What Can We Learn from Going Back to Work in Our Shanghai Office?

In this article, Tetra Tech’s Shanghai team from our High Performance Buildings Group shares the modifications they made to their office, how their daily work and life routines have changed, and best practices for staying safe and healthy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The office manager measures the temperature for our employees every day before they come into the workplace using a handheld FLIR Tempscreen digital thermometer.

Along with much of China, our Shanghai team has begun returning to their office. It’s a high-performance space with some of the best air quality in the country. But during a pandemic, adjustments need to be made to maintain the health and safety of our staff.

Life is different. The basic ways we navigate our city and our office have changed in several ways, including our commute to work, how we eat, and how we interact with each other and clients. That’s led to a new normal.

Here’s what this new normal looks like, and how we’re keeping each other safe while working toward a sustainable future.

Commutes: Public Transportation

Signage at the entrance to the Shanghai subway marks off social distancing protocols. The signage at this entrance asks riders to keep a minimum of one meter between them.

For many in Shanghai, commuting is a mix of public transportation and rideshare. While both options are still active, the experience has changed. The entrance to the subway is now marked off with guidelines for social distancing, following the recommendation from the World Health Organization, though it is slightly less than what is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Riders are scanned by an infrared radiation thermometer to test their temperature before entering the train. Since fever is one of COVID-19’s key symptoms, this helps inform people they may need to seek a COVID-19 test, and if necessary, begin quarantine and treatment.

Temperature checks are now a part of everyday life. With fever being an early symptom, they help alert commuters that they may need to be tested for COVID-19.

Masks are commonplace everywhere, and especially on the train. Some people are taking extra precautions beyond what is recommended, including wearing gloves to prevent contact transmission. Rides can be quiet as people maintain social distancing.

Social distancing on public transit is difficult—extra precautions are part of the new normal.

Rideshares also remain a common way to commute. To provide protection for both the driver and rider, most cars have been outfitted with plastic dividers that keep them separate. Masks and gloves are generally necessary here as well, despite having the space to yourself.

Upon reaching our office, security will again scan your temperature as well as a QR code on your phone, which alerts you to whether you have recently been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Green means you are healthy and cleared to enter the space. Yellow and red mean you must enter a 7 to 14-day quarantine. The massive adoption of this method allows authorities to trace movements of individuals and gain a quicker understanding of where that patient has been and identify others with whom they have been in contact with. While this safety code is an effective way to contact trace, it is an extreme measure that has brought up questions regarding individual privacy and civil liberties, with lingering concerns over what else can be done with the collected data. 

Entering the Office

Under our office policy, whoever travels back from other provinces throughout the country must self-quarantine for 14 days before they can return to our space. Our remote work capabilities have been well established at this point, allowing this extra protective safety measure for our staff.

We’ve instituted a shoe shelf—our staff keep a pair of shoes in the office and change when they arrive. This is a common practice in a lot of cities where walking, biking, and public transit are primary methods of commuting. What was once done out of comfort is now an added health and wellness measure. Staff also change from street to work clothes once they enter the office.

Clean hands and surfaces remain a key tool in combating the virus in interior spaces. Hand sanitizer and surface cleaners are a now fixture in every area of our office.

Hand sanitizer and disinfectant are kept at the reception desk for employees to disinfect before they come into the workplace. Advanced cleaning measures are necessary for surfaces as well. A balance between the types of cleaners we use and their true effectiveness needs to be struck—we don’t want to have to lean on toxic cleaners with terrible environmental outcomes, like bleach, to maintain baseline health in our work spaces.

The office manager measures the temperature for our employees every day before they come into the workplace using a handheld FLIR Tempscreen digital thermometer. This allows the office manager to maintain a safe distance, and while they have already been scanned prior to arriving into the building, this is an added health protocol that deepens a sense of safety and wellness for staff. New masks are also distributed to our staff each day.

Contact-free delivery is the new normal. We have placed a shelf at the front by the door for the courier to place packages on, with instructions to call the recipient to pick up the delivery once they have left. Lunch is also delivered this way, although most staff are now bringing food from home and seeing dramatic improvements in their personal cooking skills.

Recirculated air systems can move the virus around a room, so operable windows are a key tool in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Clean, naturally ventilated outdoor air improves interior conditioning and lowers spread incidents.

We have also installed three air purifiers throughout the space which are kept on all day to reduce particles that may carry viruses. However, one of the best ways to maintain clean air levels in a space is to keep it well ventilated. This is something we have been working with clients on for years, but perhaps now more than ever the benefits are proving crucial. We turn off the return air and operate the air handling unit (AHU) on dedicated outdoor air mode to avoid cross contamination. This is one of our primary pieces of advice to clients—completely shutting off return air is key, especially in high-rise office towers where one AHU is serving multiple tenant spaces.

The new normal looks a lot different, but these changes underscore the importance of sustainable and wellness-focused building design. As one of the most high-performance spaces in China, our space has already been equipped with or is easily retrofitted to integrate some of these helpful operational and behavioral changes to keep our staff safe.