Making Offices Safe for Workers, and Making Money Doing It

By Ruth Bender | Photographs by Horatiu Sovaiala for The Wall Street Journal

Bringing employees back to work could mean big business for the designers, engineers and software companies selling products designed to boost office safety and ease workers' worries in the pandemic.

Their solutions go well beyond plexiglass sheets and hand sanitizer. Apps to guide office traffic, sensors that detect when to call in the cleaners, germ-repelling paint and plant-bedecked partitions are among the growing array of products and services aiming to virus-proof workplaces.

The potential of this market remains hazy, if only because of the variety of possible suppliers, ranging from engineering giants to design companies to Silicon Valley startups. But as employers adapt to life with the novel coronavirus, firms say they expect sustained demand.

Some products are geared for immediate needs wherever workers are already streaming back. Others are longer-term solutions. But businesses involved in this market say they believe that Covid-19 will force a permanent rethinking of how offices operate.

"There is no going back to before corona," said Ingo Hartlief, chief executive of DEMIRE Deutsche Mittelstand Real Estate AG (MREOF), which owns 84 commercial buildings across Germany. "We're going to have to offer additional services."

One sector that has been quick to respond is the smart building market, where Honeywell International Inc. (HON), France's Schneider Electric SA, Germany's Siemens AG (SMAWF) and others offer apps, sensors, software and other products to control anything from air quality to cleaning frequency and office occupancy.

Siemens (SMAWF), like many large corporations, plans to allow for more remote work in the future. In July it said some 140,000 employees in 43 countries could permanently work from home two to three days a week.

At the same time, the company's building-technology arm is touting tools to help offices return, such as Comfy, a workplace app that can monitor office occupancy, enable staff to book desks or meeting rooms and distribute the latest local health guidelines.

Pre-pandemic, companies used Comfy to improve productivity and employee happiness at work, said Elisa Rönkä, head of digital market development Europe at Siemens Smart Infrastructure. Now, they are using it to help employees feel safer, she said.

"There is an acceleration of interest in the app and an acceleration in the timeline clients want such technology deployed," Ms. Rönkä said.

Siemens (SMAWF) and fellow German engineering group Robert Bosch GmbH are both marketing sensors as tools to monitor social distancing or order cleaning services. Enlighted, a Silicon Valley-based maker of building technology that Siemens (SMAWF) acquired in 2018, launched a tracking app for companies in July. The app sends alerts to users if they have come into contact with a colleague who contracted Covid-19.

Amar Goel, chairman of digital advertising firm PubMatic Inc., realized a similar idea with Safeter, an app for employers to send staff health questionnaires or stagger office arrivals to avoid jams in hallways or outside elevators. Mr. Goel's app has a free version, while one with arrival, departure or meeting scheduling features costs $5 per employee per month.

Gainsight Inc., one of the early adopters, said Safeter is helping ensure employee safety during a reopening for the San Francisco-based software company that has been much more complex than expected, Chief Executive Nick Mehta said in a statement marking the app's launch.

Charles Reed Anderson, a Singapore-based consultant on property technology, said products for the pandemic are proliferating, citing temperature-scanning apps as an example. "All startups I keep track of are suddenly stopping what they're doing and are creating Covid solutions."

The risk, he said, is that building owners find themselves with even more different technology platforms to manage in an already fragmented market.

Adoption of some of the tools will depend on the speed of the return to the workplace, how quickly a vaccine becomes available and how big a role remote work will play in the future. In Germany, France, Italy and Spain, over 70% of office workers had returned to work as of mid-July but only 34% in the U.K., according to a Morgan Stanley survey of 12,500 people. In the U.S., many companies recently postponed the move, with some, including Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc., permitting remote work for the foreseeable future.

Many companies expect working from home to become a permanent option, but it's unclear how that would impact demand for office space. Some real-estate executives say demand might even increase as social distancing requires more space per employee. Others fear that a global recession, not just the virus, would push companies to cut space.

Either way, said Zach Vaughan, head of real estate in Europe at Brookfield Asset Management Inc., "The critical task employers have is to build confidence among their employee base that their offices are safe."

Mr. Vaughan said the Canadian company with some $203 billion of real-estate assets under management is accelerating investments in building safety, in particular air filtration and ways to minimize the transmission of the virus through touch.

Liviu Tudor, a European property developer and president of lobby group European Property Federation, has invested more than $1 million through his firm in creating a new standard to certify buildings for their level of resilience to the pandemic.

He set up a team of 20 health, technology, real-estate and engineering experts to compile a list of more than 100 features -- partly inspired by technologies used in hospitals -- that could earn a building such certification.

Mr. Tudor is testing the features with Swedish telecom company Ericsson, which rents an office building in Bucharest from Genesis Property, the company he heads. The office now includes features such as antimicrobial paint, UV- light disinfection systems, self-cleaning toilets and a quarantine room if someone suddenly shows symptoms or tests positive, with the landlord and tenant splitting the cost.

In the future, Mr. Tudor says it should be up to building owners to invest to make offices safer. He estimates such upgrades would add 2% to the current cost of a building -- an investment, he says, that would increase the value of the property.

Randall Buescher, senior vice president of architecture at Epstein Global, which is advising Mr. Tudor on the new safety standard, said his designers have sketched out the office of the future.

In May, the Chicago-based architecture and engineering firm won a competition on designing the post-Covid workplace launched by furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. (MLHR) and distributor Interior Investments LLC. Epstein Global's entry included fully automated doors, touchless elevators that can be summoned with a phone app, foot-operated kitchen cabinets and trash cans, antibacterial curtains to separate people in meeting rooms and plant-bedecked partitions to improve air filtration.

Les jardins de Gally, a French agriculture and landscaping company, offers what it calls "plant-based social distancing solutions," walls or room partitions made out of greenery.

Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the effort to make buildings safer was overdue even before the pandemic.

"What this virus is exposing is that our buildings aren't designed for human health first," said Mr. Allen, citing underventilation as an example. A healthy office now has become central to a business being able to function, he said.

Write to Ruth Bender at Ruth.Bender@wsj.com


  (END) Dow Jones Newswires
  09-15-20 0544ET
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