Is it Possible to Create a Touchless Office?

The latest research into Sars-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – reveals it can survive for 2-3 days on surfaces like plastic and stainless steel. You can also have the virus for up to 11 days before symptoms start to appear. For those operating in shared workspaces, this presents serious problems.

Adapting to a touchless or “hands-free” office allows you to take a proactive stance and reduce the risk of contamination between employees. But this raises a couple of important questions if you’re contemplating a return to the office in the present climate: Can you create a truly hands-free workspace? And, if so, what are the obstacles that must be overcome to do so?

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Four Common Features of a Touchless Office

1.      Contactless Doors

Door handles are the most frequent touch point in most offices. They play host to many different forms of bacteria, so employers are turning towards technology that removes the need for door handles entirely.

A prime example comes from Zaha Hadid Architects. When designing new headquarters for UAE-based waste management company Bee’ah, they chose to build the office around “contactless pathways”. Motion sensors and facial recognition technology enables employees to open doors without raising a finger. Lifts, too, can be operated directly from their personal devices.

There are various alternatives to these high-tech solutions. These include simple push plates and, more recently, portable tools that enable workers to open doors without ever touching the handle.

2.      Voice-operated Controls

Companies have begun to investigate ways they can use voice-activated, virtual assistants – pioneered by the likes of Siri and Alexa – to further reduce physical contact throughout the office.

At home, this tech can integrate with everything from light switches and central heating systems, to blind controls. You can control every aspect of your home without leaving the warm embrace of our favourite armchair.

It’s easy to see how such advances will carve out their own niche in the office environment. Booking meeting rooms, signing in guests at reception, and placing lunchtime food orders with our voice, rather than our digits, will instantly lower the risk of contamination in busy offices.

3.      Touchless Bathrooms

The threat of contamination is at its greatest in communal areas. This is especially true of bathrooms.

Creating fully contactless toilets might be a step too far at present – beyond the realm of automated flushing systems, at least. Nevertheless, touchless bathroom fixtures have become an increasingly common feature of the workplace.

Infra-red touchless taps, as well as soap and towel dispensers, provide employees with a safe way to clean their hands. The latter may be particularly important, as some studies suggest paper or cloth towels are more effective at removing bacteria than basic air dryers.

4.      Hands-free Sanitisation Stations

Even with advances in hands-free technology, there are times when touching surfaces is inevitable in the course of the average working day. So the final step in upgrading to a contactless workspace is to install hands-free hand sanitiser stations.

These should be placed in high traffic areas and at common touch points throughout the office, so they’re readily accessible. Automatic soap/sanitiser dispensers have been relatively commonplace for years, but we recommend the Ilona hand sanitiser station. It’s foot operated and, as it doesn’t require permanent installation, you can roll them out wherever and whenever they’re needed.

There are more advanced options on the market. Some, for instance, have sensors that inform janitorial staff when sanitiser supplies are running low.

Common Challenges

As with any large-scale renovation work, moving to a touchless office isn’t something that can be planned and executed overnight. There are several logistical and cultural challenges to overcome first.

Logistical Obstacles

As with most things in the present climate, supply will struggle to meet demand. Employers across all industries will be vying for the same products and services, resulting in long delays and making a return to the office a serious challenge in the short-term. Procuring this technology won’t come cheap, either – especially when you factor in installation costs.

With so much to consider, the decision to modify your workspace shouldn’t be taken lightly. Ideally, you should consult with an office designer to find the right long-term solution to meet your specific needs.

Cultural Hurdles

From a cultural perspective, the biggest challenge facing employers is making sure everyone understands why you’ve shifted towards a contactless working environment.

This will likely necessitate regular training sessions (at least in the early stages) to ensure everyone’s aware how looking after their personal hygiene contributes to protecting the wellbeing of everyone. A conscientious approach like this is also important as a way of reassuring employees you've taken every precaution to make the workplace as safe as possible.

In the early stages, many employees will be naturally anxious about returning to a busy office after so long in isolation. But you can turn this to your advantage by demonstrating your commitment to employee safety through a touchless office initiative. This will also make it easier to retain and attract talent in the post-COVID world.

Finally, it’s important to bear in mind generational differences during the planning stage. Millennials and generation Z employees may be comfortable operating doors, lifts, booking systems, and everything else with their smartphones, but older employees might not.

Invite employees to leave feedback and share their opinions before retrofitting your office. This will help you nip potential issues in the bud and allow you to focus your efforts on the most important areas as identified by your workforce, creating the right balance between high and low-tech solutions.

Enjoy a Smooth Transition Back to the Office

Installing touchless solutions throughout your office may seem drastic. But none of us know when society at large will return to some semblance of normality. What we do know is that we'll feel the effects long after the storm itself has passed.

It’s also important to remember that contactless workspaces offer an effective preventative solution to the transmission of any contagious disease – not just COVID-19.

When viewed from that perspective, it's easy to see why the future of office design is hands-free technology. By making the change now, forward-thinking employers can reap the rewards further down the line.

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