Safety Leader

The Contactless Office: Preparing the workplace for employees' safe return

The thermal screening system at BCBS Tower is part of a campaign to preserve the appeal of returning to the office while maintaining healthy and safe working conditions.
Published On
Feb 11, 2021

Since mid-March 2020, the Blue Cross-Blue Shield (BCBS) headquarters has been eerily quiet, staffed mostly by a skeleton crew of electricians and building engineers. As with many businesses across the country and world, the thousands of employees who once occupied the 57-floor Chicago office tower now mostly work from home.

“With vaccinations coming out, that will change,” predicted Elbert Walters III, director of Powering Chicago, a partnership between IBEW 134 electricians and the Electrical Contractors’ Association of the City of Chicago. “It’s not likely the workplace will ever be the same, but it’s not going to go away. People will be coming back to healthier settings.”

Walters sees today’s office workforce as splitting into two camps—collaborator/leaders who thrive on regular in-person contact, and those who prefer working remotely.

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BCBS Tower

“The collaborators are anxious to get back to working with their peers,” he said. “There’s also something to be said for working in an urban setting where you can enjoy a drink or meal together after work.”

Helping the electrical contracting industry prepare spaces such as Chicago’s BCBS Tower for a safe return is the goal of Powering Chicago’s Contactless Office campaign. The idea is to reduce the risk of virus transmission by converting office spaces into virtually touchless environments.

In doing this, Powering Chicago is going beyond its role as an electrical industry labor-management partnership.

“With this campaign, we’ve taken on a marketing role,” Walters said.

He sees the contactless office as preserving the vitality of office settings while also improving health and safety for retail, manufacturing, school and multifamily residential settings.

Powering Chicago’s contactless office marketing effort has started to include media outreach, as well. Walters recently touted the contactless office in a presentation for REjournals, a chain of real estate publications.

At the close of 2020, the BCBS Tower was the setting for a segment of “Built to Last,” a TV program that explores the skills and talents of trade union members and contractors while highlighting specific projects related to the construction trade.

The TV crew filmed electricians doing conversion tasks at the tower: reprogramming occupancy sensors that control light switches, installing new card readers in lobby turnstiles and installing distributed antennae systems (DAS) on each floor. DAS will boost phone signals so employees can consistently access controls using their phones. That includes everything from elevators to break-room water dispensers.

A Powering Chicago document,, serves as a suggestion book for creating the contactless office. In addition to remote work arrangements and staggered in-person work days that reduce workplace density, the guide suggests automatic doors, touch-free badge scanners, touch-free elevator controls, lighting systems and bathroom controls, wireless connectivity, thermal screening systems and air ventilation regimens that draw fresh air in at night.

The guide also suggests installing air filtration systems that kill harmful airborne pathogens using ultraviolet rays.

“In some cases, these changeovers involve installations, but the bulk of the work is reprogramming” said Steve Mulligan, president and CEO of Gibson Electric, Downers Grove, Ill. “One thing we’ve seen is that a lot of lighting systems installed within the last decade already have the technology for converting to touchless lighting. From that perspective, we’re reducing the touch points for our customers at no additional cost.”

Walters believes the collaborative workplace is destined to endure the pandemic. He also sees contactless offices as practical for realms far beyond Chicago.

“It comes down to keeping businesses vital by making work environments safe,” Walters said.

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...

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