Businesses worldwide continue to rethink their operations as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Slowly, employees are returning to their places of business, while not totally abandoning their home offices. The dilemma now facing occupiers is how to continue this population shift safely and efficiently and return to some type of normalcy.
While the advantages of remote working have been made clear, there are still many employees who want the in-office experience of camaraderie, collaboration and company culture—elements that have been sorely missed since March. In addition, much has been written about the advantages of employees working under one roof when it comes to productivity, recruiting and training. Companies are looking to ease cautiously back into the office—whether full time or in a hybrid model.
That’s good news for building owners and managers, who are working to provide a smooth, safe return for their tenants. Some occupants will undoubtedly be hesitant about returning to the office in the near term and have questions around everything from heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems to cleaning protocols. So, what are property managers doing as they accommodate tenants’ Great Return, and what technologies are helping them in that process?
TECH ADVANCEMENT ON STEROIDS
The use of technology was already in play pre-COVID-19, of course, but the pandemic has accelerated the need. "When tenants walk into their building, it’s obviously going to look different than it did when they left it more than six months ago," says Doug Stewart, head of Cushman & Wakefield’s Digital Buildings practice.
To ease the increased complexity of moving in and around a building, such applications as touchless kiosks to scan people’s temperatures and digital ID badges on smartphones will ease access to specific elevators and floors.
Obviously, cramming into elevators as tenants did pre-pandemic isn’t going to cut it in a world of social distancing. To monitor and control elevator density, simply reducing maximum weight capacities can result in fewer passengers. Once capacity is reached, the elevator will no longer work, according to Mark Zettl, president of JLL’s Property Management Group, which has deployed such an approach in many of the firm’s buildings.
In addition, JLL has implemented mobile phone apps that provide touchless controls that are voice-activated for use in the lobby or elevator car. Another innovation: antibacterial ultraviolet (UV) light that can remove 99 percent of the bacteria in the elevator. The lights are installed on the cabin ceiling and can sterilize the car while the elevator is empty. There’s also the use of destination dispatch, an optimization technique that can improve elevator travel time by grouping passengers headed for the same floors.
"When tenants walk into their building, it's obviously going to look different than it did when they left it more than six months ago."
—Doug Stewart, Cushman & Wakefield
Building owners and managers are considering a variety of other technologies to further promote health, safety and social distancing and, in doing so, instill trust among tenants. Indoor air quality, for example, is crucial. Even before concerns about COVID-19, air quality was an increasing consideration for tenants. Now, in addition to the importance of increasing ventilation in the building and bringing in more fresh air, there are technologies that can help reduce the risk of infectious disease transmission in buildings.
For instance, some building owners are installing particle monitoring to determine air quality. By measuring the concentration of airborne particles, carbon dioxide levels and humidity, a building operations team is alerted if airflow needs to be adjusted or if tenants need to vacate certain areas of a building. There are also air filtration technologies like bipolar ionization, which helps capture such harmful contaminants as viruses, mold, allergens and bacteria via positively and negatively charged oxygen ions.
Touchless technology, as in the elevators, may help occupants gain confidence once they’re beyond the lobby as well. Contact-free fixtures include automatic faucets, soap and paper towel dispensers and touchless breakroom refrigerators and door sensors.
"While it may vary from building to building, touchless technology to reduce the spread of germs has been widely implemented," says JLL’s Zettl. That includes touchless hand-sanitizer stations in lobbies, parking facilities, near restrooms and in common areas.
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT?
JLL and other companies are utilizing technology for density monitoring in different floors and heavily trafficked spaces. "We can install cameras or overhead sensors that use active infrared and time-of-flight technology to detect when someone passes them," Zettl explains. "People are counted as they walk beneath the unit. Devices can alert our staff when occupancy reaches unsafe levels. They can also give our tenants the ability to subscribe to alerts."
In addition, employee movements can be tracked through their own smartphones. Signals sent from other wireless devices can be used to track area concentrations, warning users of potential crowding. However, since this method relies on the accuracy of individuals having devices turned on and physically on their bodies at the time of tracking, it’s not 100 percent accurate, according to Zettl.
Sensors measuring room occupancy are also increasingly recognized as critical, Stewart points out. However, he agrees that it’s difficult to change human behavior because people like to interact. "The technology may alert somebody, but who’s going to enforce it?" he asks. "What if I’m that person who just walks up to everybody? I sit on your desk, and I’m two-and-a-half feet from you. I can have all the tracking devices I want, but somebody has to say you can’t do that. There’s a lot we can do from a technology perspective, but this also is a human behavior conversation, and there are a lot of policies and practices that have to come along with that."
The same can be said for wireless key fobs that track movements and interactions with coworkers. A sensor on the device alerts people if they’re too close to one another. These can be used for contact tracing if someone contracts the virus as well.
Many companies are adopting scheduling tools to limit how many people can be in an office at one time, letting them schedule use of various amenities or conference rooms. Zettl says there are currently multiple software solutions that have the ability to book common-area amenities, as well as standalone scheduling tools that can be used to create and publish schedules and allow third parties to book time.
CONFIDENCE AT YOUR FINGERTIPS
Smartphones are clearly a key expedient to the health and safety confidence of building occupants. Commercial real estate services firm Transwestern partnered with smart building software-as-aservice (SaaS) company Cohesion to launch a system called TranswesternHub. The real estate firm says the app elevates the tenant experience and allows building occupants to feel more confident returning to a safe, healthy office.
The app is designed to incorporate many of the enhancements already mentioned: touchless entry to building and tenant suites, elevator controls, visitor management, indoor air quality transparency and communication tools. Service requests, amenity reservations and vendor approval are offered directly through the app.
"There's a lot we can do from a technology perspective, but [a return to work post-COVID] also is a human behavior conversation, and there are a lot of policies and practices that have to come along with that."
— Mark Zettl, JLL
TranswesternHub is live at 77 West Wacker Drive, a Class A commercial office building in Chicago’s Loop. It also will be available as an option to deploy across Transwestern’s roughly 130 million square feet of managed office space throughout the United States. "Tenants can expect to see an increase in proptech as they return to the office," says Katie Sakach, LEED AP O+M, managing director of Asset Services at Transwestern.
When implementing the solution at 77 West Wacker, she indicates that the company was mindful that not every building is the same. While a technology might work for one property, it may not necessarily work for another.
Transwestern’s 77 West Wacker was built in the 1990s, so many of its systems have been in place for some time. "We applied this pilot platform to existing systems in the building, because we see similar types of systems employed in most office product across the country," Sakach explains. "We worked to deploy a customized tool specific for the systems in place at 77 West Wacker to create the ultimate tenant experience."
"Your keycard interacts with the card access system at the building via Bluetooth so you don’t have to touch anything," shares Jake Smith, CPM, vice president and director of Operations in Asset Services for Transwestern. "It’s the same with elevator call buttons. You just pull up the app and enter which space you want to visit."
Building visitors receive a QR code on their devices. When they arrive, they scan it using a touchless reader and gain access into the building, elevator and their destination space.
"One of the things I was most attracted to with the platform was the opportunity to reduce the number of touchpoints for the tenants, management team and engineers," reveals Smith. "They don’t have to have three different apps to do the things that they need to do, like scheduling HVAC service, reserving a conference room or engaging with visitors."
BIG APP UPTICK
Of course, mobile tenant apps were a trend pre-COVID-19, but, as with virtually all building technologies, there’s been a big uptick due to the increasing need for communication. Tenant employees, for example, can use apps to see who else will be in the office and decide when or whether they’re going in based on that information.
"I’m getting ready in the morning and I pull up the app for my building," Stewart explains, "and it says, ‘Bad day. Don’t come in.’ Fine. I take my coffee and go log in downstairs. Or it says, ‘We’re fully open. There’s a 30 percent capacity, and space is available. The line to get into the building is only two minutes.’"
Stewart notes that even coffee breaks or trips to the restroom are being reevaluated during the pandemic. Companies might have 10-minute time slots for employees to grab coffee at the café. Some buildings are limiting restrooms to one person at a time, with red lights and green to indicate occupancy. "We have to communicate all of that to the tenants so they feel comfortable," Stewart adds. "If they don’t feel comfortable, they’re not necessarily going to go back to the office."
VENDORS STEP UP THEIR SUPPORT
Of course, companies like Building Engines are stepping up to help building owners and managers prepare for the Great Return. "We’ve seen a big uptick in requests for a few main products," says Daniel Cozza, chief product officer at Building Engines, adding that building communications topped the list. "It’s a tool to slice and dice groups of tenants, vendors, employees—whoever you want in your building—and then send them messages over multiple channels like text."
Other software solutions are designed to monitor such issues as whether or not masks are being worn, hand-sanitizing stations are being refilled, walkways are labeled and high-touch surfaces are being cleaned. "Folks are still nervous," Cozza notes. "Going into a crowded elevator or office doesn’t feel safe." But, he says, showing that you’ve thought about those issues is critical to giving tenants that confidence.
"Software can and does make an enormous, positive difference," Cozza adds. "The silver lining of a crisis like COVID is that, in some ways, it forces or encourages tech adoption. You’re scrambling because of these external factors, and you start to look for ways to improve operations, and a lot of times that’s technology."
He says 9/11 significantly advanced technology for body scanning and facial recognition. COVID-19 is doing the same for building wellness and occupant confidence. "When there’s a real obvious need, people invest," states Cozza.
Another trend that COVID-19 has accelerated is the use of software to communicate remotely through platforms, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, as entire organizations were forced to work remotely. Experts say this trend will continue as businesses adopt hybrid models and office buildings start growing again in their populations. They anticipate more multifunctional meeting spaces within buildings that can integrate with videoconferencing software.
AMENITIES ON THE GO?
Technology platforms serving the office amenities market are emerging as well as a way to help get tenants back into the office. Expect to see more mobile vendors in office building parking lots, including food trucks, barber shops and mobile-device repair.
"Building occupants coming back to the building really don’t want the hassle of leaving to pick up lunch or run errands," notes Becky Hanner, BOMA Fellow, CPM, RPA, LEED Green Associate, principal at Hanner Commercial Asset Services. She’s also a partner at mobile technology provider MOBLZ, which provides a platform that functions as a vendor certification, reservation and management system for office parks and business campuses. "Occupants prefer amenities to come to them," Hanner explains. "They wanted this before COVID, but it’s more important than ever" during the pandemic, according to Hanner.
"One of the things I was most attracted to with the [TranswesternHub] platform was the opportunity to reduce the number of touchpoints for the tenants, management team and engineers. They don't have to have three different apps to do the things that they need to do…"
— Jake Smith, Transwestern
"Now, you can have someone pick up your dirty laundry in the back seat of your car," she continues. "They’ll take it, wash and dry it, fold it, shrink-wrap it and put it back in your car. You can have your bicycle or golf clubs repaired while in the office." Other on-the-go services range from mobile car washes, gas delivery and oil changes to chiropractic services.
"We’ve even had food truck events coupled with COVID antibody testing, so people can come get food and get tested for antibodies," Hanner says. Blood drives are also popular, especially as the pandemic has created critical shortages in many cities.
THE NEXT NORMAL
It’s likely that office space will never be exactly the same as it was due to the pandemic—and that’s just fine for an industry that is used to changing with the times. JLL dubs it the "next normal." Offices provide culture and collaboration, which are still highly valued, and they play a crucial role in productivity. Office space will continue to evolve, and building owners and managers are upgrading their technologies and adopting strategies like tracking software and density monitoring to bring tenants back safely and efficiently.
What they’re really building is trust and confidence that the next normal will be a safe one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Liz Wolf is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer with 30-plus years of business and commercial real estate reporting experience. She previously served as editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.