Author(s): Kristin Bigda. Published on November 8, 2021.

In Compliance | NFPA 101

The COVID Effect: Office fire and life safety in the age of the hybrid workplace 


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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the look and feel of the traditional office building environment, most notably in the way many companies have managed a series of workforce transitions. Workplaces have shifted from most employees working full time in the office to fully remote at the peak of the pandemic to a more recent hybrid model, where employees split their week between in-person days at the office and other days working remote from their residence or another off-site location.

This new way of working in office buildings impacts the fire safety features and plans of these buildings, and new risks may need to be considered when evaluating the fire safety features addressed by NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®.

Emergency fire drills

In all business occupancies that are occupied by more than 500 people—or by more than 100 people above or below the street level—periodic instruction and fire drills must be held for employees and other supervisory personnel. The purpose of emergency egress and relocation drills is to educate the participants in the fire safety features of the building, the egress facilities available, and the procedures to be followed. Drills are to be designed in cooperation with the local authorities and held with a sufficient frequency to familiarize the occupants with the drill procedure.

Because of the now-common hybrid work environment, there is an increased likelihood that a percentage of employees will be working remotely on any given day. To sufficiently drill and educate all occupants, the frequency and approach to fire drills may have to be reevaluated by the facility to reach all employees and satisfy the intent of the code. It also becomes increasingly important that there are designated employees who can be trained in the proper safety procedures and to properly direct other occupants of the building in case of emergency evacuation or relocation. Drills must also simulate the various conditions that might occur during an actual emergency. Where buildings have been reconfigured to reflect new workspace arrangements, it will be important to drill occupants on these new arrangements and any changes impacting access to exits.

Egress capacity

The occupant load of a particular space is determined as either the greater of the calculated occupant load or the maximum probable number of people in the space. Sufficient egress capacity from the space must then be provided to accommodate the determined occupant load. Due to reconfigured workspaces that change the number or people in a space (more or less), a mandated reduction in employees implemented for health and safety limitations, or mandated capacity limitations of meeting spaces and other large office spaces, the number of employees present in an office building at one time might not always be as great as when a business was working fully in-person.

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However, even though there might be fewer employees in a space, a reduction in occupant load and egress capacity for the purposes of safe egress design is not permitted. NFPA 101 provides no exception to reducing the calculated occupant load or limiting capacity of a space due to other reasons that might cause a reduction in the number of occupants. Egress capacity is required to be provided for the occupant load of the space as determined by the definition of occupant load in NFPA 101.

Change management

Hybrid work routines have caused businesses to rethink how they use their building space. In some cases, where fewer employees are present in the building each day due to remote work, there may be space in the building that is freed up for different uses. Existing office space may be converted to storage areas or additional collaborative or research workspace; enclosed offices might be converted to create a more open, transient workspace. Whatever the change might be, it is critical to recognize that protection requirements of the newly created space may differ from how it was previously used.

According to Chapter 43 of NFPA 101, a change of use occurs when there is a change in purpose or level of activity in a building that involves a change in how the code is applied to the space (but it remains in the same occupancy classification). A change of use that does not involve a change of occupancy must comply with the requirements that are applicable to the new use that was created in accordance with the existing occupancy chapter. For example, if individual enclosed offices are turned into small collaboration rooms to accommodate hybrid work meetings, this would be considered a change of use because the occupant load factor of the collaboration rooms is different from general business use. If a change of use creates what the code considers to be a hazardous area, additional, more restrictive provisions may apply. Other work that is being done as part of the change of use would also require compliance with the applicable provisions of the specific work category per Chapter 43.

While working in office buildings during and after COVID-19 might look and feel different for many of us than it used to, the importance of maintaining an office environment safe from fire and other emergencies remains. Reevaluating fire drills, maintaining sufficient egress capacity, and managing the impact of building renovation projects to accommodate the new use of office space are only a few considerations that might challenge office buildings in the new future of hybrid work.

KRISTIN BIGDA is technical lead for Engineering Technical Services at NFPA. NFPA members and AHJs can use the Technical Questions tab to post queries on NFPA 101 at Top photograph: Getty Images