Go low (tech) to make your building more COVID-safe
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
For the last five years, it seems that every conversation that I’ve had has included the word “disruptive.” At one point, the term may have actually had some meaning, but today it’s so overused that it has pretty much faded into background noise. The thinking behind it is sound: old ways of dealing with problems need to evolve into new approaches.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, operators of commercial properties are faced with unprecedented challenges — and in many cases, the bright, shiny, new solution is not the best way to solve problems. In fact, proven low-technology approaches might be the best way forward, at least in the short term. The good news is that these are often much less expensive than more modern tools.
Exhibit A is social distancing. While local and national policies are constantly shifting, most experts agree that until a vaccine for the novel coronavirus is discovered, people will need to maintain safe distances between others in order to prevent the spread of the disease. Here in North America, most of us have been doing this since March, and it’s already beginning to feel normal. It’s not a great situation for anyone, but it is going to be the standard into next year — and maybe even longer.
Modern buildings were never designed for social distancing, and property managers are scrambling to cobble together solutions that will enable people to stay safe while keeping their buildings useful for tenants and visitors. In many ways, the situation that commercial property companies face today is similar to what airports had to address after the 9/11 attacks, when security concerns fundamentally changed the use of public spaces.
The big question now is how property owners can strike the delicate balance between safety, aesthetics, and practicality. Needless to say, it’s not an easy answer, and there isn’t a single magic bullet that will make everything better.
There are several tried-and-true methods that have been used to manage traffic though, which are also perfectly suited for the current crisis. One of the most obvious is the use of partitions to keep people physically apart. Velvet ropes may be synonymous with exclusive dance clubs in New York, but they are also an incredibly effective way of keeping people in queues in public spaces. If you walk into any bank today, you will most likely see some temporary physical barriers on the floor. It may not be beautiful or elegant, but it’s a great approach during COVID.
Another approach that has become very common is increased signage. Buildings have always had guides, of course, but they often require people to walk to a particular location to look up where they’re going. That obviously isn’t going to work during a pandemic, because it’s simply not possible to have hundreds of people congregating around a kiosk or directory and still maintain a safe distance from each other.
Over the last six months, property owners have remedied this by putting up signs on walls throughout their buildings to let people know where to go. It’s a practical solution that works, but let’s face it: it’s not very attractive at all. Commercial property companies spend millions of dollars making their buildings look great, and sticking pieces of paper to the wall with tape is clearly not compatible with a high-end aesthetic.
This is where custom stickers can play a larger role in providing effective wayfinding while maintaining the integrity of a building’s look and feel. Admittedly, it’s not as modern or cool as a touchscreen kiosk in the middle of the lobby, but it is a lot safer when it comes to minimizing the potential for virus spread.
These stickers can serve the same purpose as printed signs, but property managers can create templates that enforce uniformity and don’t clash with the existing aesthetic. For example, property companies can create a standard size for stickers (say, a 10-inch circle) and implement dos-and-don’ts to ensure that the businesses in their building don’t post anything that could be distracting or confusing. They can also control where the stickers are allowed to be posted, which would prevent unsightly displays, especially in premium common areas.
Walls are the only places where decals can be useful. If you walked into any retail store in the last six months, you’ve probably noticed tape on the floor indicating where people are allowed to stand. That’s an effective approach for public safety, but like hand-painted signs, they look ugly and cheap — definitely not the look that property owners are going for. That’s where vinyl floor stickers can help, not only in protecting others, but also in creating a more professional feel. As an example, a row of stickers, set 6 feet apart, in front of the security desk could be a great way to bridge the gap between safety and aesthetics. This approach can be just as effective as partitions and ropes, without the feeling of clutter and claustrophobia.
Today’s buildings were not designed with a pandemic in mind. They were developed with a desire to create a welcoming environment in which human beings feel safe and secure. The virus has turned that on its head, and we are faced with the unpleasant reality of transforming spaces that are supposed to be open into zones where social distancing is enforced.
Quite simply, commercial properties were never constructed for the current circumstances, and as a result we are all in uncharted territory. Over the next months or even years, there will be major advances in technology to help keep us safe by slowing or preventing the spread of COVID-19. But for right now, the best approach may actually be the lowest-tech one.
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