Designing for Wellness: Maximizing Your Workplace Safety Investments During the Pandemic

There is no shortage of recommendations, advice, and protocols for safety in the workplace during the pandemic from savvy, strategically-minded architects, designers, HR experts, and building planners as we all work to navigate the current physical workplace and design for wellness.

We will spare you the slurry of terms such as “unprecedented,” and “new normal,” as well as the cliches that “we are all in the same boat” and “the distance between us” and of course, “alone together” as we have too much respect for you, as readers, to repeat what has been written and said many, many times before. We know that you understand all of this so we are going to skip forward to brass tacks (an Americanism that may actually stem from the practice of spelling out the name of the deceased on the top of a coffin). This is a serious situation with little to no clear path to recovery as of yet for the nation as a whole and we extend our deepest sympathies to all of you as you manage loss, fear, and of course, the important management of your bottom line.

In pounding the first of these proverbial brass tacks, we would like to acknowledge and thank all of the highly responsible, considerate, and compassionate business owners and managers who are investing in safety measures for their valued colleagues and staff. Since this investment was unexpected and certainly not a part of the initial 2020 budget, we’d like to offer some options for making that investment as wisely as possible.

In doing so, know that we waited, watched, and read so as to cull what we feel are the best of recommendations in what the workplace in the summer of 2020 and beyond should do and be for all humans returning to work now and in the months to come.

Views, ventilation, and greenery are vital.

We’ll begin by taking our cue from Joseph G. Allen and John D. Macomber of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) regarding what makes a workplace healthy. The HBR Article from April of 2020 is well-researched and well-substantiated. You see, for their book, Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity, Allen and Macomber “spent the last three years speaking to executives across the business spectrum who oversee real-estate portfolios that cover several billion square feet and contain millions of employees. We aimed to better understand how to drive healthy building science into practice.”

Here’s the good news:

How this is achieved is via a hierarchy of controls. As noted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), (and Cuomo if you have been watching the morning briefings) the hierarchy of controls is as follows:

Elimination

Substitution

Engineering controls

Administrative controls

Personal Protective Equipment (and we would humbly add personal space)

Depending on the organization, this hierarchy may also be flipped to place PPE at the top of the list as is the case at present for many organizations. But many organizations have already resumed work and Allen and Macomber advise focusing on the 9 Foundations for Healthy Buildings. They are as follows:

  • Ventilation
  • Air quality
  • Thermal health
  • Moisture
  • Dusts & pests
  • Safety & Security
  • Water quality
  • Noise
  • Lighting and views

We’re optimists at heart and assuming that ventilation, thermal health, safety, and security are givens and we understand that additional improvements to air quality, noise, lighting, and views are not inexpensive but they can be implemented over time and there are solutions that can “feed two birds with one scone” and effectively address design, noise, air quality, and views.

While we are on the subject of healthy buildings and healthy building standards, the inclusion of the WELL Building standards is a must. As aptly described by Work Design Magazine, “the WELL Building Standard™ is a comprehensive framework for the design strategies, operations protocols, and organizational policies that aim to measurably improve the safety and health of people in indoor spaces.” In the recent article, “5 Ways To Achieve A Healthier Work Space Now And After COVID-19” by Rachel Bannon-Godfrey, Ms. Godfrey prioritizes a very manageable five strategies and measures for right now:

  1. Building condition assessments
  2. Indoor air quality
  3. Hand-washing infrastructure
  4. Industrial hygiene
  5. Mental health design support

Ms. Godfrey also addresses the efficacy of retro-commissioning so we strongly encourage you to read her article in full as it is one we found truly superior in its strategic and measured approach.

The Future is Now

Some of the experts are predicting that the office of the future will look an awful lot like the office of the past. The use of the term awful is intentional here as we Gen Xers and Douglas Coupland devotees remember all too well our early years in the workforce in the “veal fattening pens” that we were supposed to call cubicles or “Office Space” (for those of you who have seen the 1999 film). It was dehumanizing then and in this current dystopian environment in which we cannot even see each other’s faces, further dehumanizing us by pushing us into beige pens with no charm and no privacy feels very much like a fast-track to exacerbated unhappiness in the workplace.

As Edison once said, “There’s a better solution — find it.”

And find it we will. We feel workers will happily forego the communal M&M bowl of candy and will know better than to congregate in groups around the water cooler. As Jane Wells notes in her article for CNBC, we may see the introduction of “Health Cops” to prevent said congregating in an unsafe manner (feel free to smirk because you know exactly who will volunteer for that role in your office) and we will likely see a continuation of working from home but the fact is we are social creatures and we will all need to darken that office doorway at some point, even if it is on a flex schedule that involves working from the office every other day or every third day.

So what do we do to maximize the investment in safety for workers, minimize fear for workers, and ensure the workplace is also a pleasant environment? We understand (as does Katie Canales writing for Business Insider) that “Many clients don’t have the budget to support major spending right now.”

Retro-fitting, retro-commissioning, and wholesale redesigning of office spaces are simply not financially feasible as companies are already facing significant financial losses.

To that end, we humbly offer the same principles we have been touting since the creation of our first moss wall back in 2017.

Utilize Nature

Utilize nature.

Since 2017, and because of our early years in the workforce, we have always envisioned a redesign/enhancement of the office cubicle.

John A. Marshall Company Showroom, Lenexa, KS. Designed by HIVE Design Collaborative. Moss wall by The Fat Plant Society

Moss (in its dormant state) does not require watering or misting and is a surprisingly kind and forgiving material that adheres to almost any surface, enhancing the look, smell, and wellness of the space.

And since the infamous “open office plan” is being thoroughly re-examined not for its utility but for its safety, “office perks” are also changing as noted by Matt Richtel for The New York Times.

WOW! Windows that actually open, huh? Gosh, that’s human. And yes, plexiglass barriers are a fantastic way to create physical separation. But as Brent Capron, interior design director at global design practice Perkins and Will in New York, states:

What if we could feed four birds with one scone?

Privacy, acoustics, air quality, and aesthetics.

Moss is a proven noise dampening design material, effectively capturing high voice frequencies while simultaneously cleaning the air of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), regulating humidity levels in a given space (and serving as a bellwether when the humidity levels are too low), as well as providing strong aesthetic appeal.

Imagine the “office cubicle” looking like this:

Pillow Moss in Planter Box Design for Isom Collective by The Fat Plant Society

No, moss does not preclude nor replace PPE and vigilant sanitizing as we get through the coming months and years.

What moss does do, however, is serve as an affordable, maintenance-free green, “biophilically” designed partition. As Cath Everett noted in her article, there are five benefits of biophilic design (and these are pre-pandemic, mind you):

  1. Physical Health
  2. Mental wellbeing
  3. Productivity
  4. Staff Retention
  5. Branding
The Hill (Dining Room) at UMB Kansas City, MO. Moss design by The Fat Plant Society.

Remember, we are still in the pre-pandemic world when Ms. Everett noted, “It is estimated that most people in the developed world spend as much as 90 percent of their time inside buildings and cars. But according to UK mental health charity Mind, being out in green spaces or bringing nature into everyday life can help reduce feelings of stress or anger, making people feel calmer, while also improving their confidence and self-esteem.”

When we first started researching and writing about biophilic design and moss as a superior design material, we had no idea what was to come–we were addressing “anger in the workplace” and the mitigating effects of nature on frustration along with its positive effects on productivity and mood.

Westside Flats, Kansas City, MO for Isom Collective. Moss wall by The Fat Plant Society.

And an important aside: these principles work well for the home office as well. Rick Henry of BSB Design poses some really important questions regarding how you feel at home:

So we will leave you with this wisdom (again from the pre-pandemic world). Biophilic design works. That’s a brass tack we never tire of pounding. And it works particularly well in the here and the now.

Thanks for your time and attention. Stay well. Stay green.

As Always, Yours in the Love of All Things Green,

Kasey and Morten/The Fat Plant Society

Kasey L Riley: CMO, Primary Writer, and Editor for The Fat Plant Society, a biophilic design studio.