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Touchless Offices Are the Future, Pandemic or Not

Unless something else goes very wrong (or very right), it’s clear by now that 2020 will be considered the year of the outbreak. And while we’ve all been preoccupied by the pandemic in our personal lives, at our jobs and in our media, it’s important to dedicate some time to taking a step back and reviewing how our understanding of the outbreak, and our responses, have shifted over time. 

When the outbreak first started, everyone was hopeful and optimistic, and even if scientists were warning about a truly long-term catastrophe, many of us were convinced that there would only be a short-term disruption: perhaps a month or three. In a March survey, Business Insider asked over 1,100 Americans, “If you had to estimate, when do you think that the coronavirus situation will be over, in that schools, restaurants, and businesses will be widely open again?” Seventy two percent of their respondents said April 1 to July 1. But here we are, five months into the heat of it, and by now, it seems that most people have accepted that this will be a challenge for at least another five months, and maybe well into next year. 

That has meant that our understanding of what good responses are has changed, too. What was once a strict all-or-nothing race to hunker down as thoroughly as possible has been replaced with a need for a more tempered type of risk mitigation. Small gatherings are okay as long as you wear masks and stay far apart. Going to the theater is not okay, but outdoor movies are fine. Traveling is okay, as long as you drive and socially distance. 

We’ve also seen changes in how we address our workplaces during the course of the outbreak. Many businesses cannot commit to remote work for as long as would be ideal, whether it is because their work is too hands-on or their middle managers are unable to handle a remote workforce. These companies have had to accept that there is no silver bullet to workplace safety and that some employees will feel unable to return to work given the risks inherent with social settings. This was recently the case in Arizona, where a music teacher resigned over an expected October return to in-person lessons and was fined $2000 for breaking his contract. For employers, whether they are school districts, financial services firms, or factories, providing a virus-safe workplace has quickly become a critically high priority lest they continue to bleed employees and productivity. 

Instead, the responses have been varied, relying on multiple levels of safety and virus prevention strategies operating in concert with one another. Here’s an analogy: workplace virus prevention is like the safety features in a modern car. There is no one system that does 100 percent of the work. Instead, laser rangefinders, radar systems, cameras, and the eyes of the driver work together to prevent accidents from occurring. For buildings, the tools that constitute the overall virus prevention strategy include temperature checks, health screenings, touchless access, transparent barriers, and contact tracing.

But unlike the safety features of a modern car, there is another challenge that building owners are facing right now as well. The more expensive a system is, and the more cooperation it takes between landlord and tenant, the harder it becomes to justify temporary solutions that won’t outlast the pandemic. Those transparent barriers might be great for keeping airborne particles down, but once the outbreak is just a bad memory, they will probably all be torn out of the cubicles, checkout lines, and cafeterias they currently occupy. 

One solution that has both present validity and long-term value is touchless access control. These systems, that allow employees, clients, guests and delivery people to access the property without touching locks, elevator buttons or even door handles themselves are the kind of thing that tenants specifically asked for before the outbreak began. Not only are they part of a complete transmission reduction strategy, they are also more convenient and more secure than the legacy technology of cards, badges, and fobs. 

Case in point, according to EQ Office’s Mikki Ward, VP of Real Estate Technology, “We started implementing touchless access pre-COVID, with a goal of elevating all of our buildings with it.” In one of their buildings, the famous Willis Tower in Chicago, they have installed a biometric touchless access option called MorphoWave. “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.” Ensuring a large degree of tenant buy-in is a critical part of the rollout process, separating the smooth implementation of a new technology from a botched deployment that is a pain to install and fails to gain the support of the daily users.

The good news is that touchless access systems have a lot of benefits to add. They can reduce friction upon entering or exiting the property premises, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. They can give certain managers the power to add or revoke building access for employees or visitors remotely, can track who entered or exited the building, and can help control the number of people in a given space at any time. In a new Propmodo Research report about touchless access systems, Openpath president James Segil explained how access control can be used for these kinds of cases: “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 twenty people, it will lock the door so that the 21st person can’t enter until somebody else leaves.” 

This type of functionality has a long term and a short term value. During the coronavirus outbreak it can help enforce social distancing, but in a virus-free world, it can help save people searching for an open conference room.  It’s not enough to offer a workplace solution that just cuts down on the risk anymore. Now, five-plus months into the outbreak, we need systems that both reduce risk but actually benefit our day-to-day workplace lives outside of the context of the outbreak. We may have been off on our pandemic expectations when the coronavirus first exploded, but it’s not too late to make changes that could save lives in the future. 

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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