What should public agencies and municipalities be doing to prepare for a return to the workplace that can help employees and the public feel safe? Sonia Sabherwal, R.A. Senior Project Manager offers an insight to some cost-effective operational and engineering solutions to make government buildings safer for both the public and employees in the immediate and long-term future.

At Pond, we view the COVID -19 crisis as a catalyst for change. What can we learn from this pandemic to better prepare the future workplace from a resiliency aspect? What strategies can be adopted as our government clientele address the challenge of safely returning thousands of employees to the office? Everything from building design, operations and maintenance may need to adapt to a “new normal.”

Pond has been proactive in providing adaptive workplace solutions to upgrade facilities; to foster and provide a sense of health and wellness as a key motivator for  employees to re-enter the workplace. The Pond team has assessed many countywide facilities in Georgia, scoped the needs of the various stakeholders for each facility and made design recommendations for the SARS-CoV-2 infection preventative measures based on the current CDC guidelines for businesses and ASHRAE standards.

The OSHA regulations use a framework called the “hierarchy of controls” to select ways of controlling workplace hazards. During a COVID-19 or related outbreak, when it may not be possible to eliminate the hazard, the most effective protection measures and engineering controls can be implemented. Many of these solutions are often low-cost. Pond took into consideration each type of control measure and prevention strategy based on the ease of implementation, best practices, effectiveness and cost.

Courtroom Desk Plans and Elevations

 Leveraging Technology

The pandemic has forever changed the integration of technology at the workplace. While design will facilitate the physical implementation of changes, technology is the “glue” that will ensure that these necessary changes are incorporated. A few of these changes include providing touchless technologies by installing automated doors where possible and sensors in restrooms. Automate elevators to recognize employee security card or fob. Public hearing spaces should be redesigned to accommodate virtual participation by officials and citizens.

Going forward, voice-enabled technology will be a key facet to safety – this prevents individuals from touching too many surfaces in common areas. This technology can be applied to keyboards, touch screens, light switches, door handles, conference phones, elevator panels etc. Sensors and voice activation devices will also become an integral part of the office landscape and of the design.

Implementing Engineering Controls

There’s now increasing evidence that the novel Corona virus can spread through smaller droplets that can be carried in the form of aerosols — especially in indoor settings. This makes bringing in fresh air to dilute the indoor air all the more crucial. Installing high- efficiency air filters by retro-fitting air handling units and increasing ventilation rates in the work environment will help governments agencies mitigate this concern when employees return to work. Specialized negative pressure ventilation maybe required in some settings (e.g., airborne infection isolation rooms in healthcare settings).

Security Desk Plans and Elevations

Operational Safety Measures

The future of the workplace will evolve into a hybrid environment introducing both a digital and in-person experience. Establishing physical distancing measures within the workplace is critical as employees return. This can be achieved by de-densifying desk seating in open environments and conference rooms to ensure that people are separated by the CDC-required six feet in all directions. Workstations can be moved to increase separation distance. Where feasible, eliminate seating in every other seat position. This can go hand in hand with staggering shifts and arrival/lunch times. Implementing one-way traffic patterns throughout the building and a new rolling building occupancy will help reduce crowding in lobbies and elevators. This can be calculated by reviewing pinch points to direct traffic in circulation corridors and assembly areas to determine new building occupancy.

Defining visitor contact protocols such as providing contactless pick up and delivery of products and using video or telephone conferencing instead of in-person client meetings are all effective strategies that should be encouraged.

The future of the workplace will evolve into a hybrid environment introducing both a digital and in-person experience.

Health Screening and Frequent Sanitizing

Most government buildings, especially courthouses, already have security in their entry lobbies. Installing temperature scanning technologies and health screening equipment like rapid COVID testing should be considered.

Access procedures at larger courthouses can include specific queuing for ease of check-in and limiting belongings and documents to be contained at security. Citizen interactions and meetings should be conducted as close to entry on the ground floor following temperature scanning.

Rigorous cleaning and sanitizing protocols for frequently touched surfaces should be implemented and incompatible disinfectants and ammonia-based cleaners for  transparent plexiglass barriers should be avoided.

Physical Architectural Elements

Implementing physical isolation controls without relying on worker behavior can help foster a feeling of safety. Installing physical barriers, such as clear plastic sneeze guards at entry points has proven to be a necessary and effective solution. In open offices, nearby neighbors can be shielded by providing a solid partition. Installation considerations include height of the barrier, breathing zone region as defined by AHSRAE, fire safety and life safety codes to prevent interference with the sprinkler spray pattern and air supply and performance standards for acrylic sheeting that meet ASTM D4802-16 and ANSI Z97.1-2015 as well as ANSI 2-2014 for food service areas. Designing a drive-through window for customer service areas and reconsidering spatial opportunities to maximize underutilized space maybe required in some instances. All extraneous furniture should be removed and replaced with non-porous furnishing and wipeable surface fabrics. Installing social distancing signage and floor decals throughout the buildings will help define expected behavioral patterns.

Case Study: Pond’s COVID-19 Rapid Response for Dekalb County, Georgia

Pond recently provided design services in response to support Dekalb County’s “Return to Work” plan. The scope of design services for the County’s  response was to create protocols that protect public-facing employees from direct contact. This work included assessments and architectural improvements to determine a solution for providing a transparent barrier between the public and Dekalb County employees who must interface with them during normal business operations.

“Supporting the  “Return to Work” effort in Dekalb County, Pond’s leadership team has provided a dedicated work group to assist, assess and provide recommendations, as we incorporate preventative measures. They were attentive to address all concerns of the stakeholders and provided solution-driven retrofitting designs.” – David M. Asbell, AIA, Deputy Director, Dekalb Facilities Management, Architecture and Engineering.

Where Do We Go From Here 
Implementing protective measures into offices spaces is crucial to the health and well-being of returning workers and guests. Navigating these changes require careful assessment and planning. Pond’s team of experts are prepared to help ease this transition for clients by designing infrastructure that will maximize safety for building patrons. Vital operations must continue and we are ready to guide agencies as they safely return to work.

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