Reinhabiting Our Spaces. Safely.

While rationally, we know that the coronavirus is the “bad actor” here – not our office, gym, or favorite restaurant – but how do we actually parse it out in practice?

How do we safely reclaim the workplaces that connect, enable, and nourish us?

What should we ask for in order to feel assured of our safety?

And what can we do about facets we cannot control?

To start, we must accept that coming together may never be what it was before this pandemic – and this news may offer as much comfort as a cool drink on the roof of a burning building. The good news: over the last two decades, a robust community of both science and practice has understood the outsized impact that the built environment has on our health and wellbeing, driven in part by most of us spending 90%+ of our lives indoors. Furthermore, these experts have commenced using this knowledge to influence both policy and industry practice. So, off that burning roof, you’ll be landing not only onto a safety net but into a new reality in which buildings can and must act as powerful vehicles for public health.

How can we come back safely?

Buildings are inherently about people because people need shelter – and have figured how to make a delightful feat of it. So, just like our buildings don’t consume water or emit carbon – it is people whose activities do so – buildings don’t inherently pose a COVID-19 danger. The coronavirus seeks hosts and that is people, not buildings. So, buildings are merely “petri dishes” for the virus carried by people – and can be deployed in a counterattack.

What does this mean? That your workplace is safe if it has done everything reasonable to prevent human-to-human transmission.

What should you be asking of your workplace?

(1) COVID-19 Risk Management Plan

Ask to see how your workplace plans on mitigating the risks it faces based on the science of the coronavirus. This is likely to cover:

  • Cleaning: Coronavirus lives longer on some surfaces than others, so check that your workplace’ disinfection protocol accounts not only for both viral and bacterial contagion but also for how to best eliminate both from each surface type.
  • HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) system: Since the coronavirus is contracted through inhalation, you don’t want to breathe the air already breathed by another person who may be infected even if asymptomatic. As such, your workplace may commit to 100% outside air, open its windows, change how it replaces air filters, maintain optimum humidity, etc.
  • Behavior: “Social distancing” has taught us a lot about the role of behavior in curbing disease transmission. Protocols should limit occupant density, contact behavior (no handshakes), and measures to limit transmission (no-touch elevator buttons, disinfecting supplies).
  • Training: ask that any new ways of doing things be universally enabled.
  • Ideally, this plan will be verified by a qualified third party.
Cleaning Surfaces
Cleaning Protocols
Air Filtration
Air Filtration
Social Distancing
"Social Distancing"

(2) Certificate of Cleaning Method:

An independent verification that your space is cleaned and maintained in accordance with best-practice infection control protocols/standards.

(3) Validation of safe (re)occupancy:

An independent confirmation, via surface swabbing and a review of operational protocols, that your space meets safety and infection control regulations & guidelines for occupation.

(4) Ongoing monitoring:

Regular and transparent testing and reporting (including any curative measures) of what measures are taken to keep your space safe.

(5) Remote work:

Secure the freedom and ability (technology and ergonomics) to work remotely, esp. if your workplace isn’t able to demonstrate the evidence recommended above.

Certificate of Cleaning Method
Building Sensors & Monitoring
Working Remotely

What can you control directly?

While you can – and should – demand spaces that make you feel and be better, you don’t have full control and that can cause anxiety before you even turn the news on. It is widely understood that stress and anxiety are counterproductive to our immune system. So, what can you do to help yourself thrive in these unprecedented circumstances?

(1) Knowledge:

Secure the freedom and ability (technology and ergonomics) to work remotely, esp. if your workplace isn’t able to demonstrate the evidence recommended above.

(2) Exert constructive pressure…

Knowledge truly is power, especially over your anxiety. Know how the coronavirus is transmitted (through inhaling or ingesting it, e.g. as an airborne viral droplet or through contact with infected surfaces). Also know the difference between cleaning (physical removal of particles like dust, which can coat the virus, making it resistant to disinfection), sanitization (indiscriminately kills living organisms), and disinfection (de-activates pathogens).

(3) Control your workspace.

Make sure that your workstation is cleaned and disinfected – do it yourself if need be (hopefully disinfectants are provided to you) and if that’s not possible, advocate for yourself to continue to work remotely.

(4) Eat/drink well.

For most Americans, food (and drink) are firmly linked to our stress responses. But while (habit, nostalgia) you are probably craving sugars, other carbs, and alcohol, they mess with your gut bacteria and that’s where your immune powers live. So, if you can’t retrain your palette, look for non-ingestible ways to show kindness and compassion to yourself.

(5) Bask in the sunlight.

If the sun’s out, take a few moments to ground yourself in that spot, look up, and take a few deep breaths. It will help you absorb calcium and calibrate your circadian rhythm for better sleep, which underpins your immune system.

(6) Exercise.

Enough said. If you’re still not doing it, ask yourself why and chip away at the obstacles.

(7) Meditate.

Biologically, uncertainty is only exciting if we ultimately control the outcome. Otherwise, it is outright stressful – which is why many of us are losing quality sleep. So, any effort that reminds you that your mind is only one part of who you are, subservient to how you want to live through this, may be helpful.

If this is so complex, why even bother?

I see at least four reasons:

(1) Homes often make inferior workpaces.

Whether it is ergonomics, daylight access, or air quality – not to mention distractions – our workplaces have evolved much further than our homes in enabling both our wellbeing and productivity. Sitting in front of your screen for hours is proven to contribute to chronic disease.

(2) We are social creatures.

We’ve evolved to receive only about 10% of our input verbally. This means that stripped of body language and chemical signals we are wired to process unconsciously, we’re hugely limiting our ability for both bonding and good judgment.

(3) Workplaces can even out the playing field.

While inadvertent socio-demographic discrimination of lock-down orders may be obvious (it is easier to manage at a country holiday house), they may also be punishing parents: if their productivity drops while they juggle home-schooling, their careers may get trampled by childless colleagues working at 200% pace to wade of boredom.

(4) New good habits.

We are so used to reading food labels and looking both ways when crossing the road that it no longer takes away from the joy of eating or strolling through the city. Occupying our spaces more consciously is a habit worth forming because it will allow us to demand spaces that make us feel and be better – and that’s a daily investment into our future.

Summary

Your workplace can be a powerful buffer protecting you and your family from danger. Get informed and ready to take your health into your own hands, delegating that power only when you see compelling assurances. Because well-being is your human right, regardless of how you choose to earn your living.

Elena Bondareva

Elena is Vice President - Growth for CETEC, an international building science firm with an unparalleled track record – across 32 years and 25 countries – in assessing and optimizing occupant wellbeing and productivity within the built environment, currently focused on assuring safe (re)occupancy of our spaces. For more info on CETEC's services, click below.