Public Health

The office building design idea is key to worker health in the Covid era

An employee works on a laptop in the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, which opened in 2018. It is among those companies that have focused on office air quality as part of building design standards.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, employees, managers and executives have been intensively concerned with what makes a workplace healthy. The pandemic brought an influx of disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer dispensers, and social distancing signs into offices.

Harvard Professor Joseph Allen says there is a security measure that offices cannot overlook. Healthy workplaces depend primarily on the air employees breathe, and research going back years before the pandemic shows that improvements in air circulation and air quality lead to increased cognitive function and work productivity.

A study conducted by Allen’s Healthy Buildings program at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health found that there is no threshold for how increased ventilation can positively affect workers’ cognitive function.

“We had over 350 employees worldwide and accompanied them for a whole year. We had air quality sensors on their desks, ”said Allen, associate professor and director of the program.

In the study, employees were pinged regularly through an app to perform these cognitive function tests at their desks to examine the impact of air quality on the performance of office workers around the world in real time.

What Allen and the other researchers in the COGfx study found should change the way companies around the world think about productivity investments.

Salesforce, Boston Properties, and Armstrong World Industries are among the companies in the United States who worked with Allen on either the COGfx study or Allen’s healthy building consultancy team at 9 Foundations to improve the air quality in their buildings, we know that science tells us that they are important to human health, wellbeing and productivity, “says Allen.

“The big challenge of our time is how we ventilate,” said Vin Gupta, Amazon’s chief medical officer, at the recent CNBC @Work Summit, referring to the results of the Harvard researchers.

Salesforce focuses on air in employee training

For many companies, the ability to attract and retain talent depends on the safety precautions and the level of comfort in a particular work environment.

The Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, which opened in 2018, has received high environmental ratings, but the company believes it’s important to ensure employees understand that the design and approach goes beyond energy and directly health.

Salesforce participated in the COGfx study, which installed air quality sensors on desks and monitored cognitive functioning of employees.

Regular indoor air quality testing is part of LEED certification, or Leadership in Energy and Environment Design, awarded by the US Green Buildings Council for environmentally friendly buildings.

“We think it’s very important to communicate with our employees because a lot of these things are not seen. They do not know. You will see a LEED badge on the wall. They don’t know what is LEED certification, ”said Amanda von Almen, Head of Sustainable Built Environment at Salesforce.

“It’s really about creating a holistic environment in which employees feel safe,” added Sean Luster, Vice President of Real Estate and Workplace Services at Salesforce. “For many employees this is a change in behavior.”

Betting on the “escape to high quality” ventilation for workers

Boston Properties, a real estate investment trust that owns office buildings across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, has worked with everyone to improve indoor air quality in its workspaces.

“Personally, I keep a monitor in my office,” said Ben Myers, vice president of sustainability for Boston Properties. “We have indoor air quality monitors where we look at CO2 levels, and that was the result of the work of Dr. Joe Allen. He made us aware of the effects of higher levels of CO2 on cognitive performance.”

Boston Properties is betting that in the new work reality triggered by Covid that more commercial tenants are becoming more picky about the properties they pay for, a premium will be placed on factors such as health.

“What we’re seeing is an escape to quality,” Myers said. “Higher quality office space has outperformed lower quality office space in terms of tenant rents and retention. … These higher quality buildings are expected to have high quality indoor air.”

While measuring productivity can be difficult, Myers says companies can measure air quality in real time and run regular tests for contamination in the work area.

“Boston Properties has a minimum twice-yearly inspection requirement for its buildings to ensure air quality parameters match CO2 levels, and to regularly test for air pollutants such as mold to ensure buildings are in a healthy condition.” You can do, “said Myers.

Work is a living laboratory for our health

“We all want to feel safer and more confident in the spaces we frequently visit, and those responsible for renovating and constructing buildings know that,” said Vic Grizzle, President and CEO of Armstrong World Industries, a company that designs and manufactures ceiling, wall and suspension system solutions for commercial and residential use. “And the story doesn’t end there. Once building improvements have been made, it is important to measure the performance of the room, such as looking at carbon dioxide levels, humidity and temperature, as we have learned that these factors can affect productivity. Said Grizz.

Armstrong World Industries has created a space called the Living Lab on its corporate campus where teams can explore, test, and experience various solutions to improve air control and contribute to cleaner air.

“Logically and intuitively, it follows that people simply feel more comfortable in rooms like the Living Lab with exceptional air quality as well as optimal acoustics, lighting, cleanliness, great views, biophilic design elements and comfortable furnishings,” says Grizzle. “In general, when we feel good, think, process, and function best, we feel more optimistic and enthusiastic.

At the recent CNBC Workforce Executive Council summit, Allen told HR managers, “Healthy buildings must be the first line of defense. … The problem is that we have under-ventilated our buildings, apartments, offices and schools for decades. … We designed it incorrectly for 40 years, closed it, cut off the air supply. “

“We should expect clean air in our offices, just as we expect clean water to come from the tap. So this is the first. Realize that a paradigm shift is underway. This won’t go away, “said Allen.

—By Mikaela Cohen, specially for

Did you miss this year’s CNBC At Work Summit? If necessary, access the full sessions at

Related Articles