With states gradually seeking to lift shelter-in-place laws, developers are instituting phased strategies for reopening their buildings in a safe and hygienic manner. While many states moving quickly to reopen have issued mandatory guidelines for workplace safety, anxiety about workplace infection remains high – a recent informal survey found that 81% of employees do not feel safe about returning to the office. Given this context, workplaces need to not only adhere to infection control protocols but also instill a palpable sense of safety and assurance in the people using the space.
Commercial office lobbies are a crucial element in establishing a safer, more uplifting work environment, as they are the primary means for entering a building. They are a logical space for deploying and highlighting new hygienic measures and protocols, as well as creating an atmosphere that reassures and informs tenants. To add to the complexity, these measures are more challenging to implement in multi-tenant buildings, where numerous policies on guests, package drop-off and lobby use have to be coordinated across multiple companies.
Given the potential complexities of this task, here are five design considerations building owners and operators should take into account as they rethink lobby areas.
Visible Safety Measures
There are a number of safety measures and protocols which can be deployed in lobby spaces to control the spread of infection. These include obvious but effective protocols like regular cleanings and the provision of hand sanitizer, gloves and masks. But there are also more advanced solutions that are also beneficial beyond COVID-19, including lobbies that use proximity badges to maintain healthy density levels, screening kiosks, improved air handling including filtration and air exchange, and touchless technology on doors and elevators, potentially using facial recognition, to reduce the risk of contact infection. Buildings could even implement an express lane for pre-screened individuals using a QR code or use entry/exit sensors to detect occupancy levels in the elevators and office floors.
It is important from a psychosocial perspective that these safety and health measures are visible to building tenants in order to reinforce the sense that the building is a safe, well managed environment. In the current context, conspicuous measures like health screenings in lobbies, time lapse videos showing cleanings, and even digital visualizations monitoring air quality in the building may help put tenants’ minds at ease.
Signage and Wayfinding
Signage and wayfinding play a critical role in getting tenants where they need to go and keeping them informed of new building safety and hygiene protocols. Lobbies will likely be the primary access point for building tenants, but other means will have to remain open for evacuation and fire safety purposes. Signage should clearly inform tenants which entrances and exits are to be used, and which are strictly for emergencies, so that everyone accessing the building goes through the necessary security and screening points.
Signage should be clear, concise and uniformly deployed in the lobby as well as throughout the building. Uncommon colors like pink may help important messages stand out, along with simple language and intuitive icons. In addition to wayfinding, signage can reinforce important protocols, informing tenants about handwashing, social distancing and other important infection control elements. It can be playful, catchy or fun, reinforcing positive messages like “we can do this,” which can serve to assuage anxieties and make important information more memorable. It is also important to strike the right balance in terms of the amount of signage used—too little signage is ambiguous, while too much is confusing and can conversely create the subjective impression that a space is unsafe.
Digital Media and Messaging
The projected increase in queueing in the lobby due to potential health screenings or elevator bottlenecks may represent an opportunity to incorporate monitors and digital signage for entertainment and real-time information purposes. Digital displays can provide important facility information such as shared and tenant-specific building policies as well as recent changes, which may be particularly useful in multi-tenant buildings, or provide information on queuing times.
Displays can also serve a broader role as forums for sharing news about the immediate neighborhood, such as information on public transit or which restaurants have re-opened or are delivering. They can additionally be used to field and answer questions from building occupants, sharing relevant information with tenants as they queue and reinforcing the sense that the building’s management is aware of and responding to concerns. This can play a critical role in helping people feel more comfortable in their environment. Digital signage could also provide elements of inspiration, distraction or connection, like turning the color blue when other landmarks in the city do so to honor healthcare workers.
Elevators and Stairs
Getting to the office may be a major bottleneck in commercial office buildings, given the need to adhere to social distancing measures. A standard passenger elevator is 6’ x 6,’ which could theoretically accommodate four individuals at each corner while barely maintaining minimum social distancing guidelines. Though office buildings will likely, at least initially, have significantly lower occupancy as a large portion of people continue to work from home, there will still be a need for queueing at 6’ intervals or other measures to relieve social density as people wait for elevators.
For tenants on lower floors, stairs are alternate option. If this becomes a major traffic area, rules can be established about passing, entering and exiting so that social distancing can be maintained. Another consideration is that people may be reluctant to use the handrail for hygienic purposes, which could increase the possibility of falls.
Staging Arrivals and Exits
Given the trend towards increasing office densification, a high-rise office building might have several thousand occupants arriving and departing the building during peak commute periods. Queuing for elevators during these peak periods while maintaining social distancing protocols could quickly become impractical due to space limitations.
In order to lessen social density in the lobby during high traffic periods, it may be necessary to stage arrivals and exits. This may need to be developed in coordination with mass transit, which will likely need to use staggered arrivals and departures. For single tenant buildings an employer can develop a company policy, but for multi-tenant buildings this can potentially be done via a phone app, which provides companies or individuals with scheduled arrival and departure slots to minimize the number of people using the lobby at any given time. Such functionality could be built onto existing smart building apps frequently used to manage building security, services, comfort levels and other facility-related issues.
As people gradually return to the office, building owners and managers will face a number of challenges in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their tenants. Lobbies are an important space in this regard, as highly trafficked, highly visible places that transition people from the surrounding neighborhood to their workplace. While the logistical issues of maintaining security and safety during the pandemic are apparent, there are also notable opportunities in lobbies for creating more welcoming, responsive environments that more deeply connect people with the buildings they use.
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