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The exodus from office towers was swift, as companies across Canada lunged into a mass experiment in remote work to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.AndresGarciaM/Getty Images

How many employees can you fit in a postpandemic elevator? That’s what companies around the world are trying to determine, as many plot a return to the skyscrapers hollowed out by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Protocols already in place at the Asian offices of global accounting firm KPMG offer a glimpse of what to expect when workers go back to densely packed towers. About half of KPMG’s Asia-based staff have returned to their offices, to varying degrees, and the transition back was tightly structured. Returns were scheduled by floor, start times are staggered and employees come in on different days of the week.

Inside the offices, KPMG tracks movements using data from pass cards, and has cordoned off some desks and offices. Meetings in person are limited to four people, who must each be two metres apart. And employees work in teams that rotate between offices and their homes so that if a staff member catches the virus, their team can be isolated and another can step in to help clients.

“It is a really big undertaking, there’s lots to consider,” said Silvia Montefiore, Canadian managing partner for business enablement and operations at KPMG Canada, who is planning for the gradual return of some 8,000 staff to offices in Canada. “From what we’ve heard [from colleagues in Asia], it seems to be working.”

The exodus from office towers was swift, as companies across Canada lunged into a mass experiment in remote work to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. But the plans to bring those workers back, by contrast, will be gradual and much more complex. As governments begin to draw road maps to reopen a first wave of businesses, teams of bankers, lawyers, accountants and commercial landlords are piecing together their own blueprints to tackle an array of logistical and health challenges.

The growing acceptance that physical distancing will likely need to continue for months poses a special challenge for large office towers. They were built - and redesigned - as ever busier hives of activity with blocks of cramped elevators, row-upon-row of cubicles spread across open-concept floors, and boardroom tables ringed with chairs. And then, you take those elements and stack them on top of each other for 40 to 60 floors. With as many as 7,000 to 10,000 workers in the largest towers, they hold more people than some small towns - in a fraction of the space. Even the most pedestrian tasks - such as popping out for a cup of coffee - suddenly seem impractical when thousands of people are also trying to maintain physical distancing in close confines.

Protocols to reopen towers will vary, dictated by public health authorities and commercial property managers. But they will all hinge on bringing employees back slowly, in regimented phases. And as executives delve into the minutiae, redrawing office seating plans and protocols for sanitizing door handles, they expect some setbacks.

“Like most companies, we didn’t have a playbook for this one," Helena Gottschling, chief human resources officer at Royal Bank of Canada, said in an interview. “Just given the number of properties that we’re in across Canada and across the 36 countries that we do business in ... it is a complex equation."

Many companies say a majority of staff have adapted to remote working more smoothly than expected. If they are willing to stay at home more often - even after shutdowns are lifted - it will relieve some pressure. But employers will still need to limit the numbers of staff at offices on any day, and may need sophisticated scheduling tools to prioritize business needs and manage the traffic.

Take just one example: “I think elevators are going to be a big issue," Ms. Gottschling said.

Property managers that own large office towers plan to limit occupancy in each elevator car to between two and five people, and may devote staff to pressing the buttons to summon them. Most stairwells offer no relief, as they are too narrow. Unless businesses stagger arrivals and lunch breaks, snaking lineups could form in lobbies.

Real estate company Cadillac Fairview owns 40 office towers across Canada, including Toronto’s TD Centre complex of six skyscrapers designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The company is working on a physical distancing plan for elevators, lobbies, washrooms and other high-traffic common areas, said Sal Iacono, executive vice president of operations. CF wants to ensure there are no more than three to four people in an elevator; employees will wait in specific lines to catch them.

“We don’t expect 100 per cent of our buildings to be full the first morning that people return to work. There will be a percentage of the entire building population that returns,” Mr. Iacono said. “We feel that in our properties we are prepared for the initial inflows."

As more workers return, Mr. Iacono said CF will adapt. And if there are mad dashes to elevators at lunch time, tenants could be asked to adhere to a schedule, "so that not everybody is at the elevators at noon.”

Getting in and out of the towers is only one challenge, however. For the past decade, firms have knocked down office walls and concentrated desks in an effort to increase office capacity, boost productivity and control costs. And there will be added pressure on public transit and parking spaces as employees troop back to the downtown core.

“That densification is going to have to unwind, in the short term anyway, and maybe permanently,” said Dave McKay, RBC’s chief executive, in an interview.

In recent weeks, RBC and some universities have discussed creating software that could help manage which staff need to come in, juggling priorities and projects across the bank’s 85,000 staff.

At Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, this shift in workplace norms struck just as the bank was preparing to open the first phase of a new headquarters in Toronto, CIBC Square, which is expected to feature two 49-floor towers and house 14,000 staff when it is complete. The buildings have built-in advantages: They are designed with an array of workstations, wider hallways and automatic doors for accessibility. But the bank must now make adjustments on the fly to meet public health guidelines.

“We have to reshape it a little bit, but it’s not something that we’re worried about doing," said Sandy Sharman, CIBC’s head of people, culture and brand, in an interview. “It’s really a matter of tweaking what was there."

To help grasp the scope of health and safety challenges, CIBC crafted a persona of a hypothetical employee and considered everything they do, from touching the door at a transit station to using the microwave in a communal kitchen. That will guide how staff enter and work in any of CIBC’s offices. “We need to make sure that we stagger them in,” Ms. Sharman said. "Perhaps we vary by hours ... or we go into two-week rotations.”

Some companies also plan to supply their employees’ personal protective equipment that is in high demand and short supply, ranging from masks to plexiglass dividers, as has been done in bank branches and grocery stores. But the primary focus will be on keeping distance and minimizing contact.

Grant Humes, executive director of the Toronto Financial District BIA, is helping to create consistent physical distancing measures for Toronto’s PATH, the vast subterranean walkway connecting dozens of office towers and six subway stations to more than 1,200 retailers. Different landlords own chunks of the financial core’s shared basement, which on normal working days is bustling with people commuting, shopping and eating.

On escalators and staircases, Mr. Humes said signs would direct people only to use every fourth step. In narrower hallways, they would be expected to walk single file, maintain their distance and not overtake slower walkers. “The signage is going to ask people not to pass," he said.

Steven Paynter, an architect at design firm Gensler, is advising Canadian commercial property owners on how to reopen and redesign their office towers to cope with COVID-19. He has been inundated with inquiries, ranging from how to reduce access to lobbies to how washroom stalls can be modified to be used without making contact with the door or toilet handle.

“They are trying to turn it into a no-touch environment,” he said.

Not every company can install automatic doors, or new elevator banks that organize passengers according to floor, Mr. Paynter said. Yet, some building owners are following lower-cost strategies established by grocery stores, such as installing plexiglass in front of security desks and stickers on the floor to direct traffic.

Dream Office REIT, which owns 32 office properties, mostly in Toronto, will stop using its revolving doors in the early stages and keep other doors open during normal business hours, while limiting passengers in an elevator to five each ride. “One in each corner and one in middle - depending on the size of the elevator,” said Gordon Wadley, Dream Office’s chief operating officer.

Dream Office is ordering decals and stickers to mark where people have to stand for elevators and to direct one-way traffic across its common spaces, and adding visible markers on lobby chairs and couches to label where people should sit. “We will suggest it. But obviously if the lack of distancing is egregious we will enforce it if there are people piling together or not adhering to markers,” he said.

At the outset, Cadillac Fairview plans to encourage people using common areas to keep proper distance from each other or wear masks. Like other building operators, it will have hand sanitizer stations and increase the frequency of cleaning. At its food courts, CF will skip every other table or remove chairs to keep six feet between them, and enforce spacing in queues for washrooms and restaurants.

Ultimately, adding stickers, plexiglass and touchless faucets may be the easy part when compared with breaking office workers’ social habits and making them feel comfortable.

“Buildings are very flexible. We can cut them to bits, change them,” said Mr. Paynter. “The really tough one is going to be, ‘do I feel safe?’ And right now, nobody quite knows what the answer to that is.”

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