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Redefining the Future of Workplace and Building Design – Perspectives from a Health & Safety Professional

DATE: October 05, 2020

J Marschner phone

Jim Marschner

Environmental Health & Safety Manager

Bergmann Location

Rochester, NY
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Author: Jim Marschner, Bergmann Environmental, Health & Safety Manager

I think most can agree that navigating the world during a pandemic is not easy.

With seemingly constant changes to guidance, direction and requirements, it’s not hard to understand why. In my role as Environmental, Health & Safety Manager for Bergmann, I am tasked with keeping our team members informed on the latest developments to ensure safety both in the office and on projects. I’m often reminding myself and others that it’s been just months -- not years -- since we first heard of COVID-19. There is so much more to learn about the virus and its effect on people in the short and long term.

I recently attended the virtual panel event that my Interior Architecture colleagues presented on Redefining the Future of Workplace and Building Design. I found the points made by the panelists to be extremely intriguing, and I’ve summarized a few observations I made from my health & safety perspective:

Employees feeling safe is #1.
This is perhaps the most important point from the session and is one that needs to be prioritized by all building owners and occupants – now and into the future. As Maslow’s Hierarchy shows us, safety is one of the foundational human needs. Without it, our ability to function in other areas can be limited. Employees need to feel safe personally, and also know that their environments and the actions they take throughout their day, including at work, are not increasing risk to loved ones and other in their lives.

It is no longer acceptable to report to work sick.
Gone are the typical days of dragging yourself into work to the accolades of others. The panelists spoke clearly to the negative effects this has had on people, and I unequivocally support the call for a change in this behavior – one I know my coworkers support as well. Whether it appears to be a simple cold or a more serious virus such as COVID-19, please stay home.

Partnership between building owners and occupants.
There are many factors that building occupants cannot assess or control. Collaboration and transparency between these entities will go a long way in supporting a safer environment for all involved. I met and exchanged emails with a number of owners and property managers over the past several months as we made plans for the safety of our own Bergmann office locations. You can find a list of helpful questions from my experience in this article.

Design intent vs actual behavior.
At one point in the panel discussion the question was posed, “why are sinks just in restrooms?!”. It was actually more of an exclamation than a question, and a very good one at that! It perfectly highlights how original intent on how a space was designed to function may not meet the current needs. We must open our minds and review all aspects of how people will and should use a space, and design for that.

Teach people how to use the buildings and space.
Rules of engagement are more important than ever and, knowing what we do about human behavior, we can’t just leave it to chance. People need repetition and reminders to form new habits. Setting expectations on how a building or space will be used is important. Examples include outlining acceptable areas for eating, guides for directing employee and visitor traffic flow, and visual cues for health and safety smart practices, such as hand washing.

Workspace design is potentially creating unwanted practices.
Cubicles and private office spaces have long been a standard format for many offices, and while I’m certainly not calling for their demise, the comment made during the event about privacy driving unwanted behavior struck me. As Coach John Wooden said “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” While I don’t believe people are intentionally taking actions to put others at risk, we are talking about building safety habits (to my last point). Actions like regular hand sanitation or sneezing into a tissue or a sleeve vs. hand are simple habits to do, but they are also simple to NOT do when in the privacy of your own space and not considering a pending encounter with another person.

Masks are making a difference.
This is an airborne virus that spreads via respiratory droplets. Masking within guidelines protects others from the wearer. We understand from the current use of masks that face coverings do work and are helping to reduce transmission. It is important right now that we wear a mask at the appropriate times and wear it correctly, covering the mouth and nose. I do not like it any more than the next person, but I will do it to keep you and those in your life safe.

There is no quick fix to this pandemic, but there is much we can learn that will benefit us by keeping us safe into the future.