Employers are paying attention to air quality as never before, said Nellie Brown, a health and safety specialist who provides training and technical assistance for New York State workplaces through Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“If you don’t spend money on upgrading your ventilation, you might be spending it on sick people,” Ms. Brown said. She added that these upgrades could have helped reduce the spread of the seasonal flu in years past had they been in place.
Upgrading HVAC systems can be expensive and add monthly costs. New equipment for a typical 100,000-square-foot office building in Chicago, for example, might cost up to $100,000 to install, Ms. Mueller said, and can add 5 to 10 percent to monthly bills. For offices in milder climates, just opening the windows can increase air quality, although many office windows do not open.
Building managers are creating more rooftop and patio spaces for workers. Maintaining those spaces will mean additional costs, like heat or cooling, but Angelo Bianco, CP Group’s managing partner, said his company was adding outdoor lounge space “to every building we own.” Some new designs focus on flexible indoor-outdoor spaces, like an airy lobby coffee shop with indoor seating and garage-door type walls that can be opened to patio space.
Adding outdoor spaces was already a trend before the pandemic, but “now it is elevated in priority,” said Greg Smith, chief executive of Urban Visions, a Seattle developer. He has three projects set to open in the next few years, and each one offers significant outdoor venues.
“The era of stuffing people into offices like sardines is over,” he said.
Some office building changes are more about peace of mind than actual effect, like shifting overnight janitorial staff to daytime hours so employees see the building being cleaned. “If the building doesn’t feel safe, they will not enter it,” Ms. Mueller said.
Updating employees on building infrastructure is another pandemic-inspired practice. “Until 18 months ago, almost nobody cared about ‘healthy buildings,’” Mr. Bianco said. “That’s irrevocably changed.”