employee expectations has already had a significant impact on the U.S. workforce. Employees have left jobs at such high rates that the phenomenon has earned the names the Great Attrition and the Great Resignation. An August 2021 PwC Pulse survey found that 65% of employees were looking for a new job, and 88% of executives reported higher turnover than normal. In light of these employee departures, it is clear that every company must now be a health and safety company committed to creating and maintaining a safe work environment – now and into the future.

Return to Work and the Benefits of Safer Indoor Environments

Employers who successfully reimagine and reengineer their workplaces to prioritize human health and productivity will gain significant competitive advantages. These benefits include peace of mind for employees; fewer sick days; improved productivity; and increased employee engagement and retention. Dr. Joseph Allen of Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health has explored the benefits of healthy buildings in numerous studies. He told CNBC, “I don’t think business people realize the power of buildings to not only keep people safe from disease but to lead to better performance.” Dr. Allen further explained, “Greater ventilation leads to significantly better cognitive function performance of employees. It’s good for worker health and productivity.”

In a recent study, Dr. Allen and his team identified a link between office air quality and employee cognition. They periodically administered cognition tests to participants in offices across six countries working in fields including engineering, real estate investment, architecture, and technology. They found that higher concentrations of particulate matter and CO2 in indoor air were associated with slower response times and fewer correct responses per minute for eight out of ten test metrics. 

Another study by other researchers examined the impact of ventilation on performance. When observing multiple groups of subjects, the researchers found that for each two-fold increase in ventilation rate, performance improved by 1.7%, on average. This study demonstrated that ventilation (bringing outside air inside) has significant benefits for worker health, comfort, and productivity. It also showed that minimum prescribed levels of ventilation might not be sufficient for enabling truly healthy buildings and indoor environments.

The ROI of Healthy Buildings

By combining information from various studies, Dr. Allen’s team has modeled the financial benefits of improving air quality for workplaces. Dr. Allen estimates that the benefits of higher ventilation alone can amount to $6,500-$7,500 per person per year. If companies were to invest in improving not just indoor air quality (IAQ) but also overall indoor environmental quality (IEQ), the total economic impact could be staggering. Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have suggested the combined potential annual economic benefit of increased IEQ could be approximately $20 billion.

Dr. Allen dives deeper into the financial implications for healthy buildings in his book, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. In the book he outlines the 9 foundations of a healthy building, which include ventilation, air quality, thermal health, moisture, dust and pests, safety and security, water quality, noise, and lighting and views. Dr. Allen estimates that taking all 9 foundational factors into consideration can improve a company’s bottom line by nearly 12 percent. In addition, ventilation improvements alone can lead to a 3 percent productivity boost from improved health and a 1 percent payroll effect.

In addition to the measurable positive effects on employees, investing in healthy buildings can also increase the value of the buildings themselves. Researchers at MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab have found that “health-certified spaces, both registered and certified, transact between 4.4 and 7% more per square foot than their nearest non-certified neighboring peers.” They further explained, “This premium for healthy spaces is independent of all other factors, such as LEED certification, building age, renovation, lease duration, and submarket. These results indicate that healthy buildings are seen as an asset that correlates with employee or tenant well-being and productivity.” The inherent value of healthy buildings and the better outcomes they enable for employees demonstrate that employers who invest in building health will see significant ROI. 

Layered Strategies Are the Key for Return to Work

Upholding return to work mandates can seem like a Sisyphean effort at this point in the pandemic. For proof, we need look no further than the recent emergence of the Omicron variant. A Harris Poll published on December 8th indicates significant concern about the variant among the American public. 70% of Americans surveyed are more worried about Omicron than Delta. 72% of the respondents who are aware of Omicron expressed concern that this variant could be more more contagious, severe, and vaccine-resistant. 

Given this uncertainty around emerging variants and what the future may hold, any return to work plans should assume the persistence of COVID and other pathogenic microorganisms.  Consequently, plans should leverage a layered strategy that addresses a hierarchy of controls. Personal controls include the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks. Administrative controls include policies around ongoing physical distancing, vaccination, and testing. However, personal and administrative controls alone are insufficient because they are subject to human error and can be difficult to enforce. 

When combined with environmental controls, personal and administrative measures can achieve a truly holistic, layered approach to risk mitigation. Environmental controls don’t require human compliance and can boost your workspace’s defense against disease through healthy building principles. In the spirit of eliminating possible human error, healthy building solutions that leverage autonomous technology rather than rely on manual human labor are the logical next step. These solutions can include autonomous, continuous disinfection technology that leverages occupancy sensors and UV-C light to disinfect air and surfaces while reducing risk. These types of healthy building technologies align with increasing prioritization of cleaner air and healthier shared spaces. 

Healthy Buildings, Healthy Employees, Healthy Futures

For workplaces and companies around the globe, the COVID-19 crisis accelerated adoption of tech enablement that seemed too ambitious before the pandemic. Today, those tools are now vital lifelines to sustained competitive advantage. So how can businesses apply this same accelerated adoption to the principles of safe and healthy workspaces? How can employers use that adoption to reassure employees that they are prioritizing their well-being ahead of the inevitable return to work?

As employers and workspace managers navigate the complexities of return to work, a long-term strategy focused on creating healthy indoor environments will be crucial. Employers who create healthy indoor environments will provide employees with the peace of mind and confidence they need to return to their office spaces – whenever and however that may occur. Measurable steps to create safer indoor environments through effective air and surface disinfection must be part of a layered workplace safety strategy. This combination of efforts will not only significantly help stop the spread of COVID-19 but also boost worker productivity. Investing in environmental controls that disinfect air and surfaces through tech-enabled solutions is the pivotal piece of effective risk reduction management for shared spaces in 2022. 

R-Zero’s continuous, autonomous disinfection ecosystem enables safer indoor environments by uniting UV disinfection and occupancy sensor technology. With R-Zero’s holistic and customizable solutions, companies can transform the workplaces where employees collaborate into clinically clean shared spaces. When employers provide a safe, healthy space in which people can work, employees can enjoy peace of mind, reduced sick days, and increased productivity. As Dr. Joseph Allen has noted, “Any building can be a healthy building” if employers are willing to make the investments now to enable ROI in the future. Your employees are your most valuable asset: aren’t they worth that investment?

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