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Sinking Feeling: Elevators Could Thwart Office Re-Entry

Elevators make the modern city possible. In New York City alone, commuters take an estimated 4 million elevator rides per day on tens of thousands of elevators. In China, two-thirds of a million of them are put into commission every year. Globally, the industry approaches $125B. But as cities continue to grow — and grow vertically — this crux to innovation may ultimately be the Achilles' heel of the city as we know it.


In recent weeks, the elevator has risen to the top of the list of office re-entry safety concerns. Social distancing guidelines recommend a distance of at least 6 feet, and researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health last week published their prediction that social distancing, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls "the best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus disease," may need to continue into 2022 to avoid exceeding critical care capacities.

Complying with global pandemic safety recommendations means finding ways for tenants in high-occupancy buildings to remain 6 feet apart — even while traveling upward via a shaft that is rarely more than five-and-a-half feet wide. Thus, as long as social distancing remains in place, elevators — like public transportation — are proving to be a choke point. No matter how far apart desks are or what high-tech sanitization solutions offices arrange, it is the elevator that may prevent most people from returning to the office, even if they wanted to.

While office occupancy is still low, basic Band-Aid solutions — from one-person-at-a-time ride restrictions to taking the stairs — are yielding adequate results for essential workers or those just returning. But as occupancy scales up, property owners and managers are exploring and rolling out high-tech solutions as quickly as possible.  

At the end of the day, will these solutions actually make workers safe enough to justify returning to the office before the development of a widely available coronavirus vaccine? Until there is a conclusive answer, the appeal and the fate of the high-rise office hangs in the balance.

Take A Ticket

At One Canada Square in London, the UK’s second-highest building, between 10% and 20% of employees are expected to return to the office in the coming weeks. Canary Wharf Group Managing Director of Strategy Howard Dawber told the FT that the company, which owns the building, has calculated that with four people in each lift, its office tower can move 56 people every five minutes per lift bank, or nearly 2,700 per hour between four banks of eight elevators traversing the building’s 50 stories.

That is enough to cope with the number of people coming in to the office now, Dawber said. But if more people want to come back, it inevitably becomes a bottleneck. 

What would these logistics look like for a building like the 104-story One World Trade with 8,000 employees and 71 elevators?

If they can transport 2,700 passengers per hour as Canary Wharf calculated, into a building that is twice as high, it may take half the workday to get into the office — and that's not accounting for people getting back down.

Companies like Interpublic and Squarespace are already struggling with making elevator trips for arrival and departure efficient. 

"It’s like musical chairs," Interpublic Senior Director of Crisis Management Casey Tinnesz told the Wall Street Journal of social distancing tape, which instructs riders where and how to stand so they can maintain "safe" distance, on the elevator floor.

Tinnesz said that at one of the company's offices where the elevators were running at one-third capacity, it took an estimated two to three hours to get all the employees into the building.

In Seoul, South Korea, Salesforce is trying to give some structure to this drawn-out arrival period. Employees register for work each morning before leaving home and receive a daily elevator ticket for a specific time, "much in the same way that you would arrive at Disney for a ride," CEO Marc Benioff told Quartz.

Once people are in the elevator, they still need to stand as far apart as possible for a safe ride. From New York to Bangkok, social distancing decals look like dance-step instructions, showing people where to put their feet. In Thailand, rather than putting fewer people in the elevator, riders are guided by decals to stand back to back but to face away from one another to theoretically reduce risk of virus spread.

An elevator in a Lower Manhattan office building has installed social distancing stickers, but they are less than 6 feet apart.

Reduced capacities and ticketing systems can only accomplish so much. The other option elevator owners and innovators are exploring is whether it's possible to kill or contain germs inside the car, no matter how many occupants ride. And for that, they are turning to technology.

Look, No Hands

Thyssenkrupp Head of Digital Services for North America Jon Clarine is looking ahead to a time in the near future where elevators are built with kick buttons, touchless elevator call apps, voice-activated control panels, custom air filtration systems and UVC light sanitization, the latter of which Clarine said will soon be a “standard offering.”

It won't be long, he said, before elevators won't have or need buttons — thanks to touchless technology, they will already know where you’re headed before you even step inside. 

Champion Elevators Senior Vice President Stirling Collins said his company, which operates in the Tri-State area, is presently bench-testing a holographic car station device — with a touchless hologram of the button panel that floats in front of the actual button panel and other new technologies, and that clients are asking after every new option.

"Better than 50% have approached us already, and the other 50% are waiting until we get back to work," he said, adding that Brooklyn’s Industry City retrofitted 30 elevators with one type of touchless technology in the past four weeks. 

While not touching anything could reduce disease transmission, it does not supplant social distancing as a solution to coronavirus.

"As far as returning to occupancy, I have no idea how that’s going to work in large commercial buildings," Collins said.

NYU Langone Professor of Microbiology and Pathology Dr. Phil Tierno said that many of these technologies are worth considering when it comes to making shared spaces safer, but that they are all just pieces of an incomplete puzzle.

No matter how filtered or sterilized the air or walls may be when someone steps inside, elevators may well be "coronavirus transmission hot spots" due in part to what Tierno calls "a cloud of micro-droplets around a person who is breathing — not just coughing but breathing."

Staying far enough from a person to avoid their cloud and the potential contaminants in it is paramount to lowering risk as long as the pandemic continues. To put it simply: "You want social distancing," Tierno said. "That in and of itself is probably the most important thing.”

Pandemic elevator guidelines distributed by Thyssenkrupp.

Trial And Error

As more and more cities and countries start to ease lockdown measures, a million individual experiments will explore the best way to solve the issue. It is unlikely any one-size-fits-all strategy will be found, and the process will be one of continued evolution.

"For those markets that have been open, we’re seeing some really great responses from the tenants with our communication and social distancing strategies," Transwestern Managing  Director of Asset Services Katie Sakach said. "But I think as increased occupancy occurs, we’re all prepared to pivot if and when needed, because it could be that our ‘day one’ strategy could be different than our ‘day 10’ strategy."

"That’s only 10 days but you know how this has gone," she said. "Sometimes this has gone hour by hour."

Right now, Sakach is weighing the pros and cons of load weighing — devices which set a weight capacity per car and can be programmed to enact a bypass, ignoring new calls and bypassing stops for new passengers if a cab is nearly overloaded. 

"You would have a quicker ride up or down because the car will recognize the weight and the car will not make that stop on the way up because it will recognize it’s already full," she said. 

Thyssenkrupp has an app for that, via their MAX platform. Clarine said the company has rolled out what they call Social Distancing Service.

"When buildings drop off 80%-90% in traffic, we can reduce the elevator loading in concert with that so we can direct only four people per call," Clarine said. 

Via the platform, they can monitor as traffic ramps back up, and work with clients remotely to adjust load-weighing programs. Mitsubishi offers a similar service.

But for the time being, traffic is still at a minimum, and it's unclear what that "ramping up" will require in terms of either extended load times or tighter physical proximity.

Sakach added that every pro has a con. When it comes to load weighing programs to skip floors and speed up trips, she said, here's the con: Not only could the load weighing concepting, programming and fine-tuning incur high costs for consulting and maintenance, it may also lead to traffic jams and choke points in the lobby and on other floors. 

"I’m no elevator expert but when you start changing the programming designed for those particular cars, you could end up with operational issues you may not be expecting," she said. "It’s one of those balancing acts to take a look at, dive deep, trust your experts and to ensure whatever's being recommended is thoroughly investigated. And once it’s deployed, how meaningful are the results?"

The business world is standing by while those charged with problem-solving for the vertical office experiment with every available approach. And as long as social distancing remains the only expert-endorsed way to fend off deadly viruses, elevators may need even more drastic rethinking.

CORRECTION: MAY 26, 3:35 P.M. ET: A previous version of this story conflated thyssenkrupp, the parent company, with thyssenkrupp Elevator in a mention of thyssenkrupp's 2020 stock valuation.