Spaces   //   March 30, 2022

What’s next in air-tech: Bosses take office air quality more seriously as employees demand it

Ryan McEniff didn’t need a pandemic to care about the air.

The owner of Minute Women Home Care in Lexington, Massachusetts, which provides home health services to seniors at home, McEniff’s office is located in a basement, where managing air quality can be a challenge. “It can be more humid and there is less air circulation because the windows we have are not big,” he explained. “This has always led us to having air purifiers and dehumidifiers to keep the air as clean as possible.”

Then Covid struck, which meant doubling down on ensuring air quality by investing in new filtration equipment and even renting out a separate space in which to conduct in-person interviews, isolated from the rest of his staff.

McIniff’s people took notice. “My employees saw I was taking extra precautions to keep the air as clean as possible and prevent office staff from contracting Covid, which I believe they appreciated and made them more comfortable coming to work in an office,” he said. 

A recent survey of 3,000 people in North America by Ambius, which provides products and services that support healthy commercial spaces, revealed that nearly three-quarters of us (74%) experience anxiety when entering buildings with poor indoor air quality, including workplaces. In fact, about the same number said they would consider quitting their jobs if wellness factors like air quality, hygiene and cleanliness, and access to green space or plants were not provided by employers. (On the subject of plants, one in three respondents said having greenery in their indoor spaces, including workspaces, has become more important since the onset of the pandemic.)

Seven in 10 of those surveyed by Ambius said their companies needed to make a greater investment in health, hygiene and safety.

“As a result of the pandemic, many people gained a heightened awareness of indoor air contaminants and other factors that impact their overall health,” said Matt Hayas, director of product and innovation at Ambius. “This heightened awareness has led to new perceptions and expectations for businesses to provide access to smarter, healthier indoor spaces for employees and consumers. Research shows that Americans spend 90% of their time indoors … and those working in offices spend at least 40 hours a week inside these spaces. Employees want and deserve to feel safe and protected.” 

The trend of making air quality a greater priority encompasses all kinds of spaces — from the smallest businesses to massive event venues. The iconic O2 Arena in London is one high-profile example. Ahead of the Brit Awards last May, the entertainment complex invested in a multilayer strategy to enhance the atmosphere, including the installation of a variety of Viruskiller brand air-decontamination units, which claim to defang virtually 100% of viruses and contaminants. 

“Office air quality, sadly an afterthought prior to Covid, has now become a priority for commercial real estate companies and businesses.”
Tony Abate, vp and chief technical officer at Atmos Air Solutions.

As more companies seek to return to the physical office with Covid cases waning, air quality has become a more urgent concern. “The office should function as a second home for employees, and without the proper environment, this is impossible,” said Camden Benoit, founder and CEO of Sustainably Off-Grid, which educates property owners and inhabitants about off-grid living. 

To improve office air quality, Benoit suggests simply starting by installing an air purifier. While there are many on the market, the product he’s had the most success using is the Blueair Blue Pure 211+. While expensive ($255.99 per unit), it claims to reduce 99% of smoke levels in under an hour, even in a 600-square-foot office (something the CEO knows much about, having worked in Northern California in the path of the state’s horrific wildfires). 

Other offices are upgrading their HVAC systems, to make the air better to breathe but also to help reassure employees returning to the workplace that their wellness is top of mind, noted Tony Abate, vp and chief technical officer at Atmos Air Solutions in Fairfield, Connecticut, and a certified indoor environmentalist. 

“Office air quality, sadly an afterthought prior to Covid, has now become a priority for commercial real estate companies and businesses,” he said. Abate points to what’s come to be known as “sick building syndrome,” caused by common threats in the air like germs, mold, dust, odors and viruses. 

While more businesses have turned to HEPA filters and UV lights, Abate maintained that these are a “passive technology,” meaning that contaminants must pass through a filter or light to be deweaponized. He pointed to the effectiveness of newer, more proactive technology like bipolar ionization (BPI), which involves tubes being added to HVAC systems that continually emit ions into the air to neutralize harmful matter, including coronavirus particles. 

Although he admitted there is no silver bullet, Abate stressed that tech like BPI can add an extra layer of protection — and peace of mind for employers and employees alike.