As the locks begin to loosen in many countries, the temporary return to work begins, leaving people naturally concerned about the security of an office space in the midst of a global pandemic.
Along with some old moldy food in communal refrigerators, there will likely be an increase in the amount of technology used to monitor employees.
From thermal cameras taking your temperature when you enter the building to applications or portable devices to alert you if you get too close to your colleagues, work may soon feel like the movie Minority Report.
The Edge in Amsterdam was voted one of the smartest and most sustainable buildings in the world a few years ago, and it is adapting its sensor-equipped offices to the new reality of living with a contagious and potentially deadly virus.
Coen van Oostrom, the founder of the real estate company that built it, told the BBC that there were some “obvious” changes that could happen immediately.
“The doors can currently be opened by hand, but it’s a small step to be able to open them by voice command or through an app, and we want to do this to make sure the virus doesn’t spread that way.
“We also have cameras that can see how many people are on a floor and with a software update, they are also able to measure the distance between people, and we can send a warning to people’s phones if they are too close to one and the other.
“Not everyone likes it and it feels like it’s an intrusion on their privacy, so we haven’t decided if we want to use it when everyone is back in the office. “
The Edge, unlike most buildings, already provides employees with a phone app that lets them see office temperature and air quality, as well as order lunch from the canteen.
The membership was not huge. While in the past nobody really cared about air quality, now the chances of the virus spreading are higher if there is not enough fresh air in circulation, people could start to take this into account, thinks Mr. van Oostrom.
Seat plans will also need to change to ensure that social distancing rules can be enforced, but Susan Clarke, an expert in smart buildings with the research firm Verdantix, believes that employers are unlikely to radically change their work practices .
“The hot-desking will remain and given the recession we are in right now, most companies will not be able to take up more space – but it could be rethought, so that someone leaves an office, a job order is assigned to this area so that a cleaner can disinfect. “
Some lighting companies, such as Vital Vio, offer what they describe as safe disinfection lighting, which uses purple light mixed with white light to kill certain bacteria on surfaces. Although these can be used in very busy hotels or offices, the expense may not be justifiable for many companies, Clarke believes.
Flir Technology has been manufacturing thermal imaging cameras for use in airports and on police helicopters for years, but has grown exponentially in recent months.
Now the firm sees the interest of factories and companies.
“Basically, every industry that needs to protect its employees and customers,” said Ezra Merrill, Flir vice president of marketing for Flir.
The cameras measure a five-millimeter square area near the tear duct, which has been found to be the best place to record skin temperature. Users wearing glasses should remove them.
Its algorithms take into account a range of factors, such as the time of day, whether it is sunny or rainy, and whether people have a normal body temperature range.
But the device is only part of the puzzle, and a second step would be to take a person’s temperature using a medical grade thermometer, said Merrill.
The technology was recently tested in an American factory, where employee reaction has been mixed.
“It was a full line as you would expect, from excited and happy people to those who thought they would get a retina exam. “
In fact, the camera doesn’t take a photo at all and it’s not possible to identify people in the image, but Mr. Merrill acknowledged that there could be privacy concerns. And in some places, it could be illegal.
“Some countries prohibit monitoring the health of employees. In Italy, for example, there are laws stipulating that you cannot monitor health, and this includes parameters such as temperature, ”said Clarke.
Lawyer Ravi Naik said companies should be careful not to use “technology for the sake of technology.”
“Is it to make it easier to understand who can work and who cannot, and if not what is its meaning?” Because it is such interference in fundamental human rights that there must be a high level of compelling justification for deploying this technology, and I do not think that is the case right now. “
The radical, long-term solution might involve not having to enter a building at all.
Barclays Bank chief executive Jes Staley said having thousands of workers in large, expensive city offices “may be a thing of the past” because the era of home foreclosure proves that many can do their job perfectly at home.
As a property developer, Mr. van Oostrom clearly disagrees.
He thinks we will see a hybrid model with more people working from home and employers having to “entice people to come to the office”.
“Making offices fun places will be more important than ever,” he said.