The Elevator Dilemma

Why elevators have become a major stumbling block to getting people back to the workplace.

Technically, her 40th floor office is now open, clean and safe to work from, but one New York-based chief legal officer sees no point of leaving her home desk just yet.

First she’d have to line up outside one of the six entrances to her skyscraper, where a building employee would take her temperature. Then she’d have to wait in line, again, for the elevator, since the building is letting only four people in an elevator car at a time. But what really did it for her was if she had to she had to meet her coworkers on the 28th floor, not an uncommon part of her job, she’d to exit the building completely, walk to a different entrance, wait for her temperature to be checked again, and then wait at a different elevator bank. “It’s a one and half hour commute to have a meeting in the same building,” she says.

Many companies are eager to get many of their employees back into the office this fall. But elevators, off all things, are posing a particularly tricky problem. The obvious concern, of course, is that they could become ideal places to spread the coronavirus. So firms find themselves creating a new “elevator pitch" of sort, centered on figuring out how to get workers from one floor to another safely and quickly. “Piling people into elevators to get up and down like before is not coming back in short term,” says Dan Pulver, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Industrial and Real Estate practice.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on elevators and escalators over the summer. Building on earlier advice to “limit use and occupancy of elevators to maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet,” the CDC urged employers and property managers to, place decals inside the elevator to identify where passengers should stand, post signs reminding occupants to minimize surface touching, and even encourage the use of stairs. The agency also is encouraging elevator riders to wear cloth coverings over their face and avoid speaking, if possible. 

Pulver’s own vertical commute has been changed. The floors of the elevators in his Century City, Calif., office tower now have dots on them indicating where passengers should stand. Only four people can be in an elevator at a time, and there’s hand sanitizer workers can use at each elevator bank.

Elevators, of course, aren’t exactly built for social distancing. Typical elevators range from 5 feet 8 inches by 4 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 8 inches by 7 feet 11 inches, according to elevator distributor Nationwide Lifts. There’s no way anyone could stand six feet apart from one another in smaller cars, and only four people could maintain that distance in a larger elevator.

But for many organizations, elevators are a critical question to solve before they can bring people back to high-rise buildings; asking people to take the stairs to a 10th-floor office, let alone a 50th-floor one, isn’t realistic. Real estate firms have been hiring consultants and even mathematics professors to come up with workable ideas. Four people at a time in an elevator likely will work as long as office buildings are at only about 60 percent occupancy. But as more people come back to the office, the lines waiting for the elevator could become untenable.

Technology could help cut some of the delays. Companies could invest in apps where people can actually book time to use an elevator. For organizations who feel it’s essential for workers to be back in their multi-floor office, it might be worth it. For others, it just might be worth sticking with remote work for a while longer. “We may be out of this in a year,” Pulver says.