Winds of change are blowing through the office

Whilst driving through Zürich in a hailstorm I passed a Mercedes with a plastic bin liner taped over a missing window. Two thoughts struck me. First: this must be the result of the owner locking himself out of the car, as car crime is a fictional event in Switzerland (bike theft is preferred). The second was how utterly pointless this flapping piece of plastic served as an attempt to seal the broken window.

A few months into Covid19, many furniture manufacturers had a similarly wishy-washy idea: Perspex screens. The race was on for mass-production and DFDS style special offers for see-through Perspex screen dividers with desk clamps.

“That’ll do it boss, they’ll all have to come back in now.”

But this does little apart from visually disturb workers, who lean around said screens to make muffled masked instructions understood. Maybe Perspex screens have a place. Supermarket checkouts, train ticket kiosks, areas where eager customers bark orders at bewildered staff. So it’s even dafter when you shuffle around the opposite side to enter your pin number.

The modern workplace is a complex myriad of air ventilation, open spaces, closed meeting rooms, working and social spaces. No sooner had Perspex screens and social distancing floor stickers arrived, was it evident we need to take a step back to gain perspexive (sorry). We learned that Covid19 spreads through miniscule water droplets carried in the air, often redistributed via air-conditioning systems. We learned that the disease finds it trickier to transmit in outdoor or well-ventilated spaces. As summer becomes autumn, it’s crucial we deploy as many weapons as possible in the fight against covid at work.

Workplaces are responding to forward planning difficulties by installing demountable partition systems to break up spaces, providing smaller rooms which can be reconfigured to respond to changing requirements. Desk numbers are reducing, replaced by additional meeting and ideation spaces populated by flexible furniture on casters. Hybrid working means most employees do their focus work at home, so commutes are generally for teamwork, meetings and social.

But employers are still not focusing enough on air quality. Many scientists are calling for regulation to introduce minimum air quality standards for the workplace. Drops in air quality, namely in un-airconditioned glass meeting rooms, were already called out pre-pandemic as the cause for dull and lifeless meetings. As oxygen levels drop, so too does productivity and creativity. Now it goes higher up the agenda.

“We expect to have clean, safe food when we buy it in the supermarket. In the same way, we should expect clean air in our buildings and any shared spaces,” as Lidia Morawska, aerosol physicist at Queensland University of Technology in Australia put it recently in the New York Times.

We now have a clearer understanding of the issues, we have experts, we have affordable tech, air-measuring sensors and apps. Above all we have the clear motivation to get this right. You can buy as many hand gel dispensers as you like, but without seeking expert help to ensure your office has adequate air quality, as we head into autumn you are sticking a bin liner on a missing car window during a hailstorm.

This comment first appeared in issue 8 of IN Magazine. Back issues and free subscription can be found here

Main image: Sedus