back to work

The High-Tech Upgrades of the Pandemic Office Are Mostly for Show

Photo: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

When New Yorkers return to the office, possibly as soon as this summer, nothing will be the same. In an attempt to get tenants back to their desks sooner, everything is being reimagined — from redesigning open-floor offices for flexible (and spaced-out) layouts to filling offices with air-purifying plants.

When employees go back to offices at 345 Park Avenue, 3 Times Square, or 80 Pine Street — all of which are owned by Rudin Management — they will be able to check an app to see how many people are waiting for an elevator in the lobby or to monitor their building’s air quality. A vending machine offering at-home COVID-19 tests for $119 a pop (including one that provides results in 15 minutes) is now up and running in the lobby of 225 West 34th Street. And at RAL Companies’ soon-to-be-completed 124 East 14th Street property, the bathrooms are individual tiled rooms with minimal grout lines, a feature that is supposed to reduce germs. In other buildings, UV lights in common areas, thermal scanners in lobbies, and smartphone key fobs for opening doors promise to increase safety and hygiene.

Unfortunately, it’s mostly for show, especially since none of these features reduce the transmission of COVID-19 through the primary way it spreads: the air. “A lot of what people are trying to do is to put control measures in place to give the illusion of safety,” said Robyn Gershon, an occupational- and environmental-health researcher and professor of epidemiology at NYU’s School of Global Public Health. “They’re based on our best knowledge, but it’s not for sure that these things can make any difference.”

Precautions that are actually effective — on top of doubling up on face masks and maintaining social distance — include beefing up building ventilation, installing better filtration systems, and staggering shifts for employees to reduce the number of people in an office at any given time. Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure-assessment science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has advocated for a strategy known in public health as the hierarchy of controls, which offers an inverted pyramid of five core principles to protect workers, beginning with the elimination of exposure at the top (anyone who can be working from home should) and ends with plenty of personal protective equipment. The U.S. Green Building Council, and similar organizations, has piloted new credit programs meant to help buildings reduce the risk of transmission by enhancing air-quality systems and creating cleaning policies that utilize certain products.

That’s decidedly less flashy than, say, an app, if not outright invisible. Not being able to show workers that buildings are being kept safe has led to management at buildings doubling down on deep cleanings. “We’re spending too many resources focused on shared surfaces and not shared air,” said Allen. But it may be hard for institutions to ease up on extensive surface cleanings when people want to see their office buildings being power-washed and scrubbed with antimicrobial solutions on the regular. The same goes for high-end features that give the appearance of extra protection, and there’s no harm in the psychological boost they might give, so long as they don’t lull you into a false sense of security.

“The peace of mind that it generates may have value in and of itself. I like the idea that there is a certain performative aspect to it where people can see [these things] and be reassured,” said Patrick Kachur, a public-health physician and professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “I just hope people aren’t overly reassured and relax some of the other precautions that need to be in place.”

High-Tech Upgrades of Pandemic Offices Are Mostly for Show