The office monitor workers will find more common in the Covid era is surveilling the air

An employee works on a laptop computer at the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, which opened in 2018. It is among 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 senior executives have been taking a closer look at what makes a workspace healthy. The pandemic brought an influx of sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer dispensers and social distancing signage into office spaces.

Harvard professor Joseph Allen says there’s one safety measure offices can’t overlook. Healthy workspaces rely primarily on the air employees breathe, and research going back years before the pandemic shows that improvements in air ventilation and air quality lead to increased cognitive function and work productivity.

One study conducted by Allen’s Healthy Buildings program at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found there is no threshold for how greater air ventilation positively impacts cognitive function for workers.

“Across the globe, we had over 350 workers and we followed them for an entire year. We had air quality sensors at their desk,” said Allen, associate professor and director of the program.

In the study, the workers would be periodically pinged through an app to take these cognitive function tests while at their desk, in order to look at the real-time impact of air quality on the performance of office workers around the world.

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

Salesforce, Boston Properties and Armstrong World Industries are among the companies in the U.S. that have worked with Allen, either as part of the COGfx study or with Allen’s healthy building consultancy team at 9 Foundations to improve air quality in their buildings, “the things that we know science tells us are important for human health, wellbeing and productivity,” Allen says.

“The big challenge of our time is how do we ventilate,” said Amazon Chief Medical Officer Vin Gupta, speaking at the recent CNBC @Work Summit and referencing the Harvard researchers’ findings.

Salesforce focus on air in employee education

For many companies, the ability to attract and retain talent will depend on safety precautions and comfort level with a particular work environment.

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

Salesforce participated in the COGfx study, where air quality sensors were installed at desks and cognitive function of employees was monitored.

Regular testing of indoor air quality is part of the LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environment Design, certification given to green buildings from the U.S. Green Buildings Council.

“We think it’s really important to communicate to our employees because a lot of this stuff is not seen. They don’t know. They see a LEED plaque on the wall. They don’t know what goes into a LEED certification,” said Amanda von Almen, head of sustainable built environment at Salesforce.

“It’s really about us providing a holistic environment where employees feel safe,” added Sean Luster, vice president of real estate and workplace services at Salesforce. “It’s a behavioral change for a lot of employees.”

Betting on worker ‘flight to quality’ ventilation

Boston Properties, a real estate investment trust company that owns office buildings across the country including in New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., has worked with Allen on improving the indoor air quality in its workspaces.

“Personally, I leave a monitor in my office,” said Ben Myers, the vice president of sustainability at Boston Properties. “We have indoor air quality monitors where we’re looking at CO2 concentration, and that was a result of Dr. Joe Allen’s work. He made us aware of the effect of higher CO2 concentrations on cognitive performance.”

Boston Properties is betting that as more commercial tenants get pickier about the real estate they pay for in the new work reality triggered by Covid, a premium will be placed on factors including health.

“What we are seeing is a flight to quality,” Myers said. “Higher quality office spaces have outperformed lower quality office space in terms of tenant rents and retention. … There’s an expectation that these higher quality buildings will have high quality indoor air.” 

While measuring productivity can be hard, Myers said companies can measure air quality in real time and set regular tests for contaminants in the workspace.

“Boston Properties has set a minimum testing requirement in its buildings of twice per year for air quality parameters to be in line with CO2 concentration, and regularly testing for air contaminants like mold, to make sure that the buildings have healthy conditions. “And that’s about the best you can do,” Myers said.

Work is a living lab for our health

“We’re all looking to feel safer and more confident in the spaces we frequent and those who are responsible for building renovation and construction know it,” said Vic Grizzle, president and CEO of Armstrong World Industries, a company that designs and manufactures commercial and residential ceiling, wall and suspension system solutions. “And the story doesn’t end there. Once building improvements are made, it’s critical to measure how the space is performing, looking at carbon dioxide levels, humidity and temperature, for example, because we’ve learned these factors can affect productivity,” Grizzle said.

Armstrong World Industries created a space called 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 in spaces, like the Living Lab, that have exceptional air quality along with optimal acoustics, lighting, cleanliness, great views, biophilic design elements and comfortable furnishings, people will simply feel better,” Grizzle said. “When we feel good, we think, process and generally function at our best, and attitudinally, we feel more optimistic and enthusiastic. It stands to reason that translates to productivity.”

Speaking at the recent CNBC Workforce Executive Council Summit, Allen told human resources leaders, “Healthy buildings must be the first line of defense. … The problem is we’ve been under ventilating our buildings, homes, offices, schools for decades. … We’ve designed them the wrong way for 40 years, closing them up, choking off the air supply.”

“We should expect clean air in our offices, just as we expect to have clean water coming out of the tap. So that’s the first thing. Recognize that a paradigm shift is underway. This is not going away,” Allen said.

By Mikaela Cohen, special to CNBC.com

Missed this year’s CNBC’s At Work summit? Access the full sessions on demand at https://www.cnbcevents.com/worksummit/