Spaces   //   July 19, 2023

How to prepare workspaces to cope with climate change conditions

Wildfire smoke, flooding, extreme heat. These are elements that we are all dealing with more frequently as a result of climate change.

But how is it impacting the workplace?

We spoke to workplace experts to learn more about the effects of climate change for employers and what they can do to prepare either existing buildings or new-builds to safeguard employees.

1. Creating a place of refuge

Top of the list is figuring out how workplaces can be a place of refuge when temperatures rise to blistering heights or the air quality worsens.

For months now employers have been touting their offices as hot spots for collaboration, with superior technology, comfortable layout designs and free lunches, to encourage people to return. Soon they may need to add top-tier cooling systems and supreme air quality to the list of work perks, experts say.

As weather conditions have become more extreme, people decked out their home-work spaces with air filtration systems, and blasted their AC, only to rack up steep electric bills. While homes can be made comfortable, experts argue the systems in place in the office are even more reliable, and is an amenity that workers can take advantage of.

“A lot of office buildings will continue to outperform a lot of homes on that front, which may add to the list of why someone seeks a professional workplace,” said Phil Kirschner, a senior expert and associate partner at management consultancy McKinsey & Company.

Coping with extreme weather could become a clear incentive as to why employees should return to the office, he said. “It’s possible to leverage the ‘hey, being here, my environment is physically better than most of the other environments I’m spending serious amounts of time,’” said Kirschner.

“It’s possible to leverage the ‘hey, being here, my environment is physically better than most of the other environments I’m spending serious amounts of time.’”
Phil Kirschner, senior expert and associate partner, McKinsey & Company.

Plus, the office may well become a useful sanctuary for when climate change affects transportation. For example, if the subway systems become flooded, someone might choose to stay at work a bit longer.

“If people can’t move, the office can be a place of refuge where you’re still getting heating and cooling,” said ​​Kirsten Ritchie, global climate action and sustainability leader at architecture firm Gensler. “It’s providing more amenities built in that can help support that.”

That can range from having a well-designed kitchen, with good storage options for people who want to keep food and snacks at the office, with good quality hydration stations. 

2. Climate change readiness assessment

Ritchie says that a climate change readiness assessment will help workplaces determine what they need to improve in the near future, as the effects of climate change are expected to only grow. That will involve assessing at what point temperatures become too hot to work effectively in or analyzing the capacity of cooling systems. For example, it doesn’t need to be cooled all the way down to 68 degrees Fahrenheit if it’s 85 F outside.

“It’s making sure that you have the controllability of your systems to be able to tweak the thermostat depending on the stress,” said Ritchie. “We’re going to have hotter hots, colder colds. We have to have systems that can accommodate that.”

It also means preparing for things like more wildfire smoke in the air. Although the West Coast has been long familiar with the reality of this, it’s new for the East Coast. “It’s recognizing things like what happens when there is a wildfire elsewhere and what the smoke impacts will be,” said Ritchie. “How do you prepare for those days or weeks where there is smoke and it’s not healthy to be outside?”

3. Navigating how to be grid responsive

With all of these extreme environments and stressors, comes the challenge of delivering power, primarily electricity in your grid. Those in highly populated areas, like New York City or Los Angeles, might be all too familiar with alerts on hot days that ask you to set your air conditioner to 78 F or higher, turn off unnecessary lights and unplug electrical devices you’re not using, so as not to put unnecessary strain on the grid supply.

But large buildings that eat up a lot of energy supply can play a role too. “It’s notching down how much energy you are using for lighting in the common areas, or putting the elevator on a slower schedule so they’re not drawing so much power,” said Ritchie. “What are some things you can be doing, back of the house, to kind of trim back some of those energy loads?”

“What are some things you can be doing, back of the house, to kind of trim back some of those energy loads?”
Kirsten Ritchie, global climate action and sustainability leader, Gensler.

There’s also workplace appliances, like big refrigerators and ice machines, that might be better to use when it’s not a peak time and the grid is overwhelmed. 

“It’s that kind of intelligence and being more attuned to the grid and smarter about when you’re using energy,” said Ritchie.  

4. Improving air quality

Covid-19 brought air quality in the workplace to the forefront, but it continues to be a hot topic as we see things like wildfire smoke and heightened allergy seasons. 

“It’s pushing the envelope on improving air quality,” said Ritchie. “A big one is improving the infiltration systems for where you bring in outside air.”

That means ensuring that systems are taking out these small particulates and that there isn’t a build up of carbon dioxide. Ritchie said she’s seeing more companies deploy sensor technology in office spaces to make sure that’s happening.

5. Bringing outside inside

“If it’s truly hot outside, but we do want fresh air, it’s creating an interesting mix of indoor and outdoor,” said Kirschner. “You’re turning the fully air conditioned, sealed internal office into something that can be more open.”

Even though our environment outside is changing, people still feel best when they have the sun shining on them and easy access to fresh air. That’s why companies are designing offices that take advantage of natural sunlight and using plants. For example, dairy company fairlife’s Chicago office has carpets that resemble a grassy field and planters for visual barriers.

Meanwhile, Adobe’s headquarters in San Jose, California has earth tones throughout, with a meeting room enclosed with glass to resemble a greenhouse. 

“Green spaces and biophilia are still very much on the top of the list,” said Kirschner. “Developers will continue to build both more intelligent and sustainable buildings that address employee demand, but also reduce energy consumption.”