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Healthy Spaces Podcast: Season 2, Episode 2 - Healthy Workspaces for Now. And Tomorrow.

As employers invite people back to the office, questions about workplace safety fill the air. Hear from experts about what has been learned about health and wellness at work.

We spend on average 90% of our time indoors – and a lot of that time is spent on the job. As restrictions ease, companies are working hard to draw their employees back to shared workspaces. At the same time, employees question whether it is safe to return.

For Episode 2, I sat down with Dr. Alberto Acosta, executive director of Medical Services at Trane Technologies and Joanna Frank, president and CEO at the Center for Active Design, to talk about how the pandemic has shifted the mindset of what it means to feel ‘safe’ at work. From indoor air quality to managing stress and anxiety, we talked through some of the major trends which are changing how and where we work, and what organizations can do to attract talent back to the bricks and mortar office.

Governments and companies all over implemented teleworking and remote work as a measure to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. And while this may have slowed the spread of the virus and helped protect our physical health, it may not have done wonders for our overall mental health and well-being.

Experts across the industry agree on one thing: the workplace is changing. Studies have shown that the quality of our indoor environment affects not only our health and well-being, but productivity too. As a result, some employers are taking a more expansive and modern view of employee health and well-being, beyond the conventional occupational safety standards which have traditionally focused more on physical safety.

I think that it's important for regulatory bodies to set the standards, be driven by data and realize [it] is changing quickly. They need to be adaptive, and to respond quickly. Not to oversteer, but appropriately steer the guidelines the way the data is driving it.

Dr. Alberto Acosta, executive director of Medical Services, Trane Technologies


Awareness – both from workers and investors – is also driving positive changes reflected in the ESG goals of progressive companies. Joanna Frank explained how healthy building standards like Fitwel integrate science-backed strategies to optimize health within a building or community. At the outset of COVID-19, her team realized the urgent need to arm real estate owners and office managers with a set of actionable science-based measures that would safeguard occupant health and wellness. In just four months, they released the Fitwel Viral Response Module.  

Moreover, it was the result of cross-industry collaboration, including researchers, building professionals and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, proving once again what the industry can achieve when it comes together.

There is still a lot to understand about what good looks like for the modern work environment, but one thing is certain – we are getting smarter, every day.

“I was amazed and impressed at how quickly an industry can change when it needs to.”

Joanna Frank

president and CEO, Center for Active Design

Episode Guests

Dr. Alberto Acosta – executive director, Medical Services at Trane Technologies

Joanna Frank – president and CEO, Center for Active Design

Transcript

Rasha (00:03):

As the world takes its first steps back into workspaces, employers and building owners are asking what they need to do to ensure their tenants and visitors feel secure.

Joanna (00:15):

Everybody is really looking now at how do we create environments where those individual occupants feel safe so that they will return to those commercial spaces.

Rasha (00:25):

Because with a constantly evolving threat, like COVID feeling safe is as much about education as it is about putting measures in place.

Dr. Acosta (00:33):

How can we pivot briskly and apply what we learn - and how do we translate that for some individuals who may not have a science or health background?

Rasha (00:46):

That's Joanna Frank, president and CEO at the Center for Active Design and Dr. Alberto Acosta, executive director of Medical Services at Trane Technologies. Joanna's work focuses on advancing design and development practices to foster healthy and engaged communities. And through the organization's Fitwell certification, the Center is helping develop the standard for healthy workspaces. And as executive director for Medical Services here at Trane Technologies, Dr. Costa is continually finding new ways to keep Trane Technologies’ 37,000 employees and their families healthy through education and promoting healthier environments.

 

In today's show, we're exploring how building managers and employers are having to adapt in order to gain the trust of employees and patrons in light of COVID. I'm Rasha Hasaneen, and you're listening to Healthy Spaces with Trane Technologies, a series of conversations that explores the world of indoor environmental quality from the inside, out.

Rasha (02:01):

With many of us either back in our workspaces or preparing to head back to the office, the safety of those buildings is quickly becoming top of mind for just about everyone. And it's not just us here at Trane Technologies that are having conversations about IEQ.

Dr. Acosta (02:18):

It's really about how to keep our employees safe from the coronavirus. And it's how do we make a safe work environment, so how do we make our factories, our offices, our sales centers safe. How do we support our individuals because they may spend a lot of time at work, but what happens when they leave that and they're out in the community. How do we educate, empower individuals to stay safe, stay healthy? I think that that's really been some of the challenges. In a sense it's somewhat easier to control a physical location we could put in safety protocols, but they're a little bit more challenging when we're there, not in that sort of controlled environment of one of our facilities. And so how do we educate and empower individuals? How do we do that in an environment which we're learning and the data's changing very quickly? How can we pivot briskly and how do we translate that for some individuals who may not have a science or health background?  How can we help them comprehend some of the really complex stuff and help them apply it to keep themselves and their families or communities safer.

Rasha (03:42):

And perhaps the industry that's wrestling with these questions the most is real estate. And no one is more keenly aware of this than Joanna Frank. She tells us how the Center for Active Design and its Fitwell standard are working to create healthier indoor environments for all.  

Joanna (04:00):

Before COVID, I would have described our work as really looking at holistic health outcomes. And then our partner, actually in the research is the center for disease control and prevention. So when COVID came on the scene, we were actually aware of it coming because we work globally. So we were really looking at infectious disease. We were looking at the Fitwell standard generally to say, like, how are we addressing infectious disease? Cause of course that is part of the overall kind of health that we look at. But it certainly wasn't a focus of our work. We were really looking at chronic disease prevention. As COVID started to obviously develop into the pandemic that we now know it is the real estate industry was really kind of beating down our doors, saying we trust you when it comes to kind of health research and giving us kind of the solutions and guidance, and please tell us what to do..

Joanna  (04:44):

We're getting bombarded by all sorts of different information from different sources. So we went, obviously went to the CDC. Then we also put together a panel of experts in infectious disease, not just looking at kind of how infectious respiratory diseases are transmitted physically, but also what are the impacts to mental health of a pandemic and what affects really kind of across all different health aspects are really part of, and a known quantity, of any kind of existential threat. Right from the get-go we really looked at all respiratory infectious diseases, not just COVID because really we needed to look at a wider evidence-base. So that's what we did. We went out and put together a fantastic folks from the scientific community who were incredibly generous in sharing their expertise.

Joanna  (05:36):

And we did the same from the real estate sector as well. So we put together a group of real estate professionals and really worked with them to say, what do you need? What do you need us to answer? When do you need it? What decisions are you being asked to make? And how can we help to inform that decision-making? So it was an incredibly collaborative effort and it had to be in order create a new certification in four months. That's not typical at all. We were translating between everybody, but it was really thanks to the generosity of the whole community that we were able to come up with the Viral Response Module, which is a certification - it's kind of a subset of standards from the whole Fitwell standard that specifically looks at mitigating infectious respiratory disease.

Rasha (06:18):

I would love to hear from you, like in the last 18 months, you talked a little bit about the Fitwell virus response model. I'm would love to hear what some of your biggest lessons were. I mean, I think we all had some big A-ha’s over the last 18 months, but what are some of the things you did to kind of take those learnings and apply them?

Joanna  (06:54):

I was amazed and impressed at how quickly an industry can change when it needs to, we've seen change slowly evolving over time, but the industry was really able to turn a page and suddenly focus on responding to COVID. And we're doing policies that have stood for years, 18 months ago, nobody knew what the highest priorities should be, what was going to become the baseline of response to COVID specifically. And now I think probably most people in our world can name kind of like, well, obviously it's, you know, filtration and increase outdoor air and behavior change. I think it's amazing how quickly we've all adopted this new language. We've all become much more familiar with infectious disease and to how they are transmitted. And I also have to say that I'm really thankful that people are talking about the mental health impact of the pandemic, the social isolation that has come about because of the pandemic, the stress levels, increased anxiety. And I think that there's a real understanding across all business that you really need to be supporting and promoting all aspects of the health of your employees. And it's actually in your own interest as an employer because productivity, retention and attraction of employees, that’s all essential.

Rasha (08:26):

COVID certainly boosted just about everyone's awareness of infectious disease and its transmission, as well as put a spotlight on our environments influence over our mental health. But how did the pandemic affect change higher up at the policy level?

Dr. Acosta (08:43):

I think it really brought to light that we're dealing with an infectious agent and it's affecting every aspect of our life. This is unprecedented, and because it's an infectious agent, we need clinical and public health, you know, guidance as to how to approach this. This is something that's really unprecedented in our lifetime. It's not just affecting one area of the world. It's affecting all areas at the same time, some more so than others, and there are surges. And again, I think that's why we're seeing the importance of having these public health clinicians involved in helping set the policy.

 

The other thing that's different is all our prior modeling for pandemics had been based on the influenza of pandemics, but this is a different virus and it's behaving very differently. So the modeling had some things that could be applied to the SARS Coronavirus, but it's different, it's acting different. And so we're learning. So as we implement protocols policies as we start to apply some of the things that we've learned, the virus modifies itself, it hasn't been straightforward. And so things change. And then one of the lessons learned is we need to monitor for change, and we need to adapt to change.

Rasha (9:46):

And we see that across the board, whether that's how we work with our employees, how we support our customers, you know, all across the board. I think the volatility and the dynamic situation that we're in is really requiring that we be very flexible and be willing to learn and pivot quickly.

Speaking of models, that aren't sort of accustomed to the environment that we're in. How do you see standards, bodies playing a role here in particular, obviously for workplaces, OSHA is a big standards body, but their models are also quite different from kind of the current environment. How do you see their role and what has their response kind of been to the pandemic?

Dr. Acosta (10:33):

I think that their role is critical. I mean, again, they're the regulatory bodies that set the standards. They set a lot of minimum standards. It has to be at least like this, and if you want to, as an employer, you want to do better, great, but you can't go below this. And, you know, I think that it's important for those regulatory bodies, whether it's in the U.S. or elsewhere, to set the standards, be driven by the data and realize that the data is maybe changing quickly. They need to be adaptive and they need to respond quickly. Not to oversteer, but to you know, appropriately steer the guidelines, the way the data is driving it

Rasha (11:50):

And policy wasn't the only thing that adapted quickly. Over at the Center for Active Design, the Fitwell team pulled together a new standard in just four months, providing desperately needed direction for building owners, wanting to keep their occupants safe.

Joanna  (12:05):

Behind the full Fitwell standard we have 5,600 peer reviewed research studies coming from academic institutions around the world. So we had an incredible body of evidence already to pull from, and we had the research already in place, but it was really kind of how does this apply to COVID. So then we had this incredible panel of experts who really weighed in with their understanding of what the trajectory of COVID would be. I mean, this is really at the beginning, so we didn't understand or it wasn't officially designated about kind of what the main transmission paths were - was it person to person. But we were actually looking at aerosolized transmission right from the beginning because of the input of the experts we were working with. And because we were broadly looking at infectious respiratory disease. There have definitely been kind of shifts in what to prioritize.

Joanna  (12:54):

And I think everybody went through that kind of that evolution, that at the beginning, we were really looking at surface transmission and that now I think is less of a priority. It's been really interesting to see how the researchers evolved. And then the viral response module standard is really split into three equal sections. The first is looking at your indoor environment. They've been looking at how to use the HVAC system, the mechanical ventilation systems in order to reduce the transmission of the viral particles. The next section is looking at behavior change and how do we use the design and operation of our buildings in order to support and promote that behavior change. So how do you use signage? How do you use all sorts of messaging within the building? Also, how do we support our staff, our employees, residents around our social needs, like really, how do we ensure that just because we're physically separated we aren't also separated as far as our kind of interaction with one another.

And then the last section is building trust, and that is the way that you present a building, whether it's through your communications, whether it's through how your staff communicate or whether it's actually the physical appearance of the building, all of that has a measurable impact on people's levels of trust between you and them. And the reason that that is so important is because many of the strategies that we use in order to minimize the transmission of respiratory disease, you can't see it. I have to trust you that you have put all of these things in place, and I'm going to base that trust on the physical appearance of the building, the maintenance of the building, and also the communication strategies that you employ.

Rasha (14:00):

That's really amazing. And I do remember those early days when there were conversations about, is it surface? Is it air, it's not air. I really appreciate the volatility in both the market and people's perception that you guys went through on your journey here. You talked a lot about the stakeholders who have really shown up as part of this process with you guys and a big group of those stakeholders are essentially your customers for the Fitwell standard. Maybe you can talk a little bit about what some of those stakeholders that they interact with are, what are some of the demands on them that you are seeing?

Joanna  (14:45):

We rely on all of our partners to really kind of provide their perspective, their expertise, and again, kind of demand from us what they need. We're working with investors around the world. And I would say that there's two things that are really driving demand and shaping the building industry as we move forward. And so it's absolutely those investors, their increased commitment to environmental, social, and governance metrics, and really reporting on ESG metrics as part of their overarching priorities as investors, as institutional investors. So what that means for health is that health has now emerged as one of the key aspects of ‘S’ but so that's kind of really important to this story because they have made commitments that they are going to have ‘X’ percentage of their investment portfolio really be reporting on ESG. And that has become such an important piece of the puzzle because during the pandemic, the investments that have high ESG metrics were actually seen to outperform their partners who had lower ESG metrics or weren't reporting on ESG at all.

Joanna  (15:50):

So that's a game changer. And a couple of stats that I think are really telling; 92% of the institutional investors that we surveyed said that they are going to be enhancing their reporting around health and wellness strategies over the next three years. So if you weren't, as a company, actually reporting on health and wellness stats, you are going to be compelled to do so if you want to have investment from those institutional investors. So that's huge. I mean, that's a massive market driver. This is the kind of change in demand that we've been trying to build for 10 years, but the pandemic has really kind of changed the perception of where health fits in your priorities as an investor. And it's really gone from a nice to have before COVID, where people were using health to differentiate themselves positively in the marketplace. And I think the big shift that's happened because of COVID is now if you aren't addressing health, it is now seen as a negative, that it is a risk. And that really puts it in an entirely different bucket.

Rasha (16:50):

But with solutions like upgraded filtration and enhanced cleaning going largely unseen, what questions should employees be asking to ensure their safety in the workplace.

Dr. Acosta (17:00):

In terms of returning to the workplace, that would be what mitigation protocols are in place. What protocols are in place to keep sick people out of the workplace and encourage them to seek health care? What protocols are there to screen people to make sure they're not ill. What protocols are physically in place to allow for a safe workspace. And that could be anything from, you know, what the air quality like, how the ventilation social distancing, you know, those types of, of, of things. So the other thing from again, from the holistic perspective is what does my employer, what's it offering me offering for me? Or what does, what resources does it have for me to deal with, should I get sick? Those are, I think all important things to ask. We have a company that has very different employee roles and, you know, for us, we're manufacturing, essential workers. We've been manufacturing, you know, we've not shut down throughout the pandemic. The protocols that we've implemented globally have created a very safe workspace to the point where employees have commented that it's safer to be at work than to be out in the community. And we've gotten that feedback both from employees in the U.S. employees outside of the us. And, you know, as people will return back to the offices, I think they need to realize that we have you know, in many companies, not just ours, have been able to create very safe workspaces. The protocols have proven to be effective that are being applied in those workspaces as well.

Rasha (18:45):

Dr. Costa raises a great point that in many cases, employers and organizations have already put measures in place to protect their employees. The challenge lies in communicating this to work forces so that they can feel safe too. And this is especially important because by continuing to improve the quality of air and overall workplace environments, we could see benefits to our mental health and wellbeing as Joanna Frank explains.

Joanna  (19:13):

When it comes to mental health. I think this is an evidence base that we will already keenly aware of before COVID. In fact, the WHO had identified depressive symptoms as the number one cause of disability around the globe. So that was already a very strong body of evidence and correlation between our mental health and productivity measures. There is undoubtedly a correlation between our built environment and our mental health and between our mental health and productivity and life expectancy. And when we're talking about mental health in the built environment, we are talking about depression, anxiety, stress. So we're really talking about how do you mitigate stress? How do you alleviate anxiety with our built environment? And I think some of the things that really have the strongest correlation are so simple, right?

Joanna  (20:04):

The good news is that the facets of our built environment that directly impact our mental health are very much within our control. Some of the most beneficial strategies are looking at having enough daylight so that you are seated or you're standing in an environment where you're getting ample daylight. Having views of nature, so that can be those indoor plants. It can be outside to trees, to water, et cetera. Having control of our environment has a big impact on our mental health. And that could be as simple as an operable blind, operable windows. All of these kinds of measures of control are very important to our mental health. Being able to move from one space to another, to better suit the kind of work environment we need for whatever kind of work we're doing. These kinds of pieces of whole super simple, but they all have a measurable impact on our mental health.

Joanna  (20:57):

I think the other part of mental health that's really important to understand is that working remotely is an inherently stressful thing to do. There was a big UN study before COVID that identified that people working remotely, 40% of them were demonstrating higher levels of stress. And 25% of people within offices had elevated stress levels. So there are absolutely benefits for us coming together. We are social creatures, the social isolation that has been forced on us because of COVID is one of the main stresses actually around mental health and health generally. The three most impactful kind of negative health consequences that are impacting overall life expectancy in the world are physical inactivity, smoking and social isolation. So those three factors are actually represent the three greatest risk factors for premature death.

Rasha (21:58):

And as we come to the end of the episode, I asked what parting words, Joanna and Dr. Costa had for our listeners.

Dr. Acosta (22:07):

Looking ahead, it's ever changing. Many employers are focusing on the data, and I think that's what we all need to do. And unfortunately, that, as we talked about before, is evolving when you need to push ahead, stay ahead. We've got many resources that are allowing us to have safe workspaces, safe communities. And we have a responsibility to our employees, our employees have responsibility to themselves and their families, and we all need to work together to get through this. And we will. And it's taking unfortunately far longer than anyone had hoped for, but we're in a better situation now than we were a year ago. And, you know, things will get better and we just have to stay the course. We can't let our guard down.

Joanna  (22:56):

So I think folks are becoming much more aware of the fact that the buildings really do play a big part in their security and feelings of safety. And a lot of companies did not have preparedness plans in place before COVID. They didn't have continuity plans in place. They didn't have really kind of thorough emergency preparedness plans. And interestingly, on the investor side, the three things that investors identified as the kind of three top metrics were tenant satisfaction, indoor air quality metrics and testing, and having a preparedness plan in place. So I would say that's a pretty good reflection of what individuals are asking for as well, of course, because you know, everybody is really looking now at how do we create environments where those individual occupants feel safe so that they will return to those commercial spaces on the residential side so that you can compete within the market with your peers and be able to say ‘we are creating an environment for you to live in that is really prioritizing your health,’ because that has become the thing that you know, is top of mind for everybody.

Joanna  (24:05):

So I would absolutely be asking for a plan with specificity, right? You have to have details. I think before COVID building owners were quite resistant to sharing testing data around the indoor air quality. I think that generally in the population at large, there isn't an understanding of what a good measure of indoor air quality is. So I do think that there's a large piece of education that we all need to be doing. So that folks, when they're given that test data, when they're asking for information, know what a good baseline is, know what a good standard is. Because I think at the moment, there is a kind of a disconnect about what people, individuals, are asking for and then understanding what they're looking at. Like what is not just good enough, but what is optimal because we do need to look at this balance between what is good for the individual health, and then also what is good for the planet's health as well. And that there is a balance between the two, but we need to do a good job of educating everybody in understanding of where that line is and using the science to really demonstrate and solidify what that line is.

Rasha (25:09):

There was some fantastic points there from Dr. Acosta and Joanna Frank, and their thoughts on education being key were particularly poignant as it's only through informing tenants and employees about the safety measures being taken and the science behind them, that they will truly feel safe again in the workplace. You've been listening to healthy spaces with Trane Technologies.

 

I'm Rasha Hasaneen. For more information on our conversation with Joanna Frank and Dr. Alberto Acosta, see the show notes in your podcast app and join us next week when I'll be joined by our very own Portia Mount. And we'll get to hear from a panel of experts about the state of one of our most precious resources, our schools. Don't forget to follow us, to hear new episodes. Thanks for joining us. And we'll see you next time.

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