“We’ve ordered a couple of remote-controlled UV sterilizing robots”: All the futuristic ways office buildings will change when it’s time to go back to work
Toronto’s once-bustling office towers have been like ghost towns since March, but not for long. With Stage 3 looming, we had to wonder: how will property managers keep their tenants safe when the hordes return to work? We spoke to four of them about cleaning regimens, elevator scheduling apps and UV disinfection robots.
Vice-president, property management, Dream
“In downtown Toronto, we manage the Bay Street Village collection, as well as buildings on Richmond and Temperance streets. Our smaller buildings are 60,000 square feet, and the larger ones range from 300,000 to 600,000 square feet.
“We’ve put together a plan for each of our buildings and shared it with tenants so their employees won’t be taken aback when they arrive back in the office. There’s now signage indicating masks are mandatory in common areas, separate entrances and exits, and signs that direct traffic inside the building and indicate the maximum number of people in the elevator—two or three people, depending on the size of the elevator. Those are initial changes we were able to implement right away.
“We’re also looking into different kinds of technology. We’ve purchased UV technology for escalator handrails—you don’t physically see it, but it’s a UV light that goes under the handrails and continuously cleans it. We’ve ordered a couple of remote-controlled UV sterilizing robots. They go around and disinfect unoccupied spaces after hours. We got foggers—they release a dry solution in a contained space, like an elevator—to help clean the air and eliminate airborne pathogens. These are just enhancements to the existing cleaning regimen. We hope these measures will make people feel more comfortable that our offices are being thoroughly cleaned. We’ve hired cleaners whose job is to wipe down all high-touch-point areas every 15 to 20 minutes.
“We’re implementing UV filtration for air-handling units and installing air purifiers in elevator cabs. All of our automatic door handles are now touchless, and we’ve switched to touchless fixtures in all of our bathrooms. We’ve changed all of our air filters to MERV-13, which is the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ recommendation, added hand-sanitizer stations throughout our lobbies and antimicrobial surface protection to all high touch points like hand railings, elevator buttons, door handles, washrooms, anything people will touch. All of this has been implemented since the pandemic began in March.
“In the future, there will be more and more technological solutions, and we’re certainly trying to stay on top of it. For right now, we believe we have a good program in place, so we’re hoping people feel safe coming back to work.”
Managing director of asset services, CBRE
“We’re the world’s largest third-party property manager, so we’ve had pandemic planning in place for a long time. That said, our previous plan was based on an influenza outbreak, which normally has an much lower infection rate than Covid-19. I’m not sure anyone saw this coming.
“The biggest immediate change we’ve implemented in our downtown office buildings is signage. We’ve designated specific doors for entrances and exits and now think of our common areas like highways, with signage directing people to travel in specific directions. We’ve enhanced our contracts with cleaners so high touch points like doors will be cleaned every 15 to 30 minutes instead of twice a day.
“Naturally, there are major choke points when people come into the building, specifically by the doors and elevators. We’re asking tenants to consider staggered, pre-scheduled start times for employees, so they can begin work anywhere from 7 to 10 a.m. That’s a great way to make sure there’s less congestion in our common areas. We don’t plan to book elevators at this time, but we’re open to altering our plans if the need arises.
“We’re moving away from push-button automatic doors toward touchless hand-waving technology. We’re also looking into devices where you can use your foot to open and close doors, but I’m not super keen on them. They’re not what I would call excellent-looking.
“Whenever we enter Stage 3, there are going to be people coming into our buildings who are afraid to go back to work. We want to take away that fear and replace it with insight into the new protocols. Coming back, we’ll have a white-glove concierge service staffed by personnel who inform occupants about what has changed. There will be fear and uncertainty about the new processes, and this service will reduce that.
“For long-term solutions, we’re looking closely at the ways hospitals are run because they’re a microcosm for how to curb viruses and bacteria. We’re looking into HVAC solutions to bring in more fresh air to the buildings. In the early days, we will be running our HVAC systems longer, both before and after business hours. We’re also looking at cleaning devices that use ultraviolet radiation, as well as bipolar ionization systems, which use special tubes to purify the air. I don’t know anything about them yet, but they’re on our radar.
“We have an app called Host that facilitates a touchless experience—employees enter the building using their phone as a pass card, and they can also use it to order food and pay in the app. On our end, it helps manage and track the number of people inside our buildings at any given time. Coming back to work, there are going to be limitations on non-occupants entering the building. For example, you used to be able to order food and have it delivered to your floor, but now there will be a touch point in the lobby for couriers to come in, and you’ll have to meet them there.
“During the shutdown, I had tenants continuing to occupy buildings, but even our busiest building is only seeing 10 per cent occupancy. We’ve been ready to welcome people back for a month and a half, but I don’t expect to see a large increase in people coming back to work, even if Toronto enters Stage 3. Many organizations are still encouraging people to work from home if they can.”
Executive vice-president, Avison Young
“We manage about three million square feet of office space in downtown Toronto, including buildings on University Avenue and Bay Street. Depending on the size, our buildings can hold anywhere from 500 to 15,000 occupants. Re-occupancy of buildings was technically allowed when Stage 2 was announced, but we’ve seen very little uptake. We’ve been hearing about people coming back to work in September, but as we get closer to September, that’s being pushed back to the end of the year. Many of our tenants don’t plan to re-occupy in any significant way until there’s a vaccine.
“If there’s anything we have learned from Covid as a society, it’s that we can trust people to work from home and adjust their own behaviours. So when people are ready to come back to work, we have to trust them to self-govern. For example, we can control how many people are on an elevator on the way up, but if somebody wants to get on the elevator on the way down, and there are already three people inside, we can’t stop them.
“These buildings are big, complex infrastructures, and they’re not easy to adapt. Fundamentally, we haven’t changed anything about the way our buildings are run. We used to have a full clean each night with two day visits to tidy and restock washrooms, which would include a light clean of the toilets, sinks and counters. Now, we have a full disinfecting clean each night with multiple cleans throughout the day, and have hired a dedicated high-touch-point cleaner who will go around cleaning things like door handles and elevator buttons. They are currently onsite from 9:30 to 3 p.m., but that will increase as occupancy goes up. We’re also changing the filters in air handling systems more frequently. Those are just little tweaks. It’s not sexy stuff, but it’s important and it’s going to keep us safer.
“I can’t say whether or not our tenants have rearranged their office setups, but we’ve redesigned our entire floor plan. We’re ensuring one-way traffic inside our offices and mandatory masks within common areas, and we’ve closed off the kitchens and high-touch-point areas as much as possible. The new floor plan reduces our ability to occupy the space—we can probably only have 50 per cent of our staff working at any given time. Which is fine, because I don’t think we expect more than half of the people to come in until there’s a vaccine.
“We’re also looking into UV disinfection. UV purifiers can be installed within the HVAC system and work in conjunction with filtration systems to deactivate airborne pathogens and microorganisms like mould, bacteria and viruses. The UV lights are placed downstream of the filters, and the they clean any potential pathogens that may pass through. That technology is currently available, but it’s very complicated and expensive.
“There’s also an increased emphasis on creating touchless environments. Many of our newer buildings already had automatic door openers and touchless washroom fixtures. But we’re accelerating those changes in our buildings.
“Currently, none of our tenants are talking about giving up their office space and adopting work-from-home permanently. The value of being part of an organization is in interacting with colleagues and having those spontaneous water-cooler conversations. That’s how company cultures get built, how ideas get exchanged. Zoom is a godsend in many ways, but it’s very difficult to have those conversations because you can’t schedule spontaneity. We want people to come back to work. We want people occupying space in our buildings. Right now, we’re doing everything we can to make them as hospitable as possible.”
President and CEO, Sterling Karamar Property Management
“The first change we put in place at our office buildings was adding a germ guard—an anti-microbial surface treatment that goes on all high-touch surfaces, such as desks, chairs, elevator buttons. Basically, if a germ touches one of those surfaces, it will die within seconds. It comes with a one-year guarantee. A lot of large organizations use it.
“We contemplated checking temperatures before people enter the buildings, but decided against it because most of our offices are not high-traffic properties. We’re also looking into changing air-flow systems, but that’s a huge capital cost. However, if an HVAC system is on the fritz and needs to be replaced, we will make sure the systems have high-quality air purifiers in place. We are looking into replacing push-button automatic doors with touchless hand-wave technology. Even if not, the buttons will still be cleaned regularly.
“Our own office at 53 The Links Road has remained open because technically we’re an essential service—I say that very loosely because we’re certainly not as essential as hospitals. Right now, office attendance is on an as-needed basis. For instance, our accounts payable division has one person come in every day to print cheques. They do what they need to do and then they’re out of here. We are working with the managers of each department to establish what the maximum occupancy of the building should be during Stage 3. We’ve all agreed there will never be more than 50 per cent of a department here at any given time. Each department head will work with their team to devise a return-to-work schedule.
“Inside the office, the protocol is to wear a mask and a face shield when you’re walking around the common area in the office. We are limiting visitor entry into the building, so if you need to interact with anyone who doesn’t work inside, you meet them at the entrance to the property. We have a no-travel policy for business right now. Anyone over the age of 60 is categorized as high risk for Covid-19, so they will not be returning to the office until the pandemic is over. Any employees who have an existing health condition or a compromised immune system, we’re not forcing them back into the office either.
“For the people who are able to come back to the office, we’ll be doing health checks. The employee will have to fill out a questionnaire that makes sure the person is healthy, and if their answers to any of the questions change, they will need to report that to HR before physically coming into the office.
“We have had some tenants tell us they no longer need office space, but frankly, those were companies that were not doing so well before Covid-19. Strangely enough, if companies are going to add six feet between desks, they will need to rent more space, not less. I personally think there’s a great benefit to maintaining an office space. When you’re sitting around and able to have discussion with your colleagues—with your mask and face shield on, of course—it stimulates the mind. I hope we don’t get to a point where everybody wants to work from home because at the end of the day, something would be lost.”