Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, technology companies have been focusing on innovative solutions to help tenants safely return to an office environment, as well as to accommodate working from home.
Here is a look at the technologies adopted by three office landlords to help facilitate the transition.
Manhattan-based Silverstein Properties in 2015 established SilverTech Ventures, a startup accelerator and tech community firm located on the 10th floor of 7 World Trade Center, to attract and support tech startups locating in Manhattan. This move is now paying off in ways Silverstein leaders could not have imagined five years ago, as innovative apps developed through SilverTech are now helping tenants and Silverstein’s own employees return to the office.
Silverstein President Tal Kerret says that his company challenged SilverTech companies to help the firm deal with the pandemic situation. As a result, three apps—Dojo, Zuul Market and Backtrack—were tweaked to provide safety features and integrated into Silverstein’s Inspire tenant app.
This smartphone app now provides real-time building updates, a connection to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) chatbot and health information, an occupancy calendar, safe distancing seating plans, food delivery options, wellness activities and antibody testing locations. It also serves as a communications network and offers discounts at nearby restaurants and other services and amenities provided by local businesses. Kerret also notes that prior to leaving home, office workers must answer questions posed by Inspire to assess their health status.
Dojo was originally developed to help building tenants optimize space, but now provides daily occupancy analytics and helps tenants plan a safe transition to the office, optimizing floor plates and seating arrangements for improved productivity and compliance with CDC social distancing guidelines.
Zuul Market is a multi-restaurant food delivery system that provides a food service amenity across Silverstein buildings. Today, it also consolidates multiple orders into a single delivery to reduce the number of drivers handling food and interacting with tenants, and the number of people on elevators.
Backtrack is a digital heat-map system that continuously documents each individual’s physical location and who that person comes into contact with, so that if anyone within that circle reports a positive COVID-19 test, everyone they have come into contact with over the previous 14 days can be notified to self-quarantine at home, Kerret notes.
Silverstein Properties has also upgraded its ventilation systems in offices to minimum efficiency reporting value 15 (MERV 15) or MER V 16, which is similar to what hospitals use to prevent the spread of infection and refers to the number of times recirculating air is filtered. The system also adds in fresh air from outdoors. Kerret says that an even higher ventilation standard, MERV 16 or MERV 18, has been adapted for elevators, making them safe for more than a few people at a time, as long as everyone is wearing a mask. According to the CDC, to become infected with the coronavirus, it takes time for exposure to 1,000 airborne particles. Elevators at Silverstein’s World Trade Center properties travel at 1,600 feet per minute, so with MERV 16 to 18 ventilation—similar to ventilation in operating rooms—mask-wearing passengers are unlikely to become infected as they will reach their floors within about a minute.
These technologies, along with upgraded cleaning protocols and prevention tools such as touchless entry and hand sanitizer at all touch points, have made it possible for nearly all of Silverstein’s more than 400 employees at the World Trade Center headquarters, in addition to building tenants, to safely return to the office.
KBS, a Southern California-based commercial real estate firm that invests in and manages class-A and trophy office assets in core and key secondary markets nationally, has also deployed technology to help tenants make a seamless, safe transition back to the office as government mandates are lifted. This includes ultraviolet (UV) light, which kills viruses and bacteria, in HVAC systems and on surfaces in common areas, as well as touchless amenities and devices in shared spaces and high-traffic areas, notes Marc DeLuca, regional president, Western region, at KBS.
JLL’s property management division is also using UV light, which has been used in hospitals for years to help prevent the spread of disease, to disinfect office buildings it manages. According to Mark Zettl, JLL president of office property management, says that the shortest wavelength UVC, is particularly effective at killing viruses by damaging their DNA, which prevents them from replicating themselves. “Self-cleaning surfaces utilize a ‘skin’ that contains nanocrystals to create an oxidation reaction stronger than bleach, without using poisons, heavy metals or chemicals,” he adds.
KBS has partnered with Maptician, a cloud-based, workplace management platform designed to utilize technology and data to reconfigure office and community spaces to facilitate an organized and safety-conscious return-to-office for tenants.
Maptician Flex, which has been rolled out at six assets in the D.C. metro, Pennsylvania and Atlanta, allows tenants to assess social distancing risks within their offices, perform contact tracking, and plan a staged return-to-work strategy. It also provides employees with a mobile app to view changes made and tenants with the tools to operate more safely, notes DeLuca.
The software is designed to help support emerging government-mandated protocols, including space evaluation for social distancing risk, capacity-limited seat reservations, schedule-based return-to-office groupings, contact tracing reports, self-attestation and check-in functionality, space management and de-densification.
It also provides social distancing visualization tools and risk analysis, helps tenants plan staggered work schedules to reduce office density, and automatically identifies individuals who have been in close contact with an employee who tests positive for COVID-19.
Noting that KBS plans to launch this software across its entire portfolio, DeLuca says, “We are utilizing this technology to reconfigure the community spaces, fitness centers, coffee stations and other shared amenities throughout our office campuses to adhere to local health guidance. We have also begun introducing the technology to tenants at each of the six properties.”
“We also plan to continue utilizing UV light in our HVAC systems and touchless amenities, as well as provide tenants with data and solutions through the Maptician software platform,” he adds. “In fact, we are currently utilizing Maptician to build out spec suite space at some of our assets. This will help potential tenants map out future offices that incorporate an increased focus on health and wellness.”
DeLuca notes that Maptician is helping tenants in various ways. For example, after uploading its floor plan to Maptician Flex, one tenant realized that an additional 2,300 sq. ft., or almost 25 percent more space than was initially anticipated, would be needed to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Additionally, many KBS tenants are embracing hoteling or pre-booking space so that they can rotate teams in and out of the office at different times. “One of our larger tenants, which occupies nearly 175,000 sq. ft. embraced the technology because they can overlap Maptician’s hoteling feature with call routing to ensure each employee is in the right spot every day,” DeLuca says.
JLL also employs a pre-certification health screening smartphone app, along with temperature checks, for tenants to gain entry to its buildings. This tool requires potential visitors and tenant employees to take a brief survey in order to determine if they are healthy and understand the guidelines of entry prior to arrival. A favorable response to all questions generates a QR code/pass to gain entry.
While there is no technology available to enforce social distancing, JLL is using cameras and overhead sensors with active IR (infrared) and TOF (time of flight) technology to monitor density in common areas. “People are counted as they walk beneath the unit, in and out of a space,” Zettl says, explaining that the devices alert staff when an unsafe level is reached. Building occupants can subscribe to receive these alerts as well.
JLL manages density in building elevators by reducing the maximum weight capacity allowed in them. Zettl notes that this signals to the elevator to pick up fewer people, and when the weight capacity is reached it will no longer work. “In addition, we’ve implemented touchless controls that are voice-activated in the lobby or elevator car or with a smartphone app,” he says, noting that antibacterial UV light is installed in elevator cabin ceilings, which sterilize the car when its empty, removing 99 percent of pathogens.
JLL has also introduced a robotic cleaning solution in its buildings in Asia, which will soon be rolled out throughout its U.S. portfolio as well.
While there has been a growing trend toward remote working models since the start of the pandemic, DeLuca believes this trend will eventually reverse and cites the Gensler survey, which found that the majority of office workers want to work in an office at least part of the time. He notes that tenants within KBS’ portfolio are already returning to the office.
Additionally, DeLuca notes that ingenuity and innovation tend to emerge in times of crises, giving birth to new business sectors that require office space. “We expect to see new technologies that aid in building safety and tenant occupancy emerge over the next several months,” he says. Some of these technologies will survive long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, as the shift to a health and wellness focus in the workplace will continue to be important to occupants.
Zettl agrees, noting for example, that the pandemic has heightened occupants’ interest in air quality in their buildings. “As a result, we will start to see updates involving everything from HVAC systems to particle-monitoring technology becoming standard practice.”
He also suggests that the “next normal” is a fluid situation in that some safety measures needed today may not be needed several months from now. “It’s a balance between temporary versus long-term, as well as traditional measures versus technology solutions. While it may vary from building to building, we believe enhanced cleaning and touchless technology are also likely here to stay, as [they] will continue to mitigate the spread of germs even during a normal cold and flu season.”