For over four months, the government has urged the country to work from home wherever possible. But since the beginning of August, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lifted the guideline that people should work from home where possible.
“We’re going to give employers more discretion and ask them to make decisions about how their staff can work safely,” said Johnson.
Yet despite the UK government’s insistence that it is economically vital that people return to work in the city centres, many remain unconvinced that this is safe. Workers are concerned with both the offices themselves and the public transport necessary for them to get there, especially in major cities like London which remain busy even in the midst of a pandemic.
To complicate matters further, Johnson has since said that the time has come to ‘squeeze the brake pedal’ on the easement of many lockdown restrictions ‘in order to keep the virus under control’.
And whilst there is talk of a promising vaccine out of Oxford University, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation has warned that there may never be a ‘silver bullet’ for COVID-19.
Even before these developments, a number of polls and studies all seemed to be coming to the same conclusion – the majority of people do not want to return to working in the office in the ways they were before. In one survey of 2,000 workers, 57% said that they did not want to go back to “the normal way of working in an office environment with normal office hours.”
Part of the issue is certainly that being able to work from home saves vast amounts of money in travel; there are also reports of increased productivity when commuting is taken out of the equation.
But as countries continue to clamp back down on restrictions, many workers feel unwilling to return to places of work that may not have taken suitable precautions to ensure the air they breathe is safe.
The trouble with getting from A to B
For many Londoners, just getting to work safely in a continuing pandemic is a challenge in and of itself.
London has a population of nearly nine million, and according to the BBC “more than 60% of commuters in the city use public transport, compared with 7% in the UK as a whole”.
Guidelines have been put in place for travelling on London public transport, for example, with people required to wear face coverings whilst travelling.
Unfortunately, these remain only loosely enforced on TfL services, leading many to avoid buses and trains altogether.
A nationally-represented survey by Theta Financial Reporting found that almost two-thirds of respondents agreed with the statement “I do not feel comfortable commuting to work via public transport anymore, and think it will be one of the most stressful parts of my day.”
And whilst the updated government advice does now allow for travel by public transport, it also encourages people to “consider alternative means of transport where possible”.
But in the nation’s capital, where 46% of households don’t own a car, many workers have been left feeling largely without options. Walking and cycling offer sustainable and healthy choices, but for many cycling on the busy roads feels too dangerous and walking, in a city as large as London, often simply takes too long.
The other main mode of transport for Londoners is the London Underground.
The Underground is a particular pain point, however, having been linked to health concerns even prior to the pandemic. A study by the Institute of Global Health in 2018 showed that commuters who used the Tube regularly were more likely to suffer flu-like symptoms. An investigation by the Financial Times also found that levels of pollution on the Tube were up to 10 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s recommendation.
All is not lost for the Tube: cleaning whole sections of tunnels has been proven to be effective in reducing dust and PM2.5, something that will be very important post-COVID as concerns about respiratory illnesses are front of mind.
Increasing ventilation within stations and using filters to purify the air via positive ionisation could also make a huge difference, but these are not short-term solutions. In the meantime, people who need to travel on the Tube should plan ahead, travel at off-peak times where necessary and follow social distancing and hygiene guidelines. With a network as big and complex as the London Underground, there will be no quick fixes.
An investigation by the Financial Times also found that levels of pollution on the Tube were up to 10 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s recommendation.
Increasing ventilation within stations and using filters to purify the air via positive ionisation could also make a huge difference, but these are not short-term solutions.
A study by the Institute of Global Health in 2018 showed that commuters who used the Tube regularly were more likely to suffer flu-like symptoms.
Getting to work is just the first hurdle. For office workers in the UK, government guidelines have been introduced to help keep people safe, including social distancing, one-way systems and increased cleaning. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is not enough.
Even with all these precautions in place, there is still a major concern: the air office workers are breathing.
The growing concern with Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) amongst workers on platforms like Glassdoor has led many property managers and landlords to begin to invest in technologies to help mitigate the situation, including installing or improving HVAC systems to increase ventilation of fresh, clean air.
Another option that is becoming increasingly important is real-time indoor air quality monitoring systems, which can help track the particulate matter in the office environment, including waterborne droplets; it can also keep an eye on other important factors such as temperature and humidity, ensuring the HVAC systems are keeping theses variables at optimal levels.
Knowledge is power, but sometimes more is needed for a real change to be made. Air purification technology can take data from the air quality monitoring systems one step further and help to rid offices of dangerous particulate matter. It is also vital to increase ventilation rates and supply as much fresh air per person as possible in order to dilute airborne contaminants. Improving the efficiency of the filters serving critical re-circulating HVAC systems can also help to ensure the fine particles produced by respiratory aerosols are removed effectively.
Some building owners may still be anxious to spend out on these technologies, but when the potential loss of earnings is considered, as well as the social responsibility if people get sick, the case for investment becomes a lot clearer. And these changes wouldn’t just reap immediate benefits: beyond the pandemic, these investments will create healthier, more productive spaces for years to come.
Making offices safer is one way to encourage people back from the confines of their homes, but for many, it isn’t that simple.
Winter is coming
As the summer burns on, landlords and building managers will need to look further forward, not just at people coming back, but the winter drawing in, bringing with it seasonal colds and flu as well as the threat of a second wave.
Now is the time to act: whilst offices still have little to low occupancy, it is much easier and safer for works to be carried out to help get people back to work safely.