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
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
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,
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., France's Schneider
Electric SA, Germany's Siemens AG and others offer apps, sensors,
software and other products to control anything from air quality to
cleaning frequency and office occupancy.
Siemens, 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
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
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 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 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
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
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
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
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
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. 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
September 15, 2020 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)
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