‘Horrible’ offices look to tempt back workers


An Iranian man uses small sticks to push the elevator button at an office building in Tehran on March 4, 2020Image copyright
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Staff will go to great lengths to avoid touching buttons – this lift in Iran has been kitted out with small sticks for people to use

“Many of us spend most of our waking lives in offices and typically they’re horrible,” says Maciej Markowski, chief executive of spaceOS, a start-up based in Warsaw.

Before coronavirus offices were “a mix of noise, distraction and an endless search for a free meeting room,” he says.

Mr Markowski’s company makes an app and other technology that connects tenants with their workplaces.

He thinks that if building owners want to keep their tenants happy, then they need to be looking at different kinds of data.

“The craziest thing is: corporate real estate is really data focused, you have tremendous information on occupancy, electricity and water usage,” says Mr Markowski.

However, that “doesn’t give you a single clue what to do to keep a tenant, no idea what these people do in the building, what they like and dislike, any tools to keep them,” he says.

With millions of people working from home since the coronavirus pandemic, office owners will have to work harder to tempt them back.

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Maciej Markowski, chief executive of spaceOS

Many staff are going to see big changes when they return.

“I popped in last week for a few hours, and saw some Star Trek-style sensors you wave your hand over to exit, rather than pressing a button,” says Elizabeth Hoefsmit, managing director of Hampshire-based McGinley Aviation, which uses serviced offices in a business park.

It might be infrared temperature checks in the lobby, contactless lifts, or new apps to spread workers out and keep shared surfaces clean, but there’s no doubt the post-coronavirus office is getting a drastic technological refit.

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It could all start as soon as you wake up in the morning. You may check your building app, says David Garten, vice president at RXR Realty which owns and manages 93 properties in the New York area.

The firm’s new app creates a building health index each day, from information like air quality, the number of occupants, and how well social distancing is being observed.

If your building has a low rating that day, you might decide to work from home, or go to a smaller satellite office instead.

The app will also tell you the ideal time to arrive, to reduce congestion, and people riding public transport at peak times. “So the ideal time for me to walk through our lobby is 10am,” says Mr Garten.

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Fever screening is a common sight

Then on entering, you may pass through an infrared fever-screening system, says James Lawrence of Gensler, a large design and architecture firm based in San Francisco.

FLIR Systems, one Oregon company that makes these crowd thermal cameras, has seen its demand increase 700%.

If a concierge judges you high risk from the infrared screening, they might double-check your temperature with a handheld device. Then, you might need to have your meeting by video conference from a quarantine room, or take a car home or to hospital.

If you make it through the lobby, then perhaps you will operate the lift with buttons on your app. Once upstairs, it will tell you when your workstation was last cleaned, Mr Garten says.

When it gets to lunchtime, you’ll order food by an app, says John Robson, asset director at Workspace, which has 69 office properties around London focusing mainly on small companies.

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Workers will probably have to spread out more

“Every transaction is cashless now, and your food will basically be grab and go,” he says.

If you pop to the loo after lunch, you’ll be increasingly looking at touchless taps, Mr Lawrence says.

New software is helping companies spread people out.

Gensler’s tool ReRun imports floor plans, calculates safe bubbles around each worker, and then outputs different ways to place workers so their bubbles do not overlap.

“Recently we did an analysis on a two million square-foot building that took roughly 10 days to turn around. Otherwise it would’ve taken several weeks,” says Mr Lawrence.

For the same reason, some companies are looking to teach artificial intelligence (AI) to video cameras.

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Artificial intelligence can look for office “pinch points”

AI algorithms can offer feedback about “pinch points” where people are too close together, while protecting individual privacy, says Dr Mahesh Saptharishi, Motorola Solutions’ chief technology officer, based in Boston.

Instead of watching the actual video, they can ask the AI how well social distancing is being observed overall, and where problem points are. “So employees don’t feel someone’s watching what they do,” he says.

Meanwhile, your cleaner might well be employee of the month for many months to come.

An April study in The Lancet Microbe showed the virus can last on plastic and stainless steel (like door handles) for up to seven days, and glass (like screens) for four days.

Cleaning wipes can disrupt the layer of fat that surrounds and protects coronavirus. And bleach’s active ingredient sodium hypochlorite destroys the crown of protein spikes that gives the virus its name, and the ribonucleic acid (RNA) which is its blueprint to reproduce. So does the ethanol in surgical spirits.

But it would be helpful to know which surfaces should be cleaned.

Contact tracing needs to keep track of the surfaces and facilities you and sick colleagues used, says Matt Calkins, head of US software development platform Appian, which has also made coronavirus workplace safety software.

If you know which of your rooms to target, you know where best to send your deep cleaning team, and maximise use of your bleach, ethanol and wipes, Mr Calkins says.

The virus can also be carried in the air, on water droplets or fine dust particles, say researchers. So what about air conditioning systems?

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Office owners will be working hard to make their buildings attractive

The UK government says the risk of air conditioning spreading coronavirus in the workplace is “extremely low”.

Nevertheless, “we’re advising organisations to look at their air conditioning system,” says Dr Mark Parrish, Northern European medical director from International SOS, which advises companies about medical risks.

Filters with extremely narrow openings – like high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) and the more powerful ultra-low particulate air (ULPA) ones – can remove coronavirus from circulating in the air, according to UK air filter manufacturer SPCB.

The problem is such ventilation systems will normally need stronger fans to push air through these narrower filters, it says.

Upgrading air conditioning could be one of many options used by office owners to keep their tenants happy.

Maciej Markowski of spaceOS says simple convenience might be the winning factor.

“It’s ridiculous that you’re in a building and it’s easier to order food from across town than the restaurant downstairs. Or with three taps on your phone you can tell Amazon a package is broken, but there’s no way to tell your building there’s a huge spill in front of your office.”



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