Contactless Culture: Designing a More Sanitary and Sustainable Workplace

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With about two months of working from home under our belts, feelings of restlessness, loneliness and the desire to return to the life we once lived is settling in. This begs the question, why do we want to return to the office? Is it for the instant machine-dispensed coffee in the office pantry, the confines of our workstation or the access to a shared public restroom? Likely not the case. 

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The fact of the matter is humans are social beings who crave social interaction and human connectivity. The number one reason why people work in an office environment is for socializing and connecting with colleagues. These social interactions foster creativity, collaboration and a sense of solidarity or community. As we look for ways to bring people back to this human-to-human connection, first and foremost we must create an environment that protects the health and safety of the workforce. 

Although the who and when remains largely unknown, it is inevitable that many of us will gradually return to office life. When we do, it is unlikely that much of anything will be the same. Our commutes, office hours, lobbies, pantries, restrooms, meeting rooms and even workstations may look and feel different. With the possibility that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, there comes a heightened reluctance to touch any surface unnecessarily. We are all beginning to rethink how a user interacts with their space. 

Think about your typical day pre-COVID-19. Walking into your building, you may have to open two doors. Maybe you have to enter a code or scan a badge to get to the elevator banks, where pressing a set of buttons takes you to your floor. Upon arriving in your office space, you travel to the pantry for your morning cup of coffee where you press a combination of buttons for the coffee machine to dispense your latte. You open the fridge for your milk and the cabinet for some sugar. While your coffee is being prepared, you might go around the corner to use the restroom, open the door and touch the flush handle, faucet handle, soap dispenser and paper towel dispenser. In just the first 15 minutes of your return to the office you may have touched upwards of 20 surfaces.

Security and facilities teams look to implement countless strategies that minimize the touching of any surface, particularly at entry points. Many may opt to install more sensor-based technology to replace high-touch surfaces. Think motion sensors or badges to automatically activate smart doors when an authorized personnel is detected, occupancy sensors to detect when a space is occupied to turn on lights, retrofitting restrooms so that everything is automated. Some touchless soap dispensers are equipped with a light timer indicating when 20 seconds is up to promote the recommended hand washing duration. Individual trash bins could be replaced with centrally located motion activated trash bins.

We will likely see an uptick in voice technology. Installing voice activation such as Amazon Alexa for business for example could further remove the touch. Before boarding the elevator, you might tell it where you would like to go rather than having to push a button. Desk phones will likely become a thing of the past as they are just another surface to touch. They could be replaced by unified communication applications, such as Cisco’s Jabber. The ability to control everything from personal devices will limit touch while also meeting the growing demand of shifting face-to-face meetings to virtual methods. The power of personal devices will be harnessed for a lot more than just conference calls. Coffee orders, desk height preferences and more will be set and controlled by apps on end users’ phone.

Converting an entire office building to a touchless environment rich with motion sensor technology can be a long and costly process. In the interim, simpler cost-effective solutions could include safely propping open doors or implementing hardware such as StepNpull, a foot-operated door opener. Applying antibacterial coatings or materials, such as NanoSeptic, Sharklet and copper tape, to door handles and other frequently touched hardware can impede or kill bacterial growth and help mitigate the spread of the virus and other infectious illnesses. Cabinet handles can also be easily replaced with touch latch systems. Disposable mats or pads can be placed on various work surfaces to provide an additional layer of protection between cleaning and use.

Experts are continuously coming up with novel ways to eliminate or dramatically limit the need for touch in the workplace. Every high-touch surface converted to a touchless surface minimizes the risk of microbial spread throughout the office and contributes to a healthier and safer working environment. Creating a contactless environment that allows for people to safely return to work and get the human contact, interaction and connection they need will create a healthier, more resilient workforce. 

Francesca Gentile is a workplace strategy specialist at Savills.