Part of the solution will always be managing human behaviour – this is the case even in highly technical healthcare settings, points out Jonathan Ramajoo, head of healthcare at WSP in Australia. “Every time a nurse enters a patient room, before they do anything, they sanitize their hands and they wash them again before they leave. Good hand hygiene is the fundamental thing,” he says.
Until a vaccine or effective treatment is found, physical distancing measures will need to remain in place. Reducing the number of people in the office at any one time, introducing one-way circulation systems, and limiting occupancy of confined spaces such as conference or meeting rooms could all help to limit contact. There are also technologies such as thermal scanning that could be implemented to identify those who may be suffering from infection – we’ll consider the effectiveness (as well as the ethics) of these later in the series.
Existing offices may not easily accommodate this: ideally, there would be separate entry and exit routes, but many buildings do not have two entrances and this would be an expensive modification. Taking the stairs could become a more attractive option than the lift, but this is problematic for wheelchair users or people with limited mobility and, beyond three or four storeys, all but the super-fit. We’ll look at the challenges of vertical transportation in detail in a separate article.
Wikner suggests that layouts could be more decentralized so that common facilities like tea and coffee points serve fewer people. “Where you might have one per floor serving 100 people, you might want to put in distributed centres that serve only 10 or 20 or 30 people but you have four or five per floor,” he says.
The more touch-points we can remove as people move through buildings, the lower the risk. Automatic doors and contactless security could help to do this, as could motion-sensing taps, soap dispensers, hand dryers and toilet flushes in bathrooms, and even voice-activated coffee machines. “None of this is new technology and it’s not particularly difficult to install, but everything comes down to money,” says Wikner. “A touch-free tap is more expensive than a normal one. To provide a motor and a sensor on a door costs money and uses energy.”
Where touch is unavoidable, antimicrobial coatings or materials such as copper and alloys including brass and bronze can deactivate microorganisms that land on them. “These solutions can be easily imported from the healthcare environment,” says Tomer Zarhi, mechanical manager in the healthcare team at WSP in Canada. “Antimicrobial surfaces could be implemented, but especially important are cleanable, durable surfaces.”
There are trade-offs: should kitchen cupboards be replaced with open shelving to remove that touchpoint? Or would that leave crockery prone to droplets in the air? Should we close kitchens while the risks of transmission are high? Or would the risks increase further as people come in and out of the building more frequently to buy coffee?
And what about your commute? In major cities, many office workers travel on crowded public transport systems. “That’s the weak point,” says Justin Turnpenny, who leads WSP’s fit-out team in London. “My commute is a half-hour train journey and the majority of the time it’s standing room only. You can create a safe working environment for your nine-to-five, but getting there and getting home is much more difficult.” (Read more about public transit responses to COVID-19 in WSP’s white paper from Australia.)
One solution could be to introduce flexible working hours so that people can avoid peak times – though this will have a knock-on effect on team collaboration, which might defeat the purpose of coming into the office in the first place.