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Touchless Office Access Improves Long-Term Value and Short-Term Safety

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The coronavirus outbreak may only be less than half a year old for many of us, but across most markets we are already well past the first phase of exposure. What began as a test of a wide range of approaches has gradually distilled down into a number of relatively well accepted best practices: limiting contact with high-touch surfaces, phasing in the return to work while balancing with remote employment arrangements, and ensuring high levels of mask use. But while there is scientific consensus as to what the safest return-to-work approaches are, many conversations persist within the real estate and facility management worlds as to how exactly to implement these adaptations in an effective, efficient, occupier-friendly way.

What’s more, property owners are also facing the question of how to respond to the outbreak in ways that not only balance convenience and safety, but that represent long term value-adds as well. Offices may be implementing one-way hallways right now, but approaches like that will not last long, particularly once the outbreak is behind us.

If one-way hallways and plexiglass dividers are the simple yet intrusive solution, touchless access systems have a higher setup cost but deliver longer-term returns for both owners and occupiers. These systems remove direct human contact from the equation and replace it with doors, gates and elevators that can be operated remotely, via phone app or other methods. They allow substantial risk mitigation through a relatively low-invasive tech tool that can deliver lasting value as a property feature even outside the context of the coronavirus outbreak. But for all their strengths, touchless access systems are still a relatively new, somewhat rare feature for buildings.

This leaves a number of questions to be answered. How can landlords efficiently implement touchless access technology in their properties? How much of the occupier experience really be touchless? What are the tenant impacts of these systems, not only for safety but for user experience and spatial management? In this report, we’ll take a deep dive into the world of touchless access technology to answer these questions and more.

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Executive Letter

Dear Reader,

Touchless access has changed from a nice-to-have tenant amenity to a must-have safety technology. As the leader in touchless mobile access control, Openpath has been hyper-focused since the pandemic started, adding new safety technologies to the thousands of buildings we operate.

James Segil, President, Openpath

For the first time in the history of the built world, Openpath is making it possible for the buildings we live and work in to be fully future-proofed and ready to respond and adapt in real time to the safety challenges emerging around them.
So why is touchless so important right now?

As we adapt to the new changes to our daily lives, realizing they are not stopgap measures but likely a new normal, organizations are turning more and more to technology to help them prepare for a post-pandemic world. Given the unprecedented circumstances, there are still looming questions for any business looking to return to work: how long do I need to wait, what can I do now to make my building safer, and will it actually be possible to reopen?

In the midst of all these unknown factors, it’s clear that touchless is more than just an of-the-moment buzzword. Reducing common touch points in communal spaces will not only be expected, but required for fundamental health and wellness protocol. When it comes to access control, Openpath was already moving in the direction of touchless entry and exit as a way to improve convenience and reduce friction for the end user.

The benefits of using Openpath mobile credentials already far outweighed the traditional badges and fobs, but COVID-19 accelerated our innovation. We released a completely touchless wave-to-unlock feature, which allows users to easily trigger an unlock completely hands-free; your building stays secure, there’s no bottleneck at the door, and your phone stays in your pocket. You can never guarantee that everyone has clean hands, so removing that touch point at the entry, where every single person is passing through, offers a clear advantage in the return-to-work landscape. If you’re asking yourself if these technology updates are just a quick fix or a long-term play—touchless isn’t going anywhere.

What is Touchless?

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At its core, touchless access refers to the systems and tools that allow employees, managers and guests to enter a building without physically touching doors, locks, turnstiles and other chokepoints. Not all touchless systems are new. Some, like keycard systems, have been around since the 1980s. And some are low-tech, like the floor-level handles in some public restrooms that allow doors to be opened and closed with a foot, not a hand.

Choosing one type of touchless system over another is not simply a matter of good, better, best. Instead, each has its own tradeoffs. Advanced systems leveraging mobile devices or biometrics to log in are the most advanced, with extensive feature sets that can allow visitor access, temporary access, occupancy level tracking and even contact tracing. On the other hand, simpler solutions like doors that can be opened with a foot instead of a hand are cost-effective and easy to implement, but lack all advanced functionality or even the ability to lock a door. Keycard systems are familiar and widely accepted, with a middle ground level of features offered, but are easily infiltrated by duplicating the keycard which is as easy as running to the local hardware store. In this manner, each level of implementation has its own benefits and drawbacks, but for most uses some will be more worthwhile than others. Regardless of the level of sophistication, each system, in its own way, reduces the risk of catching a contagious disease by coming into contact with contaminated surfaces.

The risk of high-touch surfaces

The present-day use case for touchless technology is as a mechanism to decrease the risk of spreading or contracting a contagious disease, like COVID-19, by contacting surfaces that many other people also touch. Surfaces that have been contaminated by viral particles spread via a cough, loud conversation, or the touch of another person are called fomites, and according to the World Health Organization, they can stay contaminated for a range of time from hours to days. When someone else touches these fomites, and then brushes their face, they run the risk of contracting the disease.

The busier a space is, the more potentially dangerous its surfaces will be. According to data from Openpath, a touchless access provider, despite the fact that the coronavirus represents a persistent risk even now in August, commercial building access has trended up across the country, reflecting the return of temporarily-remote employees to work. At a national level, access is up to 43 percent of the pre-outbreak total as of the week ending July 12, 2020, up from an all-time low of 29 percent in early April 2020. As more people return to their offices, ameliorating the risks of high-touch surfaces will certainly not completely eliminate the health risk posed by the virus, but it will control a significant source of its spread.

Different types of touchless access

By now, there are multiple different types of touchless access technology in use across the country. The most familiar example is the keycard, which, using an RFID chip, need only be held against a reader to grant access to a space. But while they are the most familiar, keycards have a variety of limitations. They are easy to clone, still require a degree of closeness to a shared surface, and pose limitations for visitors.

Another solution, employed in some places, are manual solutions that either require no hand use or no physical contact at all. These include the manual bathroom doors referenced earlier, as well as a newer development, elevators that have foot-actuated buttons. In Asia, holographic-type buttons are also being installed since the arrival of the coronavirus, allowing individuals to interact with a projected image of a button, touching nothing but air.

A final broad category are access systems that use phone apps to grant people entry to their spaces. These allow users to interact with the app in some way, such as providing biometric input or an access code using the phone’s interface, before unlocking doors or issuing commands to an elevator. The potential downside of these systems is that they require all users to have an appropriate smartphone. If someone’s phone does not have, for instance, a fingerprint sensor or face detection system, those functional elements of the system will be off-limits to them.

How much of the experience can be touchless?

With these approaches in mind, a valid question is how much of the experience can be made truly touchless. From an employee’s arrival at a property, parking garages, locks, mechanically-opened doors, checkpoint turnstiles and elevators are all within the scope of modern touchless access. Once within the workplace, room reservations can also be handled via touchless interfaces. At the employee’s workstation itself, the opportunity to utilize touchless tools disappears; there is no way to make a desk in an office somehow touchless. But workstations do not receive anywhere near the volume of contact that things like doors and elevator buttons and other common areas in general do, making them a low risk item in most cases. According to Ben Waber, president of the workplace analytics firm Humanyze, the interpersonal interactions in an office have a “significant” degree of responsibility for lowering infection rates. Cutting out sub-five minute interactions can reduce the risk of infection for a given employee by 40-50 percent, according to his data. So perhaps being locked down at a personal desk is the best place to be in an office after all.

The Need for Tenant-Landlord Collaboration

Implementing touchless access control is a win-win for property owners and occupiers as well, but these systems cannot be implemented without collaboration and consensus between both parties. Landlords, of course, need to budget and plan for these systems, and ensure the proper installation of hardware at all the various access points of the building. Occupiers have responsibilities, as well. They must coordinate with the property management to ensure smooth hardware installation, and build consensus amongst their workers that the access control app is not only a wise choice amidst an outbreak but a new requirement to enter the premises.

These shared responsibilities mean that landlords and occupiers must collaborate, to an extent, to ensure the easy rollout of these systems. This is relatively straightforward in a single-tenant office property, but in larger buildings with multiple tenants it can be more of a project, as the needs of different tenants with different timelines and different perspectives on the best way to access the property must all be properly communicated, balanced and ultimately, brought onboard to a potentially all-new access style.

Tenants are reacting very positively. Most appreciate having everything on their phone and not having to use multiple access cards to get from the garage to their suite.

Mikki Ward, VP of Real Estate Technology, EQ Office

The good news is that by and large, this is something that tenants want. Whether or not they are concerned about the virus risk, touchless access systems promote frictionless access which is itself a highly-marketable tenant perk. According to Mikki Ward, VP of Real Estate Technology for EQ Office, “We started implementing touchless access pre-COVID, with a goal of elevating all of our buildings with it. Willis Tower in Chicago, for example, is fully rolled out with a biometric touchless access option called MorphoWave. We’ve also been rolling out Openpath at several of our buildings and are piloting other similar systems. Tenants are reacting very positively. Most appreciate having everything on their phone and not having to use multiple access cards to get from the garage to their suite.” Indeed, the prolonged nature of the outbreak has made it that much more obvious that legitimate, long-term solutions are now necessary.

A recent CBRE survey of employer workplace responses indicated the lengths to which American businesses are going to keep their workers safe: 34 percent are setting social distancing standards that may exceed local advice, 42 percent are waiting to fully reopen until not only local guidelines but also stricter internal standards are met, and 72 percent are phasing in their return to work, staggering workers to keep spaces safer. Meanwhile, the vast majority of businesses are altering their physical spaces to be safer: 82 percent are installing signage and 61 percent are moving furniture around to make distancing easier. At the same time, a mere 21 percent are allowing visitors while in the early stages of reopening.

On the other hand, a number of businesses, particularly in the tech field, are moving to entirely remote work arrangements. Familiar names like Twitter, Square, Shopify and Slack were already or are now completely remote-friendly for their staff.

As managers and owners, we try to guide our tenants to make smart purchasing decisions for their own space that’s compatible with the building at large.

Eric Roseman, VP of Innovation and Technology Ventures, Lincoln Property Company

For one thing, landlords looking to build consensus for their touchless access technology should share information on the requirements and benefits of touchless systems. This can be easily achieved via direct contact through email, which has the added benefit of staying touchless as opposed to distributing flyers or sending postcards. Owners can also take a collaborative approach to onboarding, counselling their occupiers and sharing information almost as an advisor would. This is the strategy taken by Lincoln Property Company, an owner with 450 offices across the United States and Europe. According to Eric Roseman, Lincoln’s Vice President of Innovation and Technology Ventures, “As managers and owners, we try to guide our tenants to make smart purchasing decisions for their own space that’s compatible with the building at large. We educate many of our tenants on the cloud-based, mobile friendly, touchless options and help them understand the benefit to the data it will collect on when people are accessing their space.” By taking this approach, Lincoln is able to reframe the conversation around working together to achieve greater outcomes, rather than coming off as a landlord simply looking for buy-in.

Touchless access control for landlords

For landlords, the value proposition of touchless access control rests in these systems’ position as a desirable tenant experience perk even before the outbreak. Now, against the backdrop of COVID-19, they offer a critical risk prevention measure that could save people from getting sick or spreading the disease. This means that touchless access is well-positioned not only to decrease the spread of the virus today, and to remain an attractive tenant experience point once the risk of the virus has passed. Mr. Roseman commented on the usefulness of touchless access tech for keeping tenants in place, saying that “We look for tech that makes a tenant say “gosh, that’s just so convenient!” That feeling of elation will usually lead to stronger probabilities of renewal or lease signing. Food, access and software to enable a service (i.e. maintenance or delivery) to a tenant’s space is worth every penny.” Landlords are facing completely new challenges now thanks to the virus outbreak, but the fact that one of the best responses to it is something that was already a useful implementation is a bit of good news amongst the bad.

Touchless access can also decrease property management workloads. Since many platforms allow for tenant employees or facility managers to individually clear guests for entry to the property, lobby staff will see increased social distancing capabilities and decreased entrance control responsibilities. With app-based access control, the guests and visitors of every tenant on-site can potentially control who comes in and out of their space themselves, without needing to rely on lobby staff as gatekeepers.

For larger landlords, touchless access solutions can be deployed at the portfolio level, as well. This can be particularly useful if tenants include co-working spaces or other shared facilities whose members might conceivably visit more than on property on a routine basis. App-based access control can allow one type of credential to give entrance to a wide range of properties.

Touchless access control for occupiers

For occupiers of office space, the installation of touchless access systems is first and foremost a compelling indicator of the company’s focus on improving individual safety as employees return to work. Of the over 1,000 American employees surveyed in the June 15 PwC Workforce Pulse Survey, 47 percent indicated that changing workplace safety measures would be a requirement for their feeling comfortable going back to work. Being able to give these employees a clear indication of the commitment to safety is crucial in a time when many employees will be hesitant to return to the office at all.

Some touchless access tools, like Openpath, also offer an opportunity to monitor occupancy levels within particular shared spaces, like cafeterias or conference rooms. According to James Segil, President of Openpath, “Openpath is integrated with occupancy and space management systems that will count the number of people in a room, and once we get above a certain occupancy threshold, such as 20 people, it will lock the door so that the 21st person can’t enter until somebody else leaves.” This kind of automatic control can provide occupier facility managers with the ability to easily enforce social distancing and virus prevention rules on site. For instance, companies can ask their employees to verify that they do not have COVID-19 and are not displaying any of its symptoms. Touchless access systems can allow companies to activate or deactivate property access rights based on those answers. And of course, access can be categorically denied to people who refuse to self-affirm in the first place.

Openpath is integrated with occupancy and space management systems that will count the number of people in a room, and once we get above a certain occupancy threshold, such as 20 people, it will lock the door so that the 21st person can’t enter until somebody else leaves.

James Segil, President, Openpath

It’s these types of flexible responses that could signal the long-term new normal for office safety. Even if we have a good vaccine in six months, the memory of COVID-19 and its personal, social and economic impacts will linger on for many years to come. For EQ Office, this means that the current response is part of a long-term strategy for office safety. According to Ms. Ward of EQ Office, “We want tenants to be able to see the air quality of their office, how populated common spaces are or if an area has recently been cleaned. We are working with partners on many other solutions, such as one that allows tenants to book a time in the fitness center and the door will only give you access to the gym during your scheduled time. This allows us to limit occupancy and set up a cleaning schedule between uses. We will continue to build on these kinds of technologies and elevate our buildings. This will be our new normal.” It is reasonable to expect that many other class A office owners will follow suit since, like amenity packages and lease terms, landlord-sponsored health and safety measures will undoubtedly become another point of competition in the future.

Other property companies seem to agree. Mr. Roseman of Lincoln Property Company added that “Touchless will prevail long term not because of the fear of spread from COVID-19 but rather because it’s the most convenient way to access space. We all want to move around unimpeded and uninterrupted while maintaining safe protocols. I see the proliferation of touchless as a means of retrieval of all things to you at the property. It starts with you as you enter a door, a parking garage, continues with your food delivery and finishes with getting visitors through the building in the same manner.” None of those points of interactivity will change regardless of how long the virus remains a factor for.

Much like touchless access represents a compelling amenity even outside of the scope of the COVID-19 response, occupiers can use the data from their access systems to inform future spatial decision-making. For instance, if a particular common area space is chronically under-utilized, parts of the space could be reconfigured into additional hot-desking workspaces, collaboration areas or alternate amenity spaces. For occupiers, this makes the process of getting onboarded into the system much easier to accept, since it promises long-term persistent benefits outside the scope of the coronavirus response.

Conclusion

Touchless access systems present a compelling value for both landlords and occupiers. By blending a perennially-attractive amenity with advanced functionality for improving health throughout the outbreak, these tools are much more likely to withstand the test of time than invasive solutions like plexiglass barriers or management reconfigurations, like one-way hallways, that decrease instead of increase user convenience.

While it may take a substantial amount of consensus-building and tenant recruitment to be able to easily integrate touchless access at the property level, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Deployable at the property level or the portfolio level, touchless access is scalable, configurable on the fly, and manageable via the smartphone, making it a property improvement that adds real value, not advertising fluff.

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