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OpinionColumnistsRandi F. Marshall

Marshall: This is what going back to a physical office could look like

RXR Plaza in Uniondale.

RXR Plaza in Uniondale. Credit: Newsday/Tara Conry

The parking lot at RXR Plaza in Uniondale was mostly empty early Friday morning. The lobby lacked the usual stream of employees heading into their offices, chatting about the upcoming weekend or preparing for a day of work, shaking hands or giving hugs. 

The main sound was the whirr of the escalator. 

During a tour, The Point found that much had changed. But even as RXR Plaza remains only 5% to 15% occupied, the building serves as a microcosm of what the return to work might look like in the weeks and months ahead.

So far, RXR Realty chief executive Scott Rechler says he expects his tenants to continue to return. On Long Island, RXR has collected about 95% of the owed rent across its Nassau and Suffolk commercial buildings since the pandemic began – a higher rate than even Rechler anticipated. 

As workers across RXR’s properties come back to work, Rechler said, the goal is to make them feel safe and informed. 

“A big part is getting people enough of a level of comfort and the tools they need to create a place where the new abnormal feels normal,” Rechler told The Point Friday afternoon.

Of course, what Long Island’s largest commercial landlord is able to do might seem only aspirational — or even impossible — for smaller sites. But it sets a standard, and provides a strong example of what’s possible, and what Long Island workers might see as they return to the office. 

When employees — all masked — enter RXR Plaza from its parking garage, they’re greeted by a new security station that includes a thermal camera. It captures each person’s image, and a green box flits over them, as their temperatures are recorded. If they have a fever, the box would turn red, and security personnel would take them to a private area, where the temperature would be retaken. If it’s high, employees will be sent home.

Also, employees in the building are using an app that asks them whether they’ve tested positive for the coronavirus, whether they have any symptoms, or whether they’ve come into contact with anyone who had the coronavirus. Employees have to show security that they’ve answered those questions, or they need to answer them for the guard.

In the lobby, workers find signage that limits elevator use to four people at a time, and tables with extra masks, hand sanitizer and small plastic cards they can use to help them push open doors and turn on light switches. There’s also a new food delivery station, where RXR is hoping lunch deliveries can be left for employees in a contactless environment. 

One goal, noted chief operating officer Frank Pusinelli, is to keep employees in the building during the work day — to avoid increased contact with others outside the safe environment RXR is trying to create.

Ultimately, RXR hopes its app will be able to tell workers just how busy the lobby, bathrooms and other common spaces are, so people can make decisions on their movements accordingly. The landlord is also encouraging its tenants to stagger staff start and end times. And cleaning staff will have wearable technology that tells the rest of the building occupants which areas have been cleaned — and when.

In its own offices, meanwhile, RXR has added Plexiglas to cubicles, contactless faucets to pantry areas, and arrows on the walls to indicate which direction people should walk in. 

There’s still a learning curve, as at least one employee hadn’t signed into the app upon entering the building, and another was walking through the offices in the wrong direction Friday. Pusinelli said the company is evaluating ultraviolet cleaning technology for its elevators, and Rechler told The Point that RXR is still working through whether — and how — to handle contact tracing. 

The plan, Rechler said, is to work out any kinks in how the buildings run between now and Labor Day, when he expects more employees to return to the office. But for now, Rechler said, the key is for RXR as the landlord, and its tenants and their employees, to attempt to work together.

“We as a community all did our part when we had to stay at home and bend the curve and bring the health care system under control,” Rechler said. “We all did this as a community. Now, coming back to work, we all have to do this as a community, too.”

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