The lifts in your high-rise office are a coronavirus nightmare

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When it first opened its plush 10,000 sq ft headquarters in London last year, Goldman Sachs hoped that people would marvel at its state-of-the art facilities. The £1 billion office had it all: therapy rooms, nurseries, client offices, huge trading floors, and beds for dealmakers pulling 18-hour shifts. But the only thing people talked about was the investment bank’s excruciatingly slow lifts. When the doors closed on any of the 16 lifts in the lobby, people had to wait 20 seconds before they moved, and when they did, they went at snails’ pace.
Since last month, more of Goldman Sachs’ employees have started trickling back into the eight-storey building’s lifts. “They are not catastrophic at the moment mainly because there’s only 30 to 35 per cent of people in [the office],” says one insider. “Lifts are automatically going to specific floors with five people maximum in each.”


Another staffer claims that the lifts “went through an adjustment” when they were first installed and are now working fine.
Queues of people standing around waiting for elevators are a common sight in the lobbies of all sorts of offices; from PwC’s 10-storey building in Embankment, to News UK’s 17-storey offices in the mini Shard, or the 46-floor Heron Tower. But in the age of coronavirus, waiting for lifts isn’t just a mild inconvenience. It’s a logistical nightmare and a major health hazard. And unlike people at Goldman, most high-rise office workers can’t realistically climb up dozens of floors by using the stairs.
In the before times, even the most decrepit lift systems were designed so that 12 per cent of people working in an office can arrive in a five minute window, and that the entire population of a given office could get to their respective floors (if they queued together in the lobby) within around 40 minutes. More efficient lift systems can cut that wait time in half, and on paper, it should be even quicker if you factor in that only 50 per cent of the workforce can come back to the office at any given time.
But since the coronavirus pandemic, companies can’t ram a dozen people into each elevator to speed up the time it takes from the lobby to high floors. Bigger lifts can fit four people while still respecting social distancing, and smaller cabs are restricted to two. Most companies have put stickers on each corner to indicate where people can stand, sometimes requesting for them to face the wall while they travel. Even if companies figure out how to efficiently stagger people’s working days to avoid a pile-up at 9am or at 5.30pm, they have no solution to the worst time of the day for lifts: lunchtime.


If 50 per cent of people in an office that relies on lifts decide to take their lunch between 12 and 2pm, it would take up to two and a half hours to get everyone back in their seats again, says Julian Olley, director of vertical transportation at logistics consultancy Arup. And that’s if everything goes according to plan.
“They will create a bottleneck,” he says. “In that two hour period people want to go and come back again. That is irrespective of big financial services [companies] having canteens.”
Older lift systems that stop at whichever floor they are called from are a logistical nightmare, he explains. In one 1970s building in Chicago, his modelling showed that lunchtime delays had a knock-on effect across the whole day. “We have yet to find a solution to get them out at lunch,” he admits. Companies have turned to old-fashioned sandwich trolleys and mini-canteens to stop people from clogging the lobby and to make them stay put in their allocated floors.
Logistics experts who are planning what a return to work looks like face a uniquely tedious maths problem: every building has a different shaped lobby, and different number of lifts that work at different speeds. There is no solution that works for everyone. For example, some lifts can travel at up to ten metres per second (but they will make your ears pop) while others can be far slower. Older buildings could be at 150 per cent capacity thanks to open space planning, skewing the ratio of lift to office workers. Large labyrinthian lobbies could delay people queuing up for lifts, while streamlined turnstiles can cause a pile-up. If lifts are programmed to open their doors at every floor, they are going to rack up wasted time compared to those who shuttle people non-stop.


One employee based in WeWork’s 16-story York Road office in Waterloo attempted to crunch the numbers himself and was not impressed. “So it’s six thousand people trying to get up and down in lifts that will now only take four ‘socially distanced, facing the wall’ people,” he says. “Suppose you have a 50 minute commute anyway, so 1 hour 40 and then you might be adding, what, 20 minutes to get up [to the office] twice a day minimum?”
Some lifts don’t even go to all of the floors of a building. One logistics expert points to Canary Wharf, which houses some of the tallest buildings in London, as a prime example of how complex internal building transport can be. “In one building they have lifts serving the lower floors, middle floors and higher floors. If someone junior at the bottom of a building has a meeting with someone senior at the top they allow 15 minutes for them to get there.”
So companies are faced with a dilemma: they’ve spent a lot of money kitting out their offices for social distancing, but have no foolproof plan to prepare for half of their workforce coming back. It’s foolhardy to count on people taking the stairs in a high-rise building, Arup data shows, because 90 per cent of people are unwilling to go up four floors of stairs (let alone 20 or 30). Modelling done by the consultancy shows people queuing, airport-style, in socially-distanced cordoned areas in the lobby and even on the street outside to stop people from standing in front of the lifts.
Once they are in the lift, they need people to avoid touching anything. Companies have heeded the warning signs from China, where a report demonstrated how an asymptomatic person infected 70 other people with coronavirus because they touched the buttons inside a lift.
One office in 100 Bishopsgate has resorted to a drastic solution, according to Lee Daniels, global product manager of workplace and occupancy strategy at JLL. “People come into the lobby area where there’s lots of signage and people managing the respective spaces, letting in the appropriate capacity in the buildings. And what they’ve got is a perspex divider in the lift cart itself so that two people can enter in an eight person lift.”
In other parts of the world such as Korea or Japan, cocktail sticks have been used to press buttons in more traditional lifts, he says. In other places where you can request a lift by selecting a floor on a touchpad outside in the lobby, companies have stationed someone to press the button for people walking in, or delegated the task to receptionists. Some lifts can even be summoned by an app on your phone.
This entire system hinges on people respecting the rules. However, once more office workers start returning to work, there will undoubtedly be those who jump into a lift regardless of guidelines or stickers. It’s likely that ‘destination’ lift systems, which do not stop between floors and can be reprogrammed to limit capacity to be socially distant, will become the norm, but those that don’t have that type of technology already aren’t rushing to install it.
Some UK firms are inspired by the logic from their German counterparts, who believe that socially distanced lifts are rather pointless if the majority of their employees have to use public transport to get to work in the first place. As long as they wear their masks and don’t crowd each other too much, lifts can withstand a higher-than-average occupancy rate. But this could be a dangerous approach.
Lara Goscé, research fellow in modelling at UCL, says that the same principle applies to lifts as to the tube or any other crowded and confined environment. “The more crowded the space, the higher the chance that an infected person transmits the virus,” she explains. “It has been proven that when breathing, particles travel up to one meter, (two meters when coughing, six when sneezing), so people should keep at least one meter distance between each other.
This would mean, for example, that if you consider a squared elevator of one meter per side, four people could fit in each of the corners – no more. “There is also speculation that Covid-19 particles can survive in the air for an unspecified amount of time so the safety distance alone is not enough, it won’t stop transmission caused by an infected individual who queued and took the elevator earlier,” Goscé says. “It should at least be compulsory for every person who queues and takes the lift to wear face coverings.”
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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