COVID’s Impact on Forming a More Holistic Facility Cleaning Paradigm

Three years ago, COVID-19 began making a significant impact on how we live and work, and there’s no question it’s had a lasting influence on how we view public and individual health. Among the many changes that COVID-19 caused, the pandemic placed a higher emphasis on the air we breathe and helped to educate the public about how we can protect ourselves from viruses and other irritants by prioritizing indoor air quality (IAQ), especially in shared spaces.

In the facility cleaning industry, COVID-19 required a shift in how cleaning professionals view cleaning and sanitation in shared spaces to focus on the idea of “complete clean,” which evaluates facility cleanliness holistically, with emphasis on air and surfaces.

Before March 2020, the cleaning industry’s focus was mainly on cleaning surfaces to prevent the spread of illness. COVID-19 demonstrated the importance of clean air — which can remove particles before they hit surfaces — to keep people healthy.

In the cleaning industry, COVID-19 led to a shift in how we view cleaning and sanitation in shared spaces. Before, the traditional notion was that clean surfaces equate to clean spaces to prevent the spread of illness — after COVID-19 demonstrated the importance of clean air to keep people healthy, IAQ has become a prominent focus of facility managers and cleaning industry professionals.

According to a report published by the Lancet COVID-19 Commission air purification, combined with commissioning building systems, ventilation and improving HVAC filters to MERV 13, is one of the best approaches to reduce risk from COVID-19.

Properly-sized, localized air purifiers with H13 True HEPA filtration helped reduce in-room concentrations of airborne particles, including those carrying viral material. Localized air purification became—and continues to be—a common strategy to combat COVID-19 due to its cost-effectiveness and flexibility to fit in any space where larger modifications are impossible, time consuming or costly.

Applying What We’ve Learned During National Cleaning Week

Now, three years later, COVID-19’s impact has become manageable from the standpoint of public health, but many of the changes it caused are here to stay. This includes a greater prioritization of air purification and other strategies to ensure the best possible indoor air quality to help keep people healthy. In fact, ASHRAE recently committed to the development of an IAQ pathogen mitigation standard, which is anticipated to provide code enforceable guidelines for IAQ design, operation, testing and more in 2023.

While ASHRAE is an organization mostly associated with HVAC, it’s important to consider the impact of air quality on the cleanliness of surfaces.

As National Cleaning Week approaches from 3/27 to 4/2, IAQ improvements should be an area of focus for cleaning industry professionals looking to provide the cleanest environment in their facilities, going beyond surfaces to address the unseen risks in the air that we breathe.

Restrooms are a location with high impact on customer perceptions in all types of facilities. 74% of Americans said dirty restrooms would cause them to have a negative perception of a business, according to a Harris Poll conducted in partnership with Cintas. It’s important to consider holistic cleaning in restrooms, where poor air quality can drive negative perceptions just as much as unclean surfaces and poorly stocked soap, paper towels or working hand dryers.

Cleaning professionals must carefully balance a holistic cleaning approach that includes clean air and clean surfaces.

  • In fact, too much emphasis on cleaning surfaces with disinfectants could have a negative impact on IAQ, especially for people with asthma.
  • Additionally, vacuuming can release contaminants into the air.
  • Clean indoor air leads to increased clean indoor surfaces. Once removed from the air they are no longer landing on surfaces.

How Cleaning Has Changed in Three Heavily Affected Industries

The Corporate World

After a large shift to remote work for the first two years of the pandemic, the corporate workforce has slowly transitioned back into the office, with many adopting a hybrid model. Kastle Systems, a leading office keycard provider, reported that offices in 10 top American cities surpassed 50% occupancy in February 2023 for just the second time since March 2020.

Employees are now more aware of the risks associated with shared spaces and are demanding a higher degree of health measures that enables them to feel safe in their offices. Fellowes recent survey of office workers revealed that the majority of employees (88%) believe that clean indoor air should be a right for all employees, and are at least somewhat concerned (73%) with the current air quality in their office space.

Employers now have a greater responsibility to provide a healthier and safer environment for employees that extends beyond protection against COVID-19. This includes investing in air purification to reduce the likelihood of illness, improve employee productivity and help prevent the long-term health impacts of poor air quality, which include respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer.
Employer responsibilities to their employees’ health is also likely to change as a greater focus is put toward climate-related environmental, societal and governance (ESG) reporting. The SEC is currently pushing toward greater climate impact disclosures, which will likely encourage employers to put more emphasis on IAQ to mitigate pollution.

Corporate environments also must account for long-term health risks associated with poor air quality, as employees spend large portions of their lives within one space. According to the EPA, health impacts of poor IAQ go far beyond the spread of illness, and can include headaches, fatigue, respiratory diseases and even heart disease and cancer.

The long-term impact of poor air quality affects not only employee health, but also corporate success. Illness, allergies and other health concerns brought on by poor IAQ contribute to employee absenteeism, which can have a significant impact on a corporation’s bottom line.

The K-12 Education Sector

Similar to the corporate world, the education sector also largely shifted to remote settings during the pandemic, and has since transitioned back to in-person learning. Now, schools must make up for lost time and avoid further learning loss by ensuring conditions are ideal for student performance.

Air quality is shown to be key in helping students, teachers and staff perform their best at work by reducing absenteeism caused by viruses, allergens, contaminants and indoor pollutants. K-12 students are impacted heavily by absenteeism, and greater absenteeism caused by illness and other factors has been shown to contribute to learning loss and decrease performance.

Air quality affects teacher performance as well. In Fellowes’ recent survey of educators, 97% of teachers surveyed believe that clean air helps them perform their best work and has a direct impact on how students perform in the classroom.

Investing in IAQ through air purification, improved ventilation, upgraded HVAC systems and other strategies can help students and teachers attend class more regularly and reduce the negative effects of absenteeism. The benefits certainly extend beyond preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses—asthma-related illnesses account for more than 14 million missed school days a year, according to the EPA. This number could be greatly reduced with improved IAQ, and would help keep more children healthy and in class.

Unlike other industries, K-12 education has greater opportunity for funding to invest in IAQ solutions. ESSER funds for COVID-19 recovery in K-12 schools are set to continue through September 2024 and can be used to purchase air purifiers, improve HVAC systems and make other IAQ upgrades. Schools can also seek additional funding from local governments, school boards and public health initiatives once ESSER funds run out to ensure that their facilities are the most up-to-date spaces for students to thrive.

The Hospitality Industry

The hospitality industry was one of the most heavily impacted by COVID-19. In April 2020, hotel occupancy dropped to a historic low of 24.5% according to a report from the American Hotel and Lodging Association, and the industry continues to recover from great losses three years later.

Hospitality demand is slowly returning, now with a customer base that’s more educated on the importance of air quality for their health. The AHLA anticipates hotel occupancy to average 52.5% this year, closer to pre-pandemic levels (66%), as more than half of Americans plan to travel for leisure this year.

Travelers have higher expectations of cleanliness according to a study from P&G Professional.

  • Cleanliness and housekeeping procedures were ranked as the most important attributes for hotel guests, surpassing both the price of the room and location of the hotel.
  • 67% of respondents expected to see more thorough and frequent cleaning.
  • 61% expected to see more visible methods of cleaning, like pamphlets and signage.
  • 57% expected more transparency around what hotels are doing to keep guests safe and rooms clean, both in-person and on the company website.

Hospitality organizations must invest in air quality improvements now to ensure that they can compete in this recovering industry, recoup their losses from the last three years and offer the enhanced health measures that their customers demand.

Looking Forward

As the public continues to demand a greater focus on air quality management for overall health and wellbeing—and industry organizations like ASHRAE place a higher emphasis on air quality standards and performance—IAQ must be a focus for the corporate, education and hospitality industries. Indoor air quality is not a “nice-to-have” as it was in the pre-COVID world—it’s now a must for these sectors that function in densely-populated, shared spaces.

In these industries, cleaning professionals and facility managers are key to making IAQ a focus of facility health and safety. As the people working within these facilities every day, they must push for the incorporation of air purification and other measures into accepted standards and practices.

The positive for these industries is that the investment in air quality management can benefit organizations financially in the long-term. According to a recent CogFX study from the Harvard School of Public Health, the estimated cost to achieve healthier building ventilation standards is only tens of dollars per person per year, while the benefits are in the order of $6,000 to $7,000 per person per year.

Organizations that are looking to invest in air purification to improve their space’s health and performance should consider products that offer the following:

  • Integration that complements existing systems and technologies. Air purification systems must function in tandem with HVAC systems to provide the optimal air quality for a room’s occupancy.
  • Enhanced ability to sense and react to changing needs of a space. This ensures that air is always safe to breathe regardless of a space’s occupancy, and saves energy costs by reducing purification efforts in unoccupied spaces.
  • Visibility and transparency into system performance, offering comprehensive monitoring of a space’s IAQ and the ability to make adjustments in real-time from any device.