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A Multibillion-Dollar Opportunity: Virus-Proofing the New Office

Truework, an income verification start-up, recently introduced software to help employers keep track of their workers’ health status.

Gensler, an architecture and design firm, has a workplace floor-planning app that generates social-distancing layouts for desks and other office furniture.

PwC, the professional services firm, is using technology that it originally developed to track inventory for a new contact-tracing system that logs employee interactions so workers can be notified in the event of exposure to the coronavirus.

With companies pressing to figure out how to safely reopen workplaces, makers of everything from office furniture to smart ventilation systems are rushing to sell them products and services marketed as solutions. Some companies, like makers of thermal cameras that sense skin temperature, are rebranding their wares as virus-containment fever-scanning products. Others are creating entirely new services.

And they have a captive market. To protect employees and reduce liability for virus outbreaks at work, companies are racing to comply with public health guidelines on issues like employee screening and social distancing. In the United States, the market for contact-tracing technologies for employers could soon be worth $4 billion annually, according to estimates from International Data Corporation, a market research firm.

But the preventive tools and pandemic workplace rules are so new — as is the emerging science on the virus — that it is too soon to tell how well, or if, they work.

“These are all untested theories and methods right now,” said Laura Becker, a research manager focusing on employee experience at I.D.C. “What is going to be the most effective component of all of these work force return strategies? We don’t know.”

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Credit…Jared Soares for The New York Times

When workers eventually return to the office, they may find that the lobby resembles an airport security checkpoint. At least that’s the vision that Kastle Systems, a 48-year-old Falls Church, Va., company that designs, installs and monitors security systems for several thousand commercial buildings, recently began marketing to its clients.

Businesses that use the company’s coronavirus management system, KastleSafeSpaces, may ask employees to download an app that will automatically open entrance doors for people eligible to come to the office. Workers who fill out a health screening questionnaire ahead of time may proceed to a lobby fast lane to have their temperatures checked. Those who have been asked to stay home because they recently tested positive for coronavirus may go on a kind of no-fly list and find that doors will automatically stay closed for them.

“The idea is really to create this profile where you can identify who is known safe, who’s known not safe and then who needs to be screened when they get in,” said Mark D. Ein, the chairman of Kastle. “It’s a little bit like airports where you have Clear precheck or regular check, depending on people’s profile.”

Clear, the biometric identification company known for its air-traveler identification service, recently introduced a system called Health Pass for office buildings, restaurants, retailers, cruise ships and sports arenas. It will use facial recognition to confirm employees’ identities and vet worker-provided health information — such as symptom data and verified test results — so they can be cleared to enter workplaces. Caryn Seidman-Becker, Clear’s chief executive, said this kind of multilayered approach to entry screening could help reduce risk for employers and create a safer working environment.

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Credit…Jared Soares for The New York Times

Since coronavirus particles can stick around for hours or days, vendors are rushing to repurpose technologies to reduce the spread of the droplets. Kastle said it was modifying an app that can automatically open office doors to allow employees to call an elevator and indicate which floor they want to go to without touching any buttons.

Jennifer Burns, senior vice president of property management and operations at Monday Properties, a commercial real estate owner, operator and developer, said her company has limited elevator capacity to four people at a time, asked employees going to higher floors to go to the back while riding and installed markers showing where people should stand. As an interim measure, she said, Monday Properties has installed self-cleaning antimicrobial covers, made by a Virginia company called NanoTouch, on elevator buttons for additional protection. Kastus, a company in Dublin, is also marketing its antimicrobial coatings to combat the spread of coronavirus.

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Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

Steelcase, one of the largest manufacturers of office furniture, has long created and installed office desk systems designed to foster greater collaboration by pushing employees closer together and lowering partitions — the open office.

Now, companies are quickly trying to reverse that trend in a low-cost and flexible way. They want to remove chairs and desks and install screens or other dividers between remaining desks, said Allan Smith, a vice president for global marketing for Steelcase.

Office lockers are hot sellers, said Lori Gee, a vice president of client workplace performance for the furniture design company Herman Miller, which works with many Fortune 100 companies. Employees will have their own lockers where they will stow much — if not all — of their personal belongings and collect their personal protective equipment kits.

The days of crowding into a narrow glass conference room are over.

Most conference rooms are designed with narrow layouts, which means employees have to break social distancing just to squeeze past co-workers to get to their seats. “There’s going to have to be a total reboot on what conference rooms mean to organizations,” Ms. Gee said.

Instead, smaller group meetings will be held with employees spaced apart on the clusters of couches and chairs that have popped up in offices in recent years.

But companies are seeking to replace the sofas upholstered in soft, luxurious fabrics with something more durable. “One of our biggest requests for those spaces are durable, super-fast color fabrics that they can, essentially, pour straight bleach on every single night,” Mr. Smith of Steelcase said. “They’re also looking to add white boards and technology to these spaces.”

Say goodbye to crowding around the coffee machine at midmorning to talk about the latest Netflix show you binged.

Social distancing requirements will be difficult to manage in any space where there is an opportunity for people to stand and mingle, said David Bailey, the chief executive officer of corporate services for the French food services giant Sodexo.

Instead, Sodexo has developed an app called Twelve that allows corporate employee to pre-order and pay for their morning coffee and doughnuts.

“You don’t have to go to the cafeteria to pick it up,” Mr. Bailey said. “Companies are spreading pickup locations to three or four locations in the building. And the app uses an algorithm that manages the time periods to make sure there is no crowding.”

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Credit…Alana Paterson for The New York Times

Over the past decade, upscale corporate cafeterias have increasingly featured sushi bars, grass-fed made-to-order hamburgers, freshly made quinoa-and-kale salads, all overseen by former chefs at top restaurants.

Now, many of these on-site cafeterias are likely to disappear.

“Even before this happened, a lot of organizations were already looking at the cost of real estate and the cost of the cafeteria and wondering if they needed it as a large percentage of their employees were working one or two days from home,” Mr. Bailey said. “Now, we’re seeing a big change in food delivery, away from on-site cafeteria model to a commissary delivery model.” Using an app like Twelve, employees can pre-order and pay for sandwiches and salads and collect them when they are delivered.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 22, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.