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MILLENNIALS: INDOOR AIR QUALITY’S IMPACT ON WORK AND TRAVEL

OVERVIEW

In just one year, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way people look at indoor air quality, health, and safety. Despite decades of efforts to improve general air quality threatened by fossil-fuel pollution, wildfires, automobiles, agriculture, power generation, and other pollution, never before has indoor air quality (IAQ) entered the mainstream consciousness the way it did in 2020. 

IAQ and healthy indoor environments have been studied, managed, and proven to boost the comfort, productivity, health, and wellness of occupants for years. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates improving IAQ in offices could add as much as $20 billion annually to the US economy. These insights will drive today’s leading employers and hotels to actively seek healthier buildings for their employees as they plan their economic recoveries, including making an investment in IAQ.

Today, over a year into the pandemic, there’s now ever-more persuasive evidence that we all must care about the air inside the places we work, travel to, and play in—with health and wellness benefits that extend well after vaccinations are prevalent.MIT researchers are now pointing to new scientific evidence that social distancing, whether 6 ft. or 60 ft. apart, even when wearing a mask, is less effective if the air indoors isn’t properly managed. The research holds policymakers and building engineers accountable for providing clean air in public buildings.

In May 2021, Carbon Lighthouse surveyed 1,000 US consumers to gauge sentiments about indoor air quality as they consider returning to workplaces and hotels. The results-focused specifically on millennials since, at 56 million and growing, they will account for 75% of the workforce by 2025 with increasing buying power; they’re already expected to spend more than others in the next six months despite the pandemic. There isn’t any industry or corner of the economy that can dismiss such a massive segment of its workforce and still recover. This warrants a closer examination of millennials’ sentiments as more offices and hotels begin to welcome tenants and guests back in. 

Growing Research on the Importance of IAQ

Advanced research is now proving that IAQ must be monitored and closely managed, whether in response to the current pandemic or as ongoing health and wellness efforts. 

The Atlantic recently featured insights from Lidia Morawska, MHC, Ph.D., an aerosols expert at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. Morawska has long promoted the idea of improving indoor ventilation, pushing nearly two decades ago for the World Health Organization to enact stricter guidelines in the wake of the SARS-1 outbreak. In the article, 6 Questions for the Boss Who Wants You Back in Your Cubicle, Morawska posits that higher air quality standards might have helped control the spread of the coronavirus in the United States last year during the initial outbreak. 

Morawska recently joined nearly 40 other experts in calling for a “paradigm shift” to combat indoor respiratory infection, including COVID-19 and other airborne viruses like the flu. 

“There is great disparity in the way we think about and address different sources of environmental infection,” reads the summary in Science. “Governments have for decades promulgated a large amount of legislation and invested heavily in food safety, sanitation, and drinking water for public health purposes. By contrast, airborne pathogens and respiratory infections, whether seasonal influenza or COVID-19, are addressed fairly weakly, if at all, in terms of regulations, standards, and building design and operation, pertaining to the air we breathe. We suggest that the rapid growth in our understanding of the mechanisms behind respiratory infection transmission should drive a paradigm shift in how we view and address the transmission of respiratory infections to protect against unnecessary suffering and economic losses. It starts with a recognition that preventing respiratory infection, like reducing waterborne or foodborne (sic) disease, is a tractable problem.”

A cosignatory of the Science tract, Joseph Allen, DSc, MPH, director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings Program and co-author of Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity said, “We know that better ventilation is associated with many positive benefits: better cognitive function, better performance on reading-comprehension tests in schools, better performance on math tests, (and) fewer worker absences.” 

Supporting Allen’s take, The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function (COGfx) study conducted by global HVAC company Carrier found that participants’ cognitive function more than doubled in green buildings with enhanced ventilation compared to those in conventional buildings. 

Further, many industry organizations have touted improving air quality as a crucial step in combating the spread of infection from the coronavirus. Both the Centers for Disease Control and American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers came out in support of higher ventilation rates and amplified filtration. 

Now that some of the immediate business uncertainties following the pandemic are behind us, science and data are proving that indoor air quality cannot be ignored in the continued fight against COVID-19, and tenants, employees, and guests are taking notice. 

TODAY’S LEADING EMPLOYEES WANT AIR QUALITY TRANSPARENCY 

While building owners and operators tackle the practical issues of improving ventilation and filtration in the workplace, employers that lease offices must consider employees’ changing attitudes about working in offices. Employers are increasingly seeing the merits of a hybrid office model and expect to see a majority of employees back in the office. While employees do feel the office was important for collaborating with team members and building relationships, far less are expecting to spend time in the office than anticipated by employers. More importantly, employees’ concerns over health and safety will outweigh all other considerations when returning to the office. Now more than ever, employers must be able to assure employees that health and safety are a top priority—especially when it comes to air quality. 

The Carbon Lighthouse survey showed that 82% of millennials would feel safer returning to offices with real-time IAQ information available via their phone or computer. 

But providing today’s leading workforce with the IAQ information they need will require collaboration with building management teams to ensure they have a good understanding of what IAQ measures have been taken and to ensure employee needs are being met as they transition back into the office. 

By making real-time IAQ monitoring a part of their office re-entry strategy, corporate teams will have the tools they need to manage employee concerns around indoor air quality. The COVID-19 pandemic will end, but the need for a greater focus on IAQ isn’t going anywhere. IAQ will be critical for employers who want their millennial workforce to feel safe returning, and to be healthier, focused, and more productive when they do.

 

OFFICE OWNERS & OPERATORS’ IAQ OPPORTUNITY

It will be millennials’ willingness to step inside public buildings that form the bedrock of our economic recovery in 2021. Commercial property owners and operators must quell the IAQ concerns of tenants and their employees as part of any successful re-occupancy strategy. Whether returning to traditional offices or coworking spaces, IAQ concerns are prompting serious questions from tenants who are working to bring employees back to the office, questions that CRE has never had to answer before.

Carbon Lighthouse’s survey revealed that millennials will be asking the following questions when returning to the office—questions they’ve previously never asked: 

    • what kind of air filters the building uses (56%)
    • if their workspaces have safe indoor air (37%)
    • what IAQ measures building management has taken to make the building safe (46%)
    • if building management monitors IAQ for safety (44%) 
    • if building management updated the air filtration system given the risk of airborne viruses (43%)

The good news is that for decades, owners and operators of commercial real estate (CRE) have successfully managed the air inside their office buildings to filter out harmful indoor and outdoor pollutants, germs, and viruses from the air that tenants breathe. Therein lies a distinct advantage in inviting tenants back to the office—IAQ transparency. 

Like most consumers, millennials after 2020 are more educated about their health and safety and are transparency-motivated, looking to re-enter spaces on their terms and with an enhanced understanding of what is considered healthy air. They understand the power of data and have relied on up-to-date information to help keep them safe this past year. According to Carbon Lighthouse’s IAQ survey, 68% of millennials said that real-time IAQ information would make them feel safest when returning to work compared to annual certifications (27%) and one-time health and wellness audits (5%). Static, outdated information simply won’t be sufficient. 

CRE property owners proactively addressing concerns about IAQ with real-time, accessible IAQ information will have a distinct advantage in inviting tenants back to the office. Many millennials (65%) already use apps, devices, or air purifiers to monitor or improve the air quality at home. With 88% of millennials saying they’d likely use a real-time IAQ app, CRE has an opportunity to leverage data-backed technologies. 

IAQ WILL IMPACT MILLENNIAL TRAVEL & GROUP BOOKINGS 

What’s true in offices is also true in hotels: Though they’re eager to get back out and explore the world, travelers are looking for reassurances that their health is being ppl taken into account when they book a room. 

After a year without travel, the Carbon Lighthouse survey revealed that 84% of millennials have their bags packed and ready to go, with plans to stay in a hotel in 2021. In fact, according to TripAdvisor and Accenture, a third of high-income millennials are planning to spend more than $5,000 on an upcoming luxury trip. Hotels are seeing an early uptick of group bookings for social gatherings like long-postponed weddings, family reunions, and traveling sports teams. This presents an opportunity to invest in attracting these early travelers, 72% of whom are millennials as the Carbon Lighthouse survey revealed, to lock in a group booking.

Hotels have long invested in experiential travel to fulfill millennials’ demand to immerse themselves in the culture of the places they visit. Despite progress against the pandemic, millennial travelers are aware of the role air quality plays in the viral spread, and the survey reveals that IAQ offers a new way to help guests feel safer about staying at a hotel.

    • 78% of millennials would at least feel slightly safer staying at a hotel with access to real-time IAQ information on their devices.
    • 73% of millennials would consider IAQ when booking a stay or attending a social gathering. 

But hotels don’t just serve vacationers; business travelers are also looking at IAQ as they look to return to in-person meetings, conferences, and conventions, and their cohort represents the hotel industry’s leading source of revenue. 

The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) released a report on the state of the hotel industry, indicating that while leisure travel is forecasted to return first, business travel, including in-person meetings and conferences, will slowly begin to return over the second half of 2021. Their survey of business travelers indicated that 20% planned on attending their first business conference in the first half of the year, 36% in the second half of the year, and 20% more in 2022. 

After more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, vacationers and business travelers alike are looking to move forward with a greater focus on their health and safety than ever before. When they do, they’ll be looking for the comfort provided by real-time IAQ monitoring in hotels, conference centers, and convention halls. Hotels can market their IAQ to differentiate themselves from the competition and stand out as a destination for business and leisure millennial travelers. 

CONCLUSION

What consumers have had to endure in 2020 has left them scarred and scared — helping them understand the real versus perceived risks in returning to public indoor spaces, with scientifically proven and data-backed evidence, is the key. It is science and data that has educated them on COVID-19, tracked its progress, and informed them about the progression of vaccines—offering hope and relief that the worst of the pandemic is over. Those employers, office and hotel owners, and operators that proactively prove their continued commitment to health, wellness, and safety will earn the trust needed to ensure today’s consumers can return confidently. IAQ can be a catalyst for a much-needed economic and social recovery, but it cannot happen without an investment from employers, hoteliers, and commercial real estate property owners. 


ABOUT CARBON LIGHTHOUSE’S IAQ APP — VAIRIFY

Carbon Lighthouse is a tech company enabling profitable decarbonization for commercial real estate (CRE). Making building performance data more accessible is a fundamental problem the company has been solving for years in the pursuit of its mission to stop climate change. Now, Carbon Lighthouse is using this expertise to offer a real-time, occupant-facing IAQ app, VAIRIFY. Purpose-built to increase consumer confidence, VAIRIFY drives employee confidence, leasing activity, and hotel bookings by marketing a building’s IAQ.

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