Office Lobbies Are Going Contactless Because of Covid

After Sept. 11, the lobbies in many U.S. office buildings permanently changed as landlords beefed up security, adding cameras, turnstiles, programmable elevators and other technological tools. All who entered were required to have identification, and guards recorded who came and went.

Now, as pandemic restrictions ease and workers begin to trickle back into the office, the lobby is changing again, this time with an emphasis on health and safety. But the changes are subtle, and they are primarily meant to ease the flow at the turnstile.

Most notably, mobile applications tied to building security or operating systems are replacing plastic ID badges for workers and the check-in process for visitors. The goal is to digitally connect anyone entering the building while minimizing direct contact. Body scanners and air sensors are expected to become more prominent in the future.

Unlike the extra security measures of the post-9/11 world, which were plain to see, the latest changes will go largely unnoticed, said Jurgen Timperman, president of fire and security at Carrier Global, a provider of building operating systems based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

“With these applications, we have all the information we need about someone before they get to the building,” he said. “So the days where somebody sits behind a desk with a big book and pen are all but over.”

Building apps allow users to upload identification and other credentials, like their vaccine status, and offer the flexibility to add functions like health questionnaires that prescreen employees or visitors before their arrival. The apps can also track users throughout a building, which can help companies use space more efficiently or close areas to reduce occupancy.

Vendors are tight-lipped when it comes to how much building systems cost, as are the landlords who have installed them. One problem, they say, is that price varies with a building’s size and layout and the number of people, sensors and functions on the system.

The behind-the-scenes overhaul of security systems is catching on in office buildings and even at universities. Students and faculty at the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York, for example, use a system from Carrier for mobile entry to buildings on campus.

The New York developer Silverstein Properties has introduced a contactless entry system for tenants at 7 World Trade Center in Manhattan that allows employees to use badges stored in Apple Wallet to gain access to office and amenity spaces. And at Deutsche Bank’s new offices in the former Time Warner Center, vaccination status is loaded onto employee badges for entry through its turnstiles, a spokesman said.

In August, Rubenstein Partners rolled out a platform and app from HqO, a provider of building operating systems, at a 500,000-square-foot office building known as 25 Kent in Brooklyn, about 16 months after it opened. Rubenstein had decided before the pandemic to use the technology in the new development, but the desire to create a contactless entry hastened the timing.

“In the past, when someone visited an office, you’d hand your ID to a security person. But with Covid, distance became a concern,” said Salvatore Dragone, director of property management for Rubenstein, which is based in Philadelphia. “Now you can preregister, and your phone opens a turnstile or elevator door. It gives us a lot more control as to who comes into the building.”

In addition to the apps, permanent but discreet temperature and body scanners and air sensors in lobbies and elsewhere could become more commonplace, especially if other airborne viruses or more coronavirus variants emerge.

As property managers continue to reimagine the office lobby, tenants and visitors can also expect a “concierge feel” in addition to basic security, Mr. Dragone said, as music, HVAC fragrance diffusers, art and other experiential elements become more commonplace.

And those plexiglass dividers? “I don’t think they’re there for good,” he added, “nor do we want them to stay longer than need be.”

The technology continues a movement to automate manual processes across industries. But in commercial real estate, it is also part of a trend to create a more hospitable and inviting atmosphere by borrowing ideas from hotel lobbies, like seating lounges and meeting areas, said Lenny Beaudoin, who oversees workplace, design and occupancy for CBRE, a commercial real estate brokerage firm. CBRE also created Host, an app for tenants and landlords, and other digital building operating solutions.

“What owners are providing in lobbies is largely a response to what tenants want, and ultimately that’s a more connected experience,” said Sandeep Davé, the chief digital and technology officer at CBRE. “The focus now is on the convergence of functions on a smartphone that will provide a contactless experience and encourage people to return to work, and to return safely.”

The pandemic has accelerated interest in contactless solutions, said James Scott, the lead researcher at the Real Estate Innovation Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“In light of Covid, the acceptance of new technology and its implementation became extremely important,” he said. “The adoption rate has accelerated by anywhere from three to five years.”

In a 2021 global survey, nearly two-thirds of 250 respondents said they had either adopted mobile credentialing to control building access or planned to over the next two years, according to IFSEC Global, an international security and fire safety news and conference organization in London.

Despite the urgency created by the pandemic, some landlords and property managers are still mulling how to best strengthen their lobby safety and security, and by how much.

Complicating matters is the lack of a unified system. The sector for building software solutions remains fragmented, with several property technology companies competing. And the abilities are still being explored. For instance, apps have been developed to automatically call an elevator when a person enters a building, but technology providers have yet to roll out the feature in a significant way, Mr. Scott said.

The same is true for the deployment of automated temperature scanners, he added. In many cases, temporary temperature-taking stations disappeared in 2021, before the Omicron variant of the coronavirus took hold.

“Once a pandemic loses its steam, these types of temporary measures tend to gather dust in a storage room unless they have been integrated into the framework of the building management system,” Mr. Scott said.

Expense is also a consideration, particularly in older buildings that lack a robust technology foundation, said W.A. Watts IV, president of the Institute of Real Estate Management, an international organization for property and asset managers.

For example, a project to retrofit an 18-year-old, 25,000-square-foot building in Birmingham, Ala., costs around $5 a square foot just to install base infrastructure, said Mr. Watts, who goes by Chip. He and other industry observers question whether low-density suburban offices in smaller markets even need to install such intensive security and safety measures.

But technological innovation is on its way, said Dawn M. Carpenter, the founder of Dawning Real Estate and a broker who manages about five million square feet of commercial real estate in New York.

In her 200,000-square-foot office building on Staten Island, security guards at the lobby desk still call tenants when visitors arrive, Ms. Carpenter said. The guests then wait until someone takes the elevator down to fetch them. Since Omicron hit, however, no visitors have been allowed.

“Adding a building operating system is a big capital expenditure, and owners have to buy into it,” she said. “There’s not one in this building yet, but it will be coming.”

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