Deep­clean­ing of­fices a new busi­ness op­por­tu­nity

San Francisco Chronicle - - BUSINESS REPORT - By Natasha Singer and Julie Creswell

True­work, an in­come ver­i­fi­ca­tion startup in San Francisco, re­cently in­tro­duced soft­ware to help em­ploy­ers keep track of their work­ers’ health sta­tus.

Gensler, a San Francisco ar­chi­tec­ture and design firm, has a work­place floor­plan­ning app that gen­er­ates so­cial-dis­tanc­ing lay­outs for desks and other of­fice fur­ni­ture.

Price wa­ter house coop­ers, the pro­fes­sional ser­vices firm, is us­ing tech­nol­ogy that it orig­i­nally de­vel­oped to track in­ven­tory for a new contact-trac­ing sys­tem that logs em­ployee in­ter­ac­tions so work­ers can be no­ti­fied in the event of ex­po­sure to the coro­n­avirus.

With com­pa­nies press­ing to fig­ure out how to safely re­open work­places, mak­ers of ev­ery­thing from of­fice fur­ni­ture to smart ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems are rush­ing to sell them prod­ucts and ser­vices mar­keted as so­lu­tions. Some com­pa­nies, like mak­ers of ther­mal cam­eras that sense skin tem­per­a­ture, are re­brand­ing their wares as virus­con­tain­ment fever­scan­ning prod­ucts. Oth­ers are cre­at­ing en­tirely new ser­vices.

And they have a cap­tive mar­ket. To pro­tect em­ploy­ees and re­duce li­a­bil­ity for virus out­breaks at work, com­pa­nies are racing to com­ply with pub­lic health guide­lines on is­sues like em­ployee screen­ing and so­cial dis­tanc­ing. In the United States, the mar­ket for contact­trac­ing tech­nolo­gies for em­ploy­ers could soon be worth $4 bil­lion an­nu­ally, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates from IDC, a mar­ket re­search firm.

But the pre­ven­tive tools and pan­demic work­place rules are so new — as is the emerg­ing science on the virus — that it is too soon to tell how well, or if, they work.

“Th­ese are all untested the­o­ries and meth­ods right now,” said Laura Becker, a re­search man­ager at IDC. “What is

go­ing to be the most ef­fec­tive com­po­nent of all of th­ese work­force re­turn strate­gies? We don’t know.”

The lobby: When work­ers even­tu­ally re­turn to the of­fice, they may find that the lobby re­sem­bles an air­port se­cu­rity check­point. At least that’s the vi­sion that Kas­tle Sys­tems, a 48year­old Falls Church, Va., com­pany that de­signs, in­stalls and mon­i­tors se­cu­rity sys­tems for sev­eral thou­sand commercial build­ings, re­cently be­gan mar­ket­ing to its clients.

Busi­nesses that use the com­pany’s coro­n­avirus man­age­ment sys­tem, Kastle­safes­paces, may ask em­ploy­ees to down­load an app that will au­to­mat­i­cally open en­trance doors for peo­ple el­i­gi­ble to come to the of­fice. Work­ers who fill out a health screen­ing ques­tion­naire ahead of time may pro­ceed to a fast lane to have their tem­per­a­tures checked. Those who have been asked to stay home be­cause they re­cently tested pos­i­tive for coro­n­avirus may go on a kind of no­fly list, and doors will not open for them.

“The idea is re­ally to cre­ate this pro­file where you can iden­tify who is known safe, who’s known not safe and then who needs to be screened when they get in,” said Mark Ein, the chair­man of Kas­tle. “It’s a lit­tle bit like air­ports where you have Clear precheck or reg­u­lar check, de­pend­ing on peo­ple’s pro­file.”

Clear, the bio­met­ric iden­ti­fi­ca­tion com­pany known for its air­trav­eler iden­ti­fi­ca­tion ser­vice, re­cently in­tro­duced a sys­tem called Health Pass for of­fice build­ings, restau­rants, re­tail­ers, cruise ships and sports are­nas. It will use fa­cial recog­ni­tion to con­firm em­ploy­ees’ iden­ti­ties and vet worker­pro­vided health in­for­ma­tion — such as symp­tom data and ver­i­fied test re­sults — so they can be cleared to en­ter work­places. Clear CEO Caryn Seidman­becker said this kind of mul­ti­lay­ered ap­proach to en­try screen­ing could help re­duce risk for em­ploy­ers and cre­ate a safer work­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

The el­e­va­tors: Since coro­n­avirus par­ti­cles can stick around for hours or days, ven­dors are rush­ing to re­pur­pose tech­nolo­gies to re­duce the spread of the droplets. Kas­tle said it is mod­i­fy­ing an app that can au­to­mat­i­cally open of­fice doors to al­low em­ploy­ees to call an el­e­va­tor and in­di­cate which floor they want to go to with­out touch­ing any but­tons.

Jen­nifer Burns, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of prop­erty man­age­ment and op­er­a­tions at Mon­day Prop­er­ties, a commercial real es­tate owner, op­er­a­tor and de­vel­oper, said her com­pany will al­low only four peo­ple at a time in el­e­va­tors, has asked em­ploy­ees go­ing to higher floors to move to the back while rid­ing, and in­stalled mark­ers show­ing where peo­ple should stand. As an in­terim mea­sure, she said, Mon­day Prop­er­ties has in­stalled self­clean­ing an­timi­cro­bial cov­ers, made by a Vir­ginia com­pany called Nan­otouch, on el­e­va­tor but­tons for ad­di­tional pro­tec­tion. Kas­tus, a com­pany in Dublin, is also mar­ket­ing its an­timi­cro­bial coat­ings to com­bat the spread of the virus.

The of­fice lay­out: Steel­case, one of the largest man­u­fac­tur­ers of of­fice fur­ni­ture, has long cre­ated and in­stalled of­fice desk sys­tems de­signed to foster greater col­lab­o­ra­tion by push­ing em­ploy­ees closer to­gether and low­er­ing par­ti­tions — the open of­fice.

Now, com­pa­nies are quickly try­ing to re­verse that trend in a low­cost and flex­i­ble way. They want to re­move chairs and desks and in­stall screens or other di­viders be­tween re­main­ing desks, said Allan Smith, a vice pres­i­dent of Steel­case.

Of­fice lock­ers are hot sell­ers, said Lori Gee, a vice pres­i­dent of client work­place per­for­mance for the fur­ni­ture design com­pany Her­man Miller, which works with many For­tune 100 com­pa­nies. Em­ploy­ees will have their own lock­ers where they will stow much — if not all — of their per­sonal be­long­ings and col­lect per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment.

The morn­ing meet­ing: The days of crowd­ing into a nar­row glass con­fer­ence room are over.

Most con­fer­ence rooms are nar­row, which means em­ploy­ees have to squeeze past co­work­ers to get to their seats. “There’s go­ing to have to be a to­tal re­boot on what con­fer­ence rooms mean to or­ga­ni­za­tions,” Gee said.

In­stead, smaller group meet­ings will be held with em­ploy­ees spaced apart on the clus­ters of couches and chairs that have popped up in of­fices in re­cent years.

But com­pa­nies are seek­ing to re­place the so­fas up­hol­stered in soft, lux­u­ri­ous fab­rics with some­thing more durable. “One of our big­gest re­quests for those spa­ces are durable, su­per­fast color fab­rics that they can, es­sen­tially, pour straight bleach on ev­ery sin­gle night,” Smith said.

The cof­fee break: Say good­bye to crowd­ing around the cof­fee ma­chine to talk about the lat­est Net­flix show you binged.

So­cial dis­tanc­ing re­quire­ments will be dif­fi­cult to man­age in any space where there is an op­por­tu­nity for peo­ple to stand and min­gle, said David Bai­ley, CEO of cor­po­rate ser­vices for French food ser­vices gi­ant Sodexo.

In­stead, Sodexo has de­vel­oped an app called Twelve that al­lows cor­po­rate em­ploy­ees to pre­order and pay for their morn­ing cof­fee and dough­nuts.

“You don’t have to go to the cafe­te­ria to pick it up,” Bai­ley said. “Com­pa­nies are spread­ing pickup lo­ca­tions to three or four lo­ca­tions in the build­ing. And the app uses an al­go­rithm that man­ages the time pe­ri­ods to make sure there is no crowd­ing.”

Lunch: Over the past decade, up­scale cor­po­rate cafe­te­rias have in­creas­ingly fea­tured sushi bars, grass­fed made­to­order ham­burg­ers, freshly made quinoa­and­kale sal­ads, all over­seen by for­mer chefs at top restau­rants.

Now, many of th­ese on­site cafe­te­rias are likely to dis­ap­pear.

“Even be­fore this hap­pened, a lot of or­ga­ni­za­tions were al­ready look­ing at the cost of real es­tate and the cost of the cafe­te­ria and won­der­ing if they needed it” with many em­ploy­ees work­ing one or two days from home, Bai­ley said. “Now, we’re see­ing a big change in food de­liv­ery, away from an on­site cafe­te­ria model to a com­mis­sary de­liv­ery model.” Us­ing an app like Twelve, work­ers can or­der ahead and pay for sand­wiches and sal­ads for de­liv­ery.

Em­ployee track­ing and contact trac­ing: Ven­dors are rush­ing to sell smart­phone apps, wrist­bands and key fobs that au­to­mat­i­cally record em­ploy­ees’ contact with one an­other, to pre­pare for pos­si­ble out­breaks of coro­n­avirus.

“This ter­ri­bly man­ual process of contact trac­ing: es­sen­tially it’s a phone tree, and that’s where the tech­nol­ogy was when peo­ple started think­ing about it. We’ve since moved it into the mod­ern age,” said Rob Me­sirow, a part­ner at Price­wa­ter­house­c­oop­ers.

In May, it in­tro­duced a smart­phone app for em­ploy­ers that uses Blue­tooth sig­nals, Wi­fi, GPS and other data to track where em­ploy­ees go around the of­fice, who they come into contact with and for how long. The idea is to en­able hu­man re­sources or cor­po­rate se­cu­rity man­agers to quickly ac­cess the data in the event of a work­place out­break and no­tify em­ploy­ees who may have been ex­posed.

Mi­croshare, a soft­ware com­pany in Philadel­phia that uses sen­sors to mon­i­tor en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors — like in­door air qual­ity and oc­cu­pancy — for of­fices and man­u­fac­tur­ing plants, is mar­ket­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of contact­trac­ing sys­tem. It is adapt­ing Blue­tooth tech­nol­ogy that it orig­i­nally de­vel­oped to track the lo­ca­tions of wheel­chairs and beds in hospi­tals for track­ing work­ers.

Em­ploy­ees will wear wrist­bands or carry credit card­size badges that col­lect and trans­mit sig­nals about their where­abouts and prox­im­ity to one an­other. Mi­croshare said em­ploy­ers could also use its sys­tem to iden­tify spots where in­fected work­ers may have gath­ered, so com­pa­nies can shut spe­cific ar­eas, rather than an en­tire build­ing, for deep clean­ing.

The badges may ap­peal to se­cure fa­cil­i­ties or fac­to­ries where em­ploy­ees are not al­lowed to bring their per­sonal phones, and to peo­ple who would rather not be tracked on their phones.

“Ask­ing you to put some­thing on my phone, that’s a re­ally slip­pery slope,” said Ron Rock, CEO of Mi­croshare. But even wrist­bands and badges raise ques­tions about in­creased pry­ing by em­ploy­ers, he said. “You start to come up against: Is some­body go­ing to the bath­room too of­ten? Is some­body go­ing to the cafe­te­ria too of­ten? Is some­body smok­ing too much? Is some­body in parts of the build­ing where they don’t be­long?”

Jared Soares / New York Times

A ther­mal cam­era from Kas­tle Sys­tems is used to mea­sure em­ploy­ees’ tem­per­a­tures as they ar­rive for work.

Alex Welsh / New York Times

Pro­tec­tive bar­ri­ers are in­stalled be­tween cu­bi­cles in many work­places, as em­ploy­ers work to re­verse the trend that saw more open of­fice lay­outs.

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