A Touchless Transformation?

By Linda K. Monroe

Since the moment the COVID-19 pandemic first put the world in lockdown last year, building owners and property managers have been planning and preparing for the day tenants would return to the office and brick-and-mortar businesses would reopen.

That time has come.

A large part of the continuing post-COVID rethink involves further innovation, both operationally and technologically. “The perceived value of a physical work environment remains strong despite the pandemic’s broader transformational effects,” according to the BOMA International COVID-19 Commercial Real Estate Impact Study conducted in late 2020 among more than 3,000 office space decision-makers and influencers. “The likelihood to renew…[rises] to 66 percent if properties implement operational changes, including new services, features and physical spaces in response to the pandemic.”

Social distancing, disinfecting stations, frequent and visible cleaning, fresh air intake and clear-cut and communicated policies for building occupants and guests are among the well-established practices that can provide assurances to tenants that safety and well-being are top priorities. So, too, do a variety of technology tools, particularly touch-free options that replace common contact points. “The touchless workplace is by no means a fad,” says Tom Corso, vice president at Kansas City, Missouri-based MC Realty Group, LLC. “However, we have not scratched the surface of the capabilities of devices that are controlled by different types of sensing technologies.” 

Keith Major, CPM, agrees. In his position as managing partner of Canadian Office and Industrial at BentallGreenOak in Toronto, Major believes that touchless, in fact, will become standard in newly constructed buildings. “As that evolves into a new standard,” he adds, “we will see more existing buildings retrofitting to that new standard.”

From a designer’s perspective, Caitlin Turner, LEED Green Associate, senior principal and director of design, Interiors in the Toronto practice of HOK, points to the automotive and aviation industries—even dental offices—that have long embraced a form of universally accepted touchless technology. “But,” she continues, “we’re going to see an influx [in commercial spaces]—and I think that’s positive in terms of a building operator and owner, because people will be able to cycle through spaces like lobbies and passageways much quicker and more efficiently over time.” She also notes an important side benefit: “Whether it’s space analytics or sustainability metrics, some touchless technology can give you really rich data to make better decisions about your building going forward.”

Whether it’s space analytics or sustainability metrics, some touchless technology can give you really rich data to make better decisions about your building going forward.

Priority Drivers

Getting the most value for dollars spent is no easy task, and it’s not surprising that some touchless options can make a significant dent in capital budgets. David Ivey, LEED AP, senior technology manager and senior associate in HOK’s Chicago office, though, says costs are coming down. “It’s becoming ubiquitous,” he explains, adding that adoption is happening at a much faster pace now “because it has to. Tenants think of [touchless technology] as a necessary amenity,” especially with the high expectations inherent in Class A properties. 

Then, what best to automate? Major says a walk-through of each of his company’s properties helped them determine which high-traffic areas were touched by the most people. Front entrances, of course, were top of mind, followed—literally and sequentially—by elevators and washrooms. Due to accessibility requirements and scheduled modernizations, “most of our buildings were already there,” he shares. “If tenants choose to go hands-free in their meeting rooms, on their front doors, etc., they are more than welcome to—and we are happy to work with them—but we’re not planning to do that on our own.”

Much will depend upon each tenant’s work environment, specifically how each defines the future of their work. “It means you assess your space as an ecosystem and you understand your work behavior,” says Turner, adding that there’s no one-size-fits-all scenario in terms of how that will change. “Right now, all of us are on an equitable playing field: We are all home; we are all on video; no one gets more time with their [supervisor]. Once that changes, we’re going to see a lot of evolution in the workplace and what tenants are doing.”

Practical Touchless Solutions

Low-cost solutions start with good communication between property managers and their tenants. Signage, for instance, both directs and reminds individuals of healthy choices, whether it targets people density and social separation or good hygiene practices. The additional assurance gained from touchless technology, however, cannot be understated.

What are a few of the opportunities for altering shared touchpoints to touch-free? Our professionals weigh in about today’s solutions in their most common public spaces.

  • Doors: The long-established use of keycards will remain, but wave sensors versus push plates make access completely touch-free, according to Major. Corso sees automatic doors becoming even more popular, although he expresses concerns about aesthetics and access to power. Ivey reveals his company is replacing push plates on door handles with push plates at the bottom of doors to be opened by foot. And, of course, smartphones become badges for both remote check-in and on-site access control, depending upon compatible mobile apps with building software.
  • Elevators: Fobs or smartphones now can make floor selection a touch-free experience with available technology. Such dispatching software, particularly for elevators that are fairly new or recently upgraded, are a relatively easy undertaking, says Major, but those that have not been modernized within the past five years may require a more significant capital effort to become touchless. Although Turner acknowledges the expense associated with adapting to touch-free elevators, she also thinks many tenants may make them a focus. And, Corso notes that available NanoSeptic materials work to continuously self-clean surfaces, which may be ideal for elevator buttons and other areas in and around elevator banks.
  • Restrooms: In response to accessibility requirements and tenant preferences, many restrooms have become long-established touch-free environments, offering automated soap dispensers, faucets, hand dryers—some of which are an integrated unit, according to Turner—and self-flushing toilets. Entry/exit doors are high-use touchpoints that are being evaluated by Major’s company, but he adds that the capital needed to upgrade multiple doors in a large building may make this cost-prohibitive to some building owners.
  • Other spaces: Food services—via on-site food courts or multiple vending areas—are becoming more touchless venues when individuals use apps on their personal devices to order and pay, according to Ivey. For parking garages, hands-free gate openers are a frequent solution, says Corso. And, Turner points to the effectiveness of personal devices that use concierge-type apps to screen and check-in before arriving on-site to reduce face-to-face interaction once tenants leave their cars to enter their building.

A Touchless Tomorrow

The future holds myriad possibilities for a more touch-free environment in commercial spaces—smart systems are already well-known in residential and some high-security applications (think voice assistants Alexa and Siri). Robotics, biometrics, retinal scanning, airwriting, even face and vein recognition may become more in play as public demand increases and costs come down. Ivey suggests these and a broader use of artificial intelligence (AI), already quite common in China, may be on the rise in the next three to 10 years, although he offers, “I don’t know how it will apply to American values in terms of personal anonymity.”

As with any shift in innovation, there will be products that promise more than they deliver. But, Major says, “Over time, we will find that science will direct us in terms of the best use of some of these products. Science is catching up pretty quickly.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Linda K. Monroe, a freelance writer and editorial project manager, is a former editorial director at BUILDINGS magazine.