Why Building Design Matters in Response to Coronavirus

By Dr. Whitney Austin Gray, Senior Vice President, Research, International WELL Building Institute and Sarah Welton, Vice President, Commercial, International WELL Building Institute
Jun 5, 2020 12:35 PM ET
Blog


Your office building as a risk management solution

Abstract
Recent global disruptions — power outages, wildfires, novel coronavirus outbreaks — have a way of revealing dormant organizational problems. But, they also have a way of revealing outliers of business excellence. Companies need to be adaptable to an increasingly disruptive world in order to be successful long-term. Today, adaptability is achieved through engagement in proven risk management processes, with particular focus on organizations’ most important assets — their people. With new threats of infectious diseases and workforce engagement at consistently low levels, workplace design and policy strategies can be used to help reduce risk in times of disruption. Both the effort and effect from these practices should be captured in more robust social metrics reported in environmental, social and governance (ESG) documentation, as research suggests these items are increasingly material to investors.

INTRODUCTION
The best corporate leaders in the world expect chaos.¹ And in today’s world, the best of the best are expecting and planning for chaos from all angles.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has arguably changed the world permanently. Inevitably, it will also transform organizations — from the way they operate to the way they plan for risk. This pandemic affected the vast majority of businesses across the world, forcing them to do everything from implement work-from-home policies to issue mass layoffs. But prior to the outbreak, we also have to acknowledge there was plenty of disruptive change anticipated that many ignored or were under-prepared for.

For instance, scientists have been warning us for years about the effects climate change will have on both natural and human systems — wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, and increases in vector-borne diseases.² At the same time, economists have been warning of dramatic shifts in a post-industrial economy that centers more on knowledge, services, technology and experience than ever before.³

With uncertainty being the only certainty, strategic corporations are focusing on perfecting their organizational process of risk planning, iterating, and identifying tools and strategies that will help them achieve their risk-mitigation goals in ever-changing circumstances.

Many organizational leaders are beginning to understand that some of the most powerful, unexpected tools in their toolkit are in the realm of workplace design and organizational policy.⁴ Corporations measuring and reporting use of these new 21st century risk mitigation strategies will likely take shape as key Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) metrics referenced by investors.

In particular, we anticipate that enhanced Social ‘S’ metrics in traditional ESG reporting will be deemed critical and material information in the future.⁵

THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT HAS CHANGED FOREVER. AND IT’S STILL CHANGING…
In 1989 the infamous Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound — killing thousands of animals and damaging over 1,000 miles of coastline.⁶ The incident captured Americans’ attention and their outrage was clear. This marked a pivotal incident that — from an environmental perspective — the worst can happen. And it did happen.

The Exxon Valdez spill was later largely attributed to failed monitoring equipment on the vessel that was deemed ‘too expensive’ to fix. The incident fundamentally shifted how organizations monitored and measured their environmental risk factors in real-time. It also catalyzed more robust environmental risk mitigation planning and implementation amongst businesses.⁶

Today, the novel coronavirus pandemic is the issue capturing most everyone’s attention globally. Unlike the Exxon Valdez, most people around the world are directly personally affected by the pandemic. They are ‘sheltering in place,’ social distancing, cancelling conferences, and — for many — working from home. Many are getting laid off and are worried about how they are going to pay for basic essentials for themselves and their families.⁷ ⁸

In short, the effects of the pandemic are being felt here and now. They are not predictions of future loss or future problems. They are not effects that will ‘trickle down’ to them through a complex ecosystem or through natural processes eventually.

These types of ‘in your face’ problems are the ones that humans tend to respond to.

Of course, this pandemic will pass, but effects on employees’ fear, anxiety and overall mental health will likely ripple out much longer. The key question therefore is, what are organizations going to do to solve for the fallout, and why are prioritizing these actions a strategic business move?

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