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Enabling safe productivity within ‘new normal’ conditions

03 July 2020

This feature is the fourth in our series of articles to assist FMs and service providers in dealing with the unprecedented situation created by the Covid-19 UK lockdown.

With virus infection levels and deaths now seen to be reducing, the government has allowed many businesses to reopen, albeit with social distancing requirements in place.

To assist in dealing with the changing situation, we asked for suggestions on the reopening and managing of facilities, with some fascinating results.

Contrac IT managing director Mark Harding says: “Everyone is keen to get business back up and running and employees back to work, but it has to be done safely.

"A few lines of tape on the floor or the odd empty desk isn't really all that reassuring. Companies are even going so far as to employ social distancing marshalls, but they can’t be everywhere at once.

"To make workplaces safe the virus has to be tackled from all sides – ensuring those who are infected don’t spread it to others, through detection and properly controlled social distancing, but also making sure it’s unable to survive."

There are a variety of IT solutions available which can help, he continues, from wearable tech promoting social distancing to cameras to check body temperature or remotely operated ultraviolet cleaning. The benefit of using IT, rather than manual monitoring, is the reassurance it gives to everyone that the situation is being monitored and managed in a systematic way.

"It takes away the potential for human error. People who feel unsafe are never going to be able to work productively so making sure they feel genuinely protected should be a priority," says Mr Harding.

Artic Building Services managing director Colin Trowell says FMs who operate their properties sustainably usually foster a healthier, more productive environment with better tenant retention. Companies that value sustainability often unite staff and improve overall motivation.

"Therefore, you could improve productivity by getting your staff involved in efforts to become more sustainable," he continues.

Noise levels, air quality, and natural light are all linked to employee health, satisfaction, and productivity. Furthermore, fresh air reduces the risk of the virus spreading and ventilating the workplace with fresh air may make staff feel safer and improve productivity.

"As the return to the ‘new normal’ continues to expand and you start introducing the return to the office, it is important to have internal office measures in place, such as social distancing, one way entrance and exits, full PPE available for all staff, sanitisers, enhanced and increased cleaning, etc.

"These measures provide reassurance to staff and colleagues as to their personal safety, which in turn will allow them to concentrate on their duties.

"Initial reports suggest that coronavirus will continue throughout 2020, meaning your company may need to invest in technology that allows staff to work from home. You may have to manage the installation of a server room within your business that supports remote working to mitigate risks of transmission and may result in a more productive workforce," says Mr Trowell.

Condair UK sales manager Dave Marshall-George says maintaining an indoor relative humidity (RH) level of at least 40% has been recommended by CIBSE in its return to work guidelines and has also been proposed as best practise by leading consultancies.

Studies have shown that this level improves respiratory immune system defences, as well as minimising the time viruses remain airborne and infectious.

“The good news is that for companies returning to work over the summertime, indoor RH levels in the UK will naturally be in this ideal range. However, as we move into the winter, indoor heated environments will start to fall below this from October onwards and remain sub-optimal until March."

This “dry season” is thought to be a significant contributing factor to winter illnesses and in order to remain within the recommended level and reduce the risk of respiratory infections, FMs should review their building’s humidity control in the coming months. Humidifiers can be installed either in a building’s air handling unit or in rooms, with options including steam, high pressure spray or evaporative models.

Building services consultants can be employed to design a humidification system, with the units being installed by either a HVAC contractor or the humidifier supplier, Mr Marshall-George concludes.

Luigi-Jurica Weissbarth, managing director at Zidac Laboratories, say while the government has focused primarily on hand washing as the principle action to reduce risk of infection, hand sanitiser is a key additional option.

In particular, hand sanitiser is more efficient at cleaning and can be easily accessible if placed around the office in contactless dispensers.

"Not only will hand sanitiser reduce waiting times around bathrooms and sinks, but it will keep employees’ minds at ease as they can clean their hands without disrupting their day. When the workforce feels relaxed, they will be more inclined to be productive,” Mr Weissbarth continues.

By purchasing ample hand sanitiser and placing it around the office, you are showing your employees that you are thinking of them individually, protecting their health and understanding their needs during this difficult time.

"I would also advise considering sanitiser that is kind to skin, for example one that contains aloe vera. With many people complaining about the harsh effects hand washing has had on their skin, this will encourage employees to keep up hygiene standards to reduce risk of infections that could severely impact your business’ productivity,” says Mr Weissbarth.

FSI business strategy director Paul Bullard says: "Engagement is the key factor here. We are in times when honesty and openness will be rewarded with acceptance and loyalty.

"An organisation must enable employees to raise their concerns before and during a return to work. They must demonstrate to everyone that issues are being seriously considered, risk assessed and that appropriate control measures are being implemented, he continues.”

Where FM has traditionally been the discrete, hidden service within an organisation, now is the time to raise the profile and visibly publicise the great work that the industry delivers on a daily basis.

"During lockdown, people have become accustomed to receiving daily Government updates. With the use of PowerPoint slides during these sessions we have all become familiar with the phrase of 2020 - next slide please!, have they not got a clicker in No.10? Anyway, back to the exam question.

"Through providing statistics and basic interactions with the public this became a regular event to demonstrate that things are being done to manage the situation and to keep the population safe.

"FM must understand the value of this open communication and embrace technology that supports and publicises its operations. Tapping into the wellbeing of an employee, providing regular information around the constant safety improvements being carried out, and providing live updates of the environmental status of a facility will be the key factor in bringing our customers back, both confident and reassured, into the workplace,” Mr Bullard concludes.

The Floorbrite Group health, safety and compliance director Adam Berry says: “Firstly, clear and concise leadership and communication is key. Misinformation, hearsay and rumours can cultivate an uneasy workforce.

“Make sure to establish fact from fiction by only following guidance from the government at and staying Covid-19 secure. Other trusted sources include the HSE, NHS, Public Health England and if applicable IOSH, The British Safety Council and RoSPA.

“Identify the main risks to your staff and introduce updated and appropriate toolbox talks, business continuity plans, risk assessments and bespoke sanitising cleaning procedures. Consider providing back to work packs, perhaps including a face covering (useful to those travelling by public transport), personal hand sanitiser and helpful sources of information and advice,” he continues.

Practical measures to consider include signage on floors, in washrooms and kitchens to explain one-way systems and for social distancing guidance. Mark alternate sinks and urinals out of use and ensure these have a limited number of people using them.

Desk spacing is essential and can be achieved by reducing occupancy, combining time within the office with some time still worked from home. Workstation screens could be useful if space is limited.

“We recommend deterring hot desking or ensure thorough cleaning takes place after each use. Staggered start, finish, lunch and smoking breaks will reduce the risk of overcrowding at these times.

The Floorbrite Group health, safety and compliance director Adam Berry

“Hand sanitisers and disinfectant wipes should be clearly available at entrances, exits, communal spaces and for communal equipment such as photocopiers where staff should be encouraged to wipe clean after each use. All meeting rooms should display a maximum occupancy sign and this should not be exceeded,” says Mr Berry.

Kärcher UK head of professional product marketing Daniel Took says: “It has never been more important to ensure a clean and safe environment for employees and customers. Offices are vulnerable to dirt build-up on everyday touch points such as desks, keyboards and telephones.”

These are critical areas and need to be cleaned with water and detergent, followed by disinfection to destroy pathogenic micro-organisms and leave surfaces hygienically clean, he continues.

“We have seen a surge in demand for steam cleaners, which are ideal for cleaning without chemicals and reaching nooks and crannies. Public bathroom facilities, for example, are a breeding ground for germs and bacteria and a professional steam cleaner can disinfect hard-to-reach, high-risk touchpoints like sinks, taps and soap dispensers, without cloths and chemicals, ensuring they are germ-free.”

Many businesses will have purchased new cleaning equipment or increased the head count in cleaning teams. New people and/or new equipment make training a must, so it is vital that FMs put this in place.

“Cleaning teams must also use personal protective equipment (PPE) – disposable gloves and aprons are a minimum standard,” Mr Took concludes.

Freespace chief executive officer Raj Krishnamurthy says when offices begin to reopen, new and sophisticated approaches will be needed to ensure employers minimise the risk of infection between colleagues. FMs will be called upon to not only keep people safe but to aid business continuity.

“Ensuring employees adhere to social distancing guidelines will be vital in achieving a safe back-to-work programme that simultaneously supports engagement and productivity. Two strategies are proving popular: ‘split group’ and ‘split desk’. The former involves separating employees into different weekly groups, and the latter enables the alternating usage of desks between days,” he continues.

Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of providing hygienic workplace environments to ensure good health and wellbeing.

Simply increasing cleaning frequencies will not resolve ‘hygiene anxiety’ and will put too much strain on resources.

A more targeted approach that is visible to employees is required. Communication will be key, particularly when it comes to wayfinding and maintaining appropriate occupancy levels.

“Many organisations are leveraging technology to support social distancing, occupancy-based cleaning, compliance and planning as they attempt to monitor and nudge people in the right direction.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach but there are tools on the market that will enable workplace leads to follow the guidelines that are in place for a reason, and to deliver a solution that works for their organisations,” says Mr Krishnamurthy.

Stocksigns managing director Danny Adamson says: “Throughout each premises, a one way system should be set up to reduce the likelihood of employees passing one another in close proximity, this is particularly important in tight spaces like hallways.

"Floor vinyls are a good way to indicate one way systems as these are now a familiar sight to many, having seen them in supermarkets and shops.”

Floor tape requesting a safe distance is maintained can also be used to mark no-go zones and also demarcate areas around desks to minimise close contact between workers, he continues.

Hand sanitising stations should also be set up throughout a facility and signage should be used to advocate the use of these, as well as regular hand washing.

There are now a range of signs on the market which illustrate the government guidance when it comes to hand washing to ensure that the correct technique and hygiene levels are maintained.

“Rearranging and removing furniture from communal rooms is also advisable as well as restricting the number of people permitted to enter. Signs both inside and outside a room can be used to clarify this but it is important to only use signs that can adapt as the situation changes, for example where the number of people permitted to enter can be easily changed.

“Finally, we would advise that signs should be used to indicate where and where not to sit within a communal space to ensure that social distancing guidelines are adhered to,” Mr Adamson concludes.

Sennheiser UK Pro Audio Solutions channel sales manager Inesh Patel says the gradual return to office-based working will require a lot of flexibility within working spaces.

In the meeting room environment, this will impact on the way online meetings are held and how speech intelligibility can be maintained.

"However, increases in hardware infrastructure may need to be minimised whilst still achieving results that are of the quality staff have become accustomed to whilst working from home with headsets and generally good quality audio,” he continues.

Using active beamforming microphone technology can allow meeting participants to be up to 4m away from the microphone without compromising audio intelligibility. The ‘active’ element means that participants are not restricted to being in specific zones or positions in rooms.

Providing they are within range of an active beamforming microphone, they can be confident their voice will be picked up comfortably and easily, he continues.

This means that audio will be consistent with their headset experience, while allowing social distancing measures to be maintained.

"A new way of thinking is required to address the current challenges. This type of technology is helping to do that and in ways that don’t compromise intelligibility or a natural way of working,” says Mr Patel.

Elta Group technical director and chair of the Fan Manufacturer’s Association (FMA) Alan Macklin says it is critical that FMs understand the role that ventilation can play in ensuring the health and safety of employees.

"The importance of providing fresh air into workspaces is well documented, with issues such as sick building syndrome exacerbated by poor indoor air quality. With UK businesses gearing up for work, it is vital that employees are able to work as productively as possible.

"The substantial period of time that many buildings have been unoccupied for means that certain practical steps should be taken to ensure ventilation systems are operating efficiently.

"These include purging the system for two hours before and after occupancy, and maintaining trickle ventilation even when the building is empty,” he continues.

Ongoing research into the transmission of Covid-19 highlights another facet of indoor air that could impact occupant health – relative humidity (RH) levels.

Alongside a number of health concerns, such as asthma or skin irritation, evidence suggests that dry indoor air can result in higher rates of infection transmission.

If air is too humid, it can cause health problems of its own, but research has been accelerated as a result of the coronavirus and there is currently a general consensus that between 40-60% humidity is optimum for occupant health.

"The range of health issues associated with poor indoor air quality highlights the importance of getting ventilation right and FMs must ensure they can provide fresh, high-quality air for employees,” says Mr Macklin.

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