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The New Workplace Normal Shines a Spotlight on Employee Health

Aug 5 2020

Just last week, Gartner made headlines by predicting that despite the growing benefits of working remotely, 66% of employees will prioritize working within a wellness-equipped smart office over their home office by 2022. There’s little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the spotlight on the need for better building health and employee wellness. However, many of the underlying benefits of healthy buildings for businesses and their employees are often overlooked.

Perhaps no other individual is better suited to talk about the impact of a building's environmental conditions on employees than John Macomber. The Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School recently co-authored the aptly named Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity. As global attention has focused on how to get employees safely back to the office since the onset of COVID-19, the book’s findings have been profiled in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

The team at VergeSense recently had the opportunity to chat with John about how the new normal has already made CRE and workplace executives reevaluate their commitment to building health, the types of health indicators we should be tracking, next-generation sensors that can lead monitoring efforts, as well as, the often overlooked impact that less than ideal environmental conditions in the office can have on employee productivity and a business’s bottom line. The following is our Q&A with him. 

VS: In Healthy Buildings, you discuss tracking “health performance indicators” with smart technology to boost a company’s performance. Can you walk through a few of those indicators with us?

JM: The point of using Health Performance Indicators (HPIs) is that they are objectively measurable. Facilities people can manage to them, and be evaluated by them. Like using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or the Objectives – Key Indicators – Results (OKR) framework that many technology and venture firms deploy, they help to drive action since “what gets measured, gets done.”

There are HPIs for the buildings, and HPIs for the people. The HPIs for the building are generally easier to measure – for example, what’s the temperature in the lobby – but we call them indirect since the real goal is healthy people (not just healthy buildings). Some of those people-oriented direct indicators are harder to measure.  

Some indicators are leading: we know what they are ahead of the health results, and some are lagging indicators; we learn about their readings after the fact. In the case of COVID-19, which has long cycles of infection and then illness, the lagging indicators can be trailing by weeks.

In a recent Forbes article, my co-author Joseph Allen and I outlined the five categories of tools by which HPIs can be measured: settings, sensors, screening, surveys, and statistics. An example of a leading indirect indicator to measure with settings is the ventilation rate. What is the building set for in terms of fresh air changes per hour? 

An example of a leading indicator to measure with sensors is CO2. How much carbon dioxide is in the air? The outside atmosphere has about 410 parts per million of CO2, and our CogFx studies showed declines in cognitive skills with as little as 1000 ppm – an ordinary level in US office buildings. Screening (for body temperature, or antibodies) is a way to decide who can come into the building. 

There are also emotional indicators. A leading direct indicator of how the people are faring emotionally can be derived from surveys. Was there proper social distancing in the elevator this morning? Are your co-workers observing the protocols in a way that keeps you from being nervous?

Statistics reveal the visible lagging indicator around health building performance: days missed. Pre-COVID, a few sick days might mean a cold or a stomach bug. Now it can mean weeks out of work – or time in the ICU. All of the above HPIs are objectively measurable, can be tracked over time, and can be published by landlords, tenant companies, or facility managers who want to measure their performance against objectives.

VS: How do you see the use of environmental sensors and other smart IOT devices evolving since the onset of the pandemic?

JM: It's certainly an exciting area of technological advancement. A few years ago, it took specialized machines and operators to measure indoor air samples and report back. As a result, only a few measurements were taken, and the reporting was not always fully shared. Today, there are at least a dozen different personal air quality sensors available online at Amazon or Best Buy or B&H, and all of them report CO2, particulates, humidity, and VOC (volatile organic compounds like cleaning solvents) in real-time. Further, many of them are IOT or web-enabled: meaning that individuals can elect to share their real-time results in the cloud. This means that third-party aggregators can start publishing building air quality ratings much as users collectively rate travel providers or local services or restaurants on Trips.com or Yelp! or Open Table. The democratization of information will lead to much more user choice, notably among apartment tenants, students, office workers, and factory workers.

VS:  In addition to wellness, air quality has been shown to have a significant role in workplace productivity, right? 

JM: Correct. The TH Chan Harvard School of Public Health CogFx Study was a double-blind, peer-reviewed set of experiments where volunteers worked in settings where researchers adjusted the CO2, particulates, and VOCs. The volunteers took a series of tests at regular intervals that measured aspects like task orientation, information usage, and strategy. The results were striking: overwhelmingly, the volunteers performed measurably better in the “healthier” air than in the less healthy. But remember, even the least healthy condition they encountered in the experiment was better than many poorly ventilated, poorly filtered residential, commercial, and hospitality settings.

VS: Having a ‘healthy building’ could set employers apart from other companies from a recruiting and retaining talent standpoint in the future. Are there other bottom-line business benefits of improving wellness in buildings that are overlooked?

JM: Yes. The most obvious is in health care costs. Some of our work is with self-insured facility owner-occupiers – for example, student housing or military housing. The same pocket that pays for capital expenditures and operating costs for facilities also pays the healthcare costs for sick students or soldiers. As COVID-19 exposes those populations to devastating, costly illnesses, it makes good economic sense to invest upfront in the aspects of healthy buildings that help to deter the spread of COVID. The return on investment is measured by the avoided future cost of the people being less ill than they would be in the absence of the intervention. All of these inputs and outputs can be measured and tracked using HPIs.

VS: We’re chatting in the middle of the summer heat now as COVID-19 worsens in the south. Many scientists have pointed to this being potentially caused by reliance on air-conditioned, but poorly ventilated indoor environments. What role does seasonality play in determining the best temperature, humidity, and ventilation rates for the workplace?

JM: Seasonality does not impact the conditions under which people can perform their best; those HPIs don’t change. But it does impact the cost and effort to achieve the conditions. In the summer, fresh outdoor air brought into the building can be very humid. Often the air has to be chilled into the 50-degree range to reach the dew point where much of the moisture condenses out. Then the air needs to be reheated before it’s blown onto the heads and shoulders of office workers, students, and shoppers; so additional energy is used. COVID-19 appears to be less infectious in humid environments than in dry climates, so the balance here is essential.

One way in which building managers economize on this cooling and reheating cost is to bring in less fresh air. All of us have stayed in hotel rooms or apartments where the windows are not operable or are never opened; we can make the recycled room air plenty cold, but the only new air comes in under the door from the corridor -- in the same volume as we exhaust from the kitchen and bathroom fans. This kind of “dead air” design is not going to be acceptable to travelers, renters, and even employees post COVID, whether you’re in Houston or New Delhi.

VS: Where do you see building sustainability and office wellness efforts intertwining?

JM: These are not the same objectives, although they share many of the same sensibilities. In the short run, more outside air, more humidification and dehumidification, and more fans and filters mean more energy usage. And in fact, a major premise of our book is that companies are chasing pennies in miserly use of electricity and cheap selection of filters and missing thousands of dollars in human performance. The ROI for a healthy building investment in the time of COVID is very high, and ROI for most energy efficiency is noticeable, but not overwhelming. However, in the long run, bad outdoor air quality – pollution from cars and power plants – leads us to poorer health. It’s possible with thoughtful investment to have a health building that is not an energy waster. In that sense, there would be integration and alignment.

VS: John, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

JM: Thank you. 

With the link between employee wellness and healthy buildings growing stronger and the demand for greater visibility into indoor environmental conditions increasing, VergeSense is developing new ways to unlock environmental sensing capabilities in our existing workplace sensors. The ability to maximize workplace engagement and employee wellness within a single solution is on its way. Along with the peak performance environments that this dual solution will enable. Stay tuned!