For those who work in office towers, small or tall, a safe return to work is the joint responsibility of landlords, building managers, employers and workers. Since provincial laws regulate workers’ safety and health, regulations will differ across Canada. Here’s a look at some of the issues that are front and centre when it comes to reopening office towers across Canada.
The first question on the minds of many office workers is whether they can be called back to work at all. Jesse Elders, a lawyer specializing in labour, employment and human rights law at Kastner Lam LLP, says that an employer in Ontario can indeed ask their employees to come back to work. However, workers have the right to refuse unsafe conditions. The Occupational Health and Safety Act in Ontario stipulates mechanisms for workers and employers to address matters of workplace safety.
Elders points out that the Act requires the employers “to take every precaution reasonable in the circumstances for the protection of a worker.”
Steve Ichelson, a vice-president with Avison Young, a global commercial real estate brokerage, says his firm is advising owners and tenants on what to expect and how to act as they return to work amidst COVID-19. Avison Young has prepared a back-to-work guide for occupants, covering a broad range of topics, starting with new and improved conventions for communication to inform all stakeholders of the changes in operating protocols even before employees return.
New signage in and around buildings will also provide an obvious reminder to returning employees that things have changed. The new signage could be extended beyond lobbies to sidewalks outside to keep the returning employees at safe distances while they wait for their turn to board the elevators.
Avison Young is not planning to take the temperature of those entering their buildings — without new regulations, building managers may not be able to enforce mandatory temperature checks. However, they may still ask a standard set of questions to all returning employees to gauge their possible exposure to COVID-19. Many building managers are planning to increase the number of security professionals in their lobbies to direct pedestrian flow and prevent crowding.
Elevators in tall buildings are a bottleneck that will play a big role in determining whether employees will be able to get to and from their floors in a reasonable amount of time. The suggested capacity is now four people per car, down from nine to 12 in the past. Asking some elevator riders to face the wall is one option that some buildings are considering in order to squeeze more riders onto each car.
The estimate for the time it will take to populate a tall building to full occupancy with limited elevator capacity ranges between 90 minutes to four hours. Many returning employees might receive a scheduled boarding time for their ride up and down the elevator. That could leave lobbies looking like the long queues at theme parks, as visitors wait for their favourite rides.
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Limiting the number of elevator rides each employee takes in a day is also an option. Employees might be limited to use the elevator at lunchtime or for coffee breaks. Smokers would have to use stairs to get to the street level and back.
Improving and maintaining air quality is another concern that building managers will have to grapple with. Avison Young is upgrading air filters to MERV-13 to protect airborne pathogens from travelling through ventilation. Subsequent upgrades will include UV filtration and dehumidification to keep air dry.
Open office spaces are also being reconfigured to keep workers at a distance from each other. An area that accommodated 72 workers might now hold 28, Ichelson said. The same goes for small- to medium-sized meeting rooms: those that might have held 15 to 20 people in the past will now be reduced to half or one-third capacity.
Ichelson does not expect full occupancy until January 2021. His estimates are in line with what is expected in New York City, which as part of its second phase reopened offices and restaurant patios. Despite being allowed back, 90 per cent of white-collar workers in Manhattan are expected to continue working from home for some time.
A key question to ponder is whether working from the office will be as attractive, or more importantly, as productive, as it was before the pandemic. Long waits for the elevator, the need to wear a mask while riding public transit or in the office, and staggered seating arrangements are all examples of how work culture will be circumscribed in the age of COVID-19.
Improved communications, sanitation and ventilation will get buildings ready to welcome workers again. However, the more regimented environment and elevated risks that come with commuting may keep many white-collar employees working from home for some time.
For the economy to regain its momentum, both buildings and workers must be ready to be back to work.
Murtaza Haider is a professor of Real Estate Management at Ryerson University. Stephen Moranis is a real estate industry veteran. They can be reached at www.hmbulletin.com.