Social distancing is not enough to open our offices. We must address two other issues first.

Published on: April 7, 2020

Updated 7/14/2020 to reflect new studies.

Our inboxes and other channels are still flooded with random office social distancing advice and posts about how to sit six feet away from colleagues. Sitting six feet away is easy to digest, but the research coming out of our own CDC, South Korea, Spain, and other countries, are demonstrating that we will need to do a heck of a lot more thinking about how to adjust our workplaces.

Epidemics and pandemics aren’t going anywhere, and those just looking for solutions from the government, scientists, and healthcare providers are setting their businesses up for failure. We must undertake systematic approach to hardening our work environments, just as we do with our tech stack.

I may be one of those COO/CFO hybrids, who may prefer to spend time in financial models, budgets, strategy sessions, etc., but I hang with my facilities team and feel that office infrastructure must be understood even at the Board level.

Couple housekeeping things before I start:

The health of your team is the resilience of your company. No amount of documentation can replace the institutional knowledge of your people. No TL;DR
I wrote this on my phone, while my two girls were looking for my full attention. If Google did not catch something, sorry, not going for a Pulitzer.
The context of the post is my advice on how to take a systematic approach. While this is a multi-front war, I am not going to discuss anything related to IT, security, processes, or another 90%+ that needs to be done to make the company resilient. We start with short term fixes and then get to long term changes with continuous improvements.
The enemies that hurt our countries, economies and people are smaller than 3 microns. And now we know that COVID-19 is viable in aerosol state for up to 16 hours (see the latest CDC study ). Given this update, you should start working on “Highway 2” before even considering “Highway 1”.

To help you internalize the paragraphs below, I would like you to think about the virus, bacteria, and other pathogens as glitter. I don’t recall, if it was my wife, who is a hardcore biotech scientist, or one of my friends in the field, who told me this analogy, but it was extremely helpful to my business brain. You breathe – you exhale “glitter”. You touch, you leave “glitter” on anything you come in contact with. Glitter gets on everything, and as a parent of crafty kids, I know how impossible it is to get rid of. When we think about the problem of pathogens, we must think both about egress AND ingress of them. We are in a race to kill them faster than their natural decay time.

The two superhighways of pathogens in the office environment are the surfaces we touch and the air we breathe (circulated and conditioned for us by large HVAC systems). Surfaces and air put a major kink in the effectiveness of social distancing or any other separation in our professional fishbowls. Unless we start working outdoors, this is what we have to contend with.

Highway 1 – frequent contact surfaces

This is both an egress and ingress issue. It is also where glitter analogy is easiest to understand. Not everyone is going to wash their hands or hit them properly with a sanitizer, as they do in hospitals. So we need to reduce the contact surface areas.

Here is my punch list:

Any doors of entry to the office, that secure the premises, need to have large rolls of tissue paper for people to use to touch them.
No mask, no entry.
Sanitizer or sink right by the entry. Before anyone sets foot into the rest of the office, hands need to be clean.
No eating or drinking in the office. If you need to take a drink, you have to remove your mask. That does not work. When we are on the tail end of these large outbreaks, this rule could be loosened, but not when we are trying to avoid the 2nd and 3rd waves.
Coffee machines, refrigerators, those silly foosball tables, or other shared amenities need to be blocked off (and yes, you can live without a coffee machine).
Bathroom doors should have paper towels right next to them on both sides or foot-operated door openers installed (they are super cheap – $30 per side). Frankly, since only 31% of men and 65% of women wash their hands after using the restroom (CDC numbers), I would want those openers on every door.
Communal spaces, like kitchens, conference rooms, sitting areas, etc. should be shut down until things return to normal. Not only now, while we deal with COVID-19, but also when we have flu or other outbreaks.
Check and verify your cleaning service is doing a good job. The way I have caught slacking cleaning crews was through the use of the ground pepper for gray surfaces, cinnamon for brown, powdered sugar for white or very light surfaces. Any surfaces I suspected were not being cleaned right, I would sprinkle mentioned substances and then run a typical yellow microfiber towel over a surface to tell if it was cleaned.

Highway 2 – HVAC systems.

HVAC ducts are the Autobahn. Regardless if you are sitting in an open office or your own fishbowl, you have ducts pushing air around. A big branch duct in your house may push 200 cubic feet per minute (CFM), but that duct above your head in the office is likely pushing 2000 CFM or more. An 10,000 CFM return is not that uncommon. If you have a 1500 sq ft house, that is about the entire air of your the house sucked into one duct in a matter of one minute. Now imagine that you have an asymptomatic carrier sitting next to that return. All that “glitter” is going right in and getting redistributed. Yes, it takes different pathogen loads for different illnesses (total amount of pathogens that ingress your body) to make you sick. The point is, as part of the system, we need to mitigate the ingress of said pathogens from the system.

A 3-micron particle can stay suspended in still air up to 1.5 hours, 1-micron – 12 hours. In either case, that is enough time for those particles/pathogens to get into your air handlers.

What about filters?

In commercial HVAC, filters are there to protect equipment, not filter the air for you. Unless you work in a hospital or have lucked out to work in an office certified under LEED Platinum, your HVAC is extremely unlikely to be designed to improve air quality. There likely isn’t even a proper blueprint for your HVAC system, because your office may have gone through several tenants and build outs without a budget for HVAC analysis and updates.

You see, you can’t just replace your typical MERV3 with MERV16 (or as I call it, an N95 mask for your HVAC because N95 matches MERV16 particle size spec) filters. When the pressure drops and air goes through it, is so great that your current air handler/motor setup is too weak for it. Your fans will run at max, but you will get very little airflow.

How about UVC, don’t they work in homes well?

First and foremost, when UV bulbs are installed in both residential and commercial units, they are there to kill off the bad stuff in the equipment, as in cooling and heating coils or filters. UV kills off what is on surfaces inside of air handlers, not what is in passing air. Why not in moving air? Different pathogens require different exposure time to UV (UVC is most effective, UVA is the least). In a typical commercial system, air in the main trunk flows at about 16 feet per second. Looking at the research I have access to, you need about 6-minute exposure to UVC to kill COVID-19. This would require just under a 6000-foot tunnel of UVC exposure. A 10k sq ft floor does not have that much duct in the whole system. It is, however, an option I would always opt to pay for in a commercial setting. The air handlers I have seen in many offices are often disgusting inside, especially the cooling coils.

So how do we address the HVAC component of reducing ingress of pathogens into our people?

Turn off HVAC. Not with a thermostat, no, you go with your building maintenance and kill every breaker to the HVAC equipment. No fans, no space heaters either. Look under every table, have owners take those home.
While the above is bearable in spring and fall, in most locations, no HVAC during summer or winter is just not going to work. So we need to go to our landlords right away and with their cooperation (because that is what your lease requires) get an architect, HVAC designer, and industrial hygienists involved.
The cost of the redesign will be highly dependent on how many corners were cut by previous tenants or owners of the building, Understand that a commercial air handling unit (the cheap part, given how expensive duct changes are) to fit UVC and MERV16 filtering will likely be a five-figure expense. The landlord is unlikely to pay for that, but you may get lucky, and they may chip in a tiny bit.

Ideally, if you can muster, there isn’t a reason to open your office back up until we have either vaccine or proven medication (likely a cocktail of several) working. And this comes from someone, who loves working in the office and loves the commute (aka time to myself).

Scientists are working like crazy to address the pandemic and impending waves of reinfection. These pandemics will be back, and we can’t be caught again unprepared. Don’t let this crisis go to waste, use it to harden your business.

Image credit: CDC/ Dr. Terrence Tumpey/ Cynthia Goldsmith