The pandemic has altered many things about modern living.  Concepts like coworking which once seemed like an ideal way to share resources and space have now become easy ways for the coronavirus to spread. The risk has forced many workers to continue to work from home, even after their states have lifted COVID restrictions.  The situation has become so severe that the office business in cities like Los Angeles have seen their worst quarter since the Great Depression, with transactions 60 to 70% below normal, leaving many to wonder if the age of shared office space is ending.

What are the dangers of shared office spaces?

In the beginning, when coronavirus was thought to be spread primarily by touch, frequent handwashing and keeping surfaces clean seemed to be sufficient to limit the spread.  Now that we know that the virus is usually passed through large droplets and aerosols, the air inside of offices is of much greater concern.

The truth is, even before Covid, indoor air wasn’t necessarily safe. The EPA lists the following sources as the major contaminants inside office buildings:

  • furnishings
  • occupant activities
  • housekeeping practices
  • pesticide applications
  • microbial contamination

Unfortunately, existing HVAC systems are often laid out to recirculate indoor air, enabling exchanges of air between different parts of the building.  This type of system allows pollutants such as airborne viruses to be circulated around the building instead of being eliminated.

This means that even if the doors remain shut, contaminated air from different parts of the building could still potentially enter offices.

Is it possible to safely share office space?

Yes, with the right precautions. The pandemic has forced building owners and architects to take innovative approaches towards office buildings. These new concepts offer a number of advantages that may set the framework for how people share workspaces in a post-COVID world.

What are some new ways that buildings are being designed to keep workers safer?

Incorporating the outdoors

Office buildings in areas with moderate year-round climates are being designed to include the peacefulness and cleaner air of nature. Second Home, a London-based coworking company, converted a community center and parking lot in Los Angeles into 60 separate workspaces surrounded by lush gardens. Workers are able to look out of their glass walls and see one another, but they don’t have to share hallways or elevators. Each studio has windows that open, allowing them access to the clean air and soothing sounds of the garden.

Prioritizing physical distancing

Scientists have continued to emphasize the importance of maintaining at least 6 feet distance from other people, especially indoors.  Architectural firms, like Margulies Perruzzi in Boston are designing blueprints that businesses can follow to figure how to create space for social distance in the office. In addition to advising a limit of 25% staff capacity, the blueprints also recommend arranging desks and cubicles at a safe distance and designating pathways to keep people moving in just one direction.

Utilizing open floor plans

Although open floor plans have been shown to be less productive than cubicles or offices, they do offer some advantages in minimizing transmission rates. Open floor plans are easier to clean and limit the amount of surface areas that employees touch. While it may seem that separate offices would provide more protection, since most buildings use the same HVAC system, office doors do little to stop the spread of germs. Open floor plans allow room for social distancing without requiring workers to touch door handles and cubicle openings, which often carry germs.

Choosing the best building materials.

Non-porous materials like steel, quartz, and Corian are easier to sanitize. Some materials, like copper and silver have natural properties to destroy microorganisms. Using these materials for frequently touched areas such as faucets, door push plates, toilets, and wall tiles can help lower transmission in offices.

Using helpful technology

Incorporating touchless technology into the building’s layout can help to minimize the virus’s spread. The following can all be useful:

  • Motion sensors to turn on lights and faucets
  • Automatic doors
  • Elevators and AV systems that can be controlled from a smartphone

Improving indoor air quality

In the 1990’s the term “Sick Building Syndrome” was coined to refer to buildings with poor heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in which workers frequently experienced health issues such as irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, nausea, and headaches.  It’s those same HVAC systems that are responsible for recycling germs and other pollutants in office buildings, putting workers at greater risk for contracting COVID-19.

Donald Milton, a professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland who studies how viruses are transmitted, led a group of 239 scientists to research the potential airborne transmission of COVID. Milton and his colleagues wrote an open letter which included several tactics public buildings and businesses could use to minimize the risk of infection:

  • Provide sufficient and effective ventilation (supply clean outdoor air, minimize recirculating air) particularly in public buildings, workplace environments, schools, hospitals and age care homes.
  • Supplement general ventilation with airborne infection controls such as local exhaust, high efficiency air filtration, and germicidal ultraviolet lights. (These would be placed high up in the ceiling to avoid damage to people’s eyes and skin)
  • Avoid overcrowding, particularly in public transport and public buildings.

Milton also suggested simple things such as keeping windows and doors open in buildings to improve ventilation.

In order to test if indoor air is being properly refreshed, Milton recommended using carbon dioxide monitors. If the indoor air has no more than 1,000 parts per million carbon dioxide content, air circulation is generally adequate.

The CDC also recommends using air purifiers with True HEPA filters to eliminate viruses in homes and office buildings.