Article

How COVID-19 is accelerating the move to hands-free workplaces

Contactless technology is set to play a bigger part in the re-entry to the workplace as COVID-19 restrictions ease

May 26, 2020

Before the days of coronavirus (COVID-19), touch-free technology in many workplaces extended to sensor-operated automatic doors and hands-free soap dispensers.

Now, as companies gradually return to the office, strict hygiene measures and the focus on employee wellbeing are more important than ever.

“Employee health and workplace hygiene are, without a doubt, the top considerations for companies re-entering the workplace,” says Mark Caskey, CEO of JLL’s EMEA Corporate Solutions business. “Companies are now taking a closer look at their office set-up and their existing processes to see where improvements need to be made to keep employees safe.”

As part of the COVID-19 office rethink, technology that enables staff to avoid contact with frequently used surfaces such as lift buttons, light switches, taps and meeting room booking screens is becoming of greater interest to both landlords and corporates.

“Prior to COVID-19, contactless tech was seen as a nice to have, rather than a necessity,” says Akshay Thakur, EMEA head of technology consulting at JLL. “However, this has quickly turned into a key requirement for workplaces.

“Replacing common contact points with touch-free options removes areas where the virus may linger, protecting staff and operationally, reducing the number of surfaces which need to be cleaned regularly.”

Increasing integration

While security swipe cards for most office staff are commonplace, their potential to bolt on additional functions is yet to be fully explored.

“Already, there are smarter swipe cards that not only allow an employee to access entry barriers, but simultaneously then call a lift car to a certain floor by knowing which area of the building that person is based in,” says Thakur. “That kind of integration may need to become more commonplace.”

In Estonia, the Navigator Office Center in the capital Tallinn, for example, recently rushed through plans to make its building entry systems contactless with smartphone technology allowing tenants to open doors and activate lifts.

What’s more, demand for contactless technologies could hasten the switch to mobile apps tailored to a business’ individual requirements.

“Mobile applications can work as a personal remote control for an employee’s work environment, helping to navigate their day, from booking a meeting room to ordering and paying for lunch,” Thakur says. “All major corporates have thought about enterprise apps. COVID-19 may now prove to be the inflection point.”

Low-tech meets high-tech

With companies preparing workplaces to welcome back growing numbers of staff, stopgap measures can ease the transition to longer-term investment in technology to protect employees. Take Stylus pens, which can be used to tap shared screens.

“Stylus pens, issued to individuals, are a low-cost way to improve hygiene around the workplace,” Thakur says. “They still allow people to safely select from, for example, common touch screens at the entrance to meeting rooms.”

Other existing technology doesn’t have such quick fixes. While biometric fingerprint scans have become more common on modern devices such as mobile phones, they still present hygiene issues when used on shared devices or at entrance points.

Facial recognition is one touch-free, albeit controversial, option that is increasingly being used in commercial and residential buildings around the world. In London, the access gates to AXA Real Estate Investment Managers’ 22 Bishopsgate scheme use facial recognition.

Longer-term, other companies could follow suit if COVID-19 makes facial recognition technology more widely accepted in the public sphere or explore other touch-free biometric scanners such as palm or vein recognition.

“There’s growing demand to not just keep employees safe but to keep buildings as secure as possible,” says Thakur. “Technology like facial recognition offers a quick and seamless way to verify who’s coming in and out of the building.”

Home from home

While growing numbers of workplaces are adopting meeting room sensors using Bluetooth Low Energy and Infrared technology, much of the contactless tech heading into workplaces of the future is currently being used at home.

“We’re all familiar with voice-recognition tech, like Alexa and Siri,” says Thakur. “But we’ve yet to see that truly cross over into the modern office. It will only be a matter of time before meeting rooms and communal kitchen areas begin to feature such tech and staff can speak directly to meeting room light controls or display screens.”

Regardless of the tools being used, challenges will remain around cost – and how well employees will respond to technology solutions. Data privacy, for example, is one contentious area.

“There have long been concerns around personal privacy for technology,” Thakur says. “But right now, health and safety are arguably higher priorities.”

Integration will be key, ensuring that systems work together to provide a smooth and efficient workplace experience.

But in the space of just a few months, COVID-19 has made companies think about technology in a new way and made it more of a priority as they seek to protect employees, says Caskey. “It’s potentially accelerated the switch to more modern workplace in the long-term,” he concludes.