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Office Space: Commercial Buildings Struggle with Distancing


The issues facing facility managers seeking to prevent the spread of coronavirus in institutional and commercial facilities have focused on touchpoints, such as entryways, restrooms and classrooms. One of the other most important aspects of creating healthy work environments for commercial offices during the pandemic  — social distancing — also is proving to be one of the most challenging to deliver.

Millions of workers in recent months have returned to offices outfitted with pandemic protocols meant to keep them healthy and safe. But temperature checks and plexiglass barriers can't prevent one of the most dangerous workplace behaviors for the spread of COVID-19: the desire to mingle, according to Governing. But as some white-collar workers begin a cautious return, it’s becoming clear how hard it is to make the workplace safe. In many cases data can only verify what should be evident: The modern office, designed to pack in as many workers as possible, was never meant to enforce social distancing.

The issue is leading to a host of questions for managers. Because office crowding can show up in air quality, proper ventilation has replaced comfort as the focus for building managers, say Aaron Lapsley, who directs digital building operations for Cushman & Wakefield. Measuring the amount of carbon dioxide or the concentration of aerial particles can determine if airflow needs to be adjusted — or whether some people need to be told to leave a specific area. Employees now are more likely to use smartphone apps to receive alerts and keep tabs on the health and safety of the building, he says.

Some companies are turning to technology to help ensure social distancing in offices. An Israeli company thinks it can help by using smart sensors mounted on workplace ceilings, according to CNN Business. PointGrab developed its technology before the pandemic to help workspace managers optimize how employees use office space. About the size of a smoke alarm, the sensors can record the exact number and location of people in buildings including offices, hotels and restaurants. PointGrab has adapted the technology so the sensors can also monitor social distancing by keeping track of how far apart people are, and whether they're traveling in one direction around a building.

Dan Hounsell is editor of Facility Maintenance Decisions.

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