Safer Return to the Office: The contactless workplace approach adjusts to keep venues operational

Shutterstock / MuchMania
Shutterstock / MuchMania
Published On
Mar 15, 2022

The coronavirus hit the world full force in March 2020 and upended business. Offices emptied out, with millions of workers opting to work remotely. In downtown Chicago, huge office towers stood vacant except for maintenance crews.

To address the mass exodus and reduce a disruption of commerce, Powering Chicago, a partnership between IBEW 134 electricians and the Electrical Contractors’ Association of Chicago and Cook County, launched the contactless office campaign in mid-2020. The idea was to help electrical contractors assist their customers in reducing the risk of virus transmission by converting office spaces into touchless environments.

“I thought the contactless office campaign was amazing and timely,” said Thomas Pedergnana II, vice president of Malko Communication Services LLC of Skokie, Ill. “It combined some newer cutting-edge technologies with repurposing other technologies to address COVID-19 health and safety concerns.”

With a workforce of technicians and electricians, Malko specializes in low-voltage work, security systems, distributed antenna systems (DAS) installation, wireless connectivity and audio-visual conferencing solutions.

“In 2020, it was a lot like drinking through a fire hose,” Pedergnana said. “There was so much new information and uncertainty coming at us. The contactless office campaign brought everything together in an easy-to-understand implementation program. It helped us educate people—end-users, customers and designers—on the available technologies to ensure creation of customized solutions to make workplace settings safe.”

Powering Chicago posted an e-book explaining the contactless office campaign at https://poweringchicago.com/contactlessoffice. The booklet suggests measures contractors could propose to commercial real estate owners and area employers.

One low-cost solution was to reprogram lighting controls so workers would not have to touch light switches. In many cases, if the technology had been installed within the last 10 years, it could be activated at little cost to the customer.

In addition to staggering in-person and remote workdays to reduce density, another suggestion is the installation of automatic doors, thermal screening systems, badge and card readers, touchless bathroom fixtures, touch-free elevator controls and DAS. DAS provides reliable coverage for cellphones and mobile devices so employees can consistently access bandwidth and controls for audio-visual systems as well as other building controls.

Shutterstock / MuchMania
Shutterstock / MuchMania

Besides adding ventilation and air filtration systems to draw in fresh air and kill harmful airborne pathogens using ultraviolet light, the online guide also recommends enhancing audio-visual systems for remote presentations.

“AV systems—especially video conferencing and control of systems from personal devices—became critical functions during the pandemic,” Pedergnana said. “We saw these become necessities in the office, schools and other settings.”

Also figuring into the overall mix of new office configurations and contactless technology were programs such as Maptician Flex, which allows property managers to monitor whether occupancy levels are in line with social distancing requirements.

“You can also use this technology to support contact tracing, because it can track who was in the office and where they were stationed,” Pedergnana said.

Maptician Flex is useful for analyzing spaces such as conference rooms, fitness centers, coffee stations and other shared amenities. It allows building tenants to implement return-to-work strategies using mobile apps that enable them to analyze results and make changes quickly to enhance safety.

To drum up interest in the contactless office campaign, Powering Chicago assembled roundtable discussions with electrical industry experts who spoke to commercial real estate groups and the local business community.

Jamerson & Bauwens Electrical Contractors Inc. of Northbrook, Ill., sponsored a Chicago Building Congress presentation on the contactless office in September 2020. Presenters included Elbert Walters III, director of Powering Chicago; Gene Kent, IBEW 134’s director of the IBEW-NECA Technical Institute; Gary Shamasko, project executive and division manager for Jamerson & Bauwens; and Pedergnana.

“Our purpose was to let employers and commercial property owners know these technologies were available so that certain fears about returning to the workplace could be alleviated and risks could be reduced,” Walters said. “We don’t know how widely the contactless campaign was implemented, but, for NECA contractors who did promote it, I think many realized the value of working in partnership both with customers and other NECA contractors with different areas of expertise.”

Implementation of newer technologies also underscored the value of investing in education for electricians, Walters said.

The panel discussions garnered extensive coverage from Crain’s Chicago Business and other local newspapers, TV stations and commercial real estate publications. However, unprecedented numbers of workers continued to stay in remote work arrangements, and the city’s commercial real estate continued to empty out with new virus variants and surges in cases.

A workplace survey conducted in 2020 by Gensler, a global architectural, design, planning and consulting firm based in San Francisco, had indicated just 20% of American workers wanted to work full-time from home. A follow-up survey of U.S. workers conducted by Gensler in October and November of 2021, however, indicated that 54% of workers wanted to continue working remotely full-time. Surveys by other organizations indicated higher percentages of remote work preference.

Gensler’s website suggests businesses implement hybrid office arrangements combining remote and on-site workdays. It also refers to “a disconnect” between employer expectations for workers to return and workers’ hopes for themselves, which could change as the pandemic recedes.

Even so, amid fears concerning the virus and social unrest that left Chicago’s business districts scarred with retail vacancies, panelists at a Chicago Building Congress presentation expressed hope for the future of office space. Two noted a rocket-hot Chicago business district that still seemed to be gaining tenants—Fulton Market.

In recent years, the near-West Side neighborhood that once housed meatpacking operations and produce warehouses has seen industrial spaces converted to offices, small upscale restaurants and other local businesses.

In April 2021, personal care products manufacturer Kimberly-Clark Corp. announced plans to move 250 jobs in marketing, sales and executive management to an 87,000-square-foot facility on Fulton Market Street.

Malko and Jamerson & Bauwens are not handling preparation of the office site, but they do see the arrival of Kimberly-Clark as a sign of more good things to come. Both contractors have proven their ability to upgrade historic and obsolete spaces to 21st-century technologies. In serving their clients, they frequently partner together and with other contractors.

“There’s a camaraderie of like-minded individuals who really do want to help everybody get back to the workplace and be productive,” Pedergnana said.

Malko’s customers include commercial office properties.

“They’re absolutely a big piece of this picture, because they need to retain and attract tenants,” Pedergnana said. Enhancing wireless connectivity has enabled office settings to have more flexibility for reconfiguring office spaces without needing structural changes. “Customers can more easily adjust their physical environments and the orientation of desks to allow for working more safely and efficiently.”

That flexibility and convenience bodes well for commercial real estate owners, who are moving toward shorter leases in response to employers needing to quickly reconfigure workplace settings.

It’s also anticipated that more employers will be making structural changes in the workplace to support camaraderie among workers who do return. Commercial spaces are predicted to be outfitted with lounge areas, gyms and workout rooms and outdoor spaces supporting interaction.

Contractors discovered that Powering Chicago’s contactless office approach applies to workplace settings beyond the office.

Malko’s clients also include universities, school districts, warehouses and manufacturing operations as well as outdoor and indoor entertainment venues such as the Ravinia Music Festival in Highland Park, Ill., and SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, Ill.

Beyond office space owners and managers, Jamerson & Bauwens’ clients include area hospitals, healthcare providers, libraries, museums, entertainment venues, manufacturing facilities and more.

Shutterstock / MuchMania
Shutterstock / MuchMania

For contractors interested in obtaining work through the contactless office approach, Pedergnana advocated being proactive with existing customers and continuing to hone levels of expertise.

When the pandemic struck, Malko was already transitioning to working with Microsoft Teams and activating its own systems through mobile phones, tablets and laptops.

“Our experience enabled us to stay ahead of remote/hybrid workplace demands and recommend best-fit solutions for our customers,” said Pedergnana. He has continued to work in Malko’s office since May 2020 because the company took time to consider its own specific needs and develop custom solutions.

Helping customers involved a similar process

“You have to sit down and take time to understand your customer’s needs,” Pedergnana said. “Then you have to work together to not just recommend a box of equipment, but to develop a custom solution that truly addresses their business, health and safety requirements.”

Just as the Contactless Office e-book suggests, Malko began doing needs assessments aimed at tailoring individual options.

“This has really been about customer engagement and saying to customers, ‘Let’s talk about what your needs are and how we can help you, how we can do this,’” Pedergnana said. The strategy yielded results. “We see a lot of our customers’ employees are back, and for those not back, employers looking for ways to get them there,” Pedergnana said.

Along with Walters and Pedergnana, who during a Chicago Building Congress presentation advocated for partnering with fellow contractors to combine service offerings, Shamasko of Jamerson & Bauwens drove home the need work together to integrate new technologies.

“You also need someone who knows how to leverage it all together,” Shamasko said more than a year and a half ago. “It’s never about the problem, it’s about the solution to connect things together. It’s also about providing the right skills and solutions that will benefit customers beyond COVID, well into the future.”

His words still ring true.

About the Author
Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at sdegra...

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.