Inside the Rise of a Hot New Industry: Social Distancing Consultants
Everyone’s recasting themselves as an expert in the new business of keeping people six feet apart
In early March, Raymond Haldeman, a restaurant designer from Philadelphia, got a call from a client. The nine-foot submarine he’d designed as a centerpiece for their new 200-seater seafood restaurant, The Boiling Pot — with tables in the sub for VIPs — was a no go, said the restaurant. People won’t want to sit in a confined space anymore, they explained. More clients put Haldeman’s services on hold. Concerned about his future, he decided to pivot. He started by analyzing OSHA and CDC guidelines and researching industry best practices. Then he updated his website tagline to read, “Specialty design for social distancing.” Underneath this, he laid out his new services: distancing consulting, rebranding, and physical modifications, to enable restaurants to “thrive under today’s new reality.”
As shelter-in-place laws start to relax across the U.S., and businesses begin to reopen—or at least to start thinking about it—everyone from retailers, restaurants, hairdressers, fashion boutiques, and building managers are desperate to overhaul their spaces with new safety protocols so they can protect employees and customers —and start making money again. The problem? No one really knows what they are doing.
Federal guidelines cover the basics of hand-washing, sanitizing, and mask-wearing, but they lack specificity for different scenarios. For example, if you install a plexiglass screen, how large should it be? What’s the best way to redesign an office floor plan to limit interactions? Should employee temperatures be taken every shift? What about customer temperatures? Amid this uncertainty, a new cottage industry comprised of opportunists and pivoters has sprung up to fill the void: the social distancing consultant. From architects and designers to maintenance and marketing companies, these firms have recast themselves virtually overnight as experts in the new, high-demand art of keeping people six feet apart.
Amid this uncertainty, a new cottage industry comprised of opportunists and pivoters has sprung up to fill the void: the social distancing consultant.
Social distancing services have become a boon to the struggling architecture industry, as other projects have been put on hold. In Boston, the architecture collective MASS Design Group is branding itself as a thought leader in this space, creating and deploying a Covid-19 Design Response team for their hospital clients — which includes adding plywood or laminate covers to workspaces to make them easier to clean as well as installing ultraviolet germicidal lights — and publishing their research. “Architecture [can be] deployed in the fight against the pandemic,” director Michael Murphy said in a press release last month (the company is also using the hashtag #ArchitectureCanHeal in its tweets). Meanwhile, Gensler, a global design and architecture firm, responded to the crisis by launching ReRun, a $600+ per month, space management SaaS for offices.
Even moving companies are getting in on the action. Armstrong Relocation & Companies, which has 30 locations across the country, created social distancing packages that encompass “Social Distancing Dorm Services” for displaced students, and a work-from-home product in which they come and set up your workstation at home. It’s unclear just how big the business of social distancing solutions will eventually become, but the sources that Marker interviewed said that their Covid offerings have become their main source of income.
Haldeman—the restaurant designer turned social distancing consultant—his new Covid remodels cover the basics: contactless payment, installing foot pulls on doors, sanitizers at every table, and gloves and masks on the servers. “You have to think about what will make people feel comfortable going to a restaurant again,” says Haldeman. “Customers don’t want to get sick.” But while these upgrades increase customer safety, it doesn’t exactly scream relaxing dinner with friends. Here’s where the added value comes in. “You have to be creative with the design,” Haldeman says. His revised plan for the The Boiling Pot — instead of a submarine, he reworked the floor plan to hold multiple booths, each shaped like an old-timey boat, surrounded by a plexiglass barrier that curved like sails, with lanterns hanging from the bow. Artfully placed projectors cast wave seascapes onto the walls. “We’ll have things that nobody’s done before,” he says.
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Even WeWork — the troubled co-working company whose valuation tumbled from 60% to 80% in March and is now embroiled in separate lawsuits involving its tenants and its investors — is trying to salvage what’s left of its business by turning to outside specialists to try to coax clients back to its coworking spaces (the company never closed its co-working offices, claiming to be home to essential businesses).
It hired consultants, including architecture and engineering giant ARUP, to help make its deliberately shared spaces feel safe again. The result: a 16-page booklet outlining WeWork’s social distancing plans published in mid-April, including airy photographs of empty, well-lit, workspaces, and floor-plan models marked with black-and-white six-foot distance reminder stickers. “Cleaning has been our number-one focus,” says a WeWork spokesperson.
Along with adding a lot of stickers, signs, and hand sanitizer stations, WeWork’s other solutions include one-way walkways and suggested seating plans that convert a seating area for six into an area for four, as marked by green dots. The extra chairs in the offices and lounges are unlikely to be removed, says the spokesperson; they’ll rely on people following the signage. Most of their changes rely on humans modifying their behavior. “It’s very much a work in progress,” the spokesperson says.
Other social distancing experts are recommending behavioral cues to help suppress people’s instincts to hug or sit side-by side when working together. Real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield offers a Recovery Readiness plan that suggests businesses invest in tailored audio, scents, or lighting to reduce anxiety, in addition to their 6 Feet Office plans that recommend one-way walkways and colored carpet with six-feet demarcations around desks.
Meanwhile, SimpliFlying, a global marketing firm that previously advised airlines on things like social media strategy, has succeeded in becoming the go-to consultancy for social distancing in the sky. The firm has labelled this new normal “the rise of sanitized travel,” and says there are 70 day-of-travel areas that need to be addressed, from check-in and boarding to baggage pick-up and post-flight cleaning. SimplyFlying’s solutions include thermal scanners, in-flight janitors, and immunity passports.
SimpliFlying, a global marketing firm that previously advised airlines on things like social media strategy, has succeeded in becoming the go-to consultancy for social distancing in the sky.
Even some technology companies are moving into social distancing consulting. For instance, pre-pandemic, SenSource, a Youngstown, Ohio-based company made people-counting technology and installed smart over-the-door sensors in casinos, libraries, and fashion retailers. They’ve since spun that into a Covid consultancy. An opportunity for them: Larger stores have struggled with monitoring the mandated occupancy limits — some even have employees stationed outside with physical tally counters.
In late March, the company retooled its sensor package as a social distancing solution. “We converted our people-counting technology to real time,” says Andy Clutter, SenSource’s marketing director. They named it SafeSpace and paired its $795 sensor with a customer-facing dashboard that displayed the store’s occupancy levels, traffic light–coded for ease of use. (Monthly fees start at $35). They’re building out a text message capacity alert, estimated wait-in-line counters (like you’d see at Disneyworld) and just released a real-time “best time to shop” feature. Websites like Grocery Status offer this, but these crowdsourced solutions aren’t as accurate. Clutter says he’s signed on 10 new clients, totaling a retail footprint of more than 500 stores.
Offering social distancing consulting also helped DMC Facility Services, a family owned restaurant maintenance business in New Jersey, regain its footing after many restaurants shut down. The website proudly advertises “Covid-19 Installation Services & Repairs.” Says sales director Dan Munger: “We decided to change from a reactionary approach to a proactive approach.”
They noticed many businesses were looking for plexiglass dividers. DMC’s supply chain connections helped them fill orders from clients, including Olive Garden and Chipotle, he says. DMC used the plexiglass in a variety of situations: temperature stations by entrances, to-go stations, six-feet-high table dividers, cashier screens. They also worked to fit the safety measures to the interior design (for Olive Garden, the plexiglass is paneled in a rich wood, Munger says, whereas Chipotle got a more industrial style). “If it matches the decor, it’s not as invasive,” he says. The company also offers furniture storage for restaurants modifying their seating arrangements, but have only had nibbles so far. He estimates a small restaurant would pay a couple of thousand for a Covid retrofit. “We give them a discount to help them out,” he says, noting that additional costs include employee retraining.
Authors and coaches would be remiss if they also didn’t get in on the action. Donald Burns, author of Your Restaurant Sucks, and Your Restaurant Still Sucks, has a more in-your-face take on Covid consulting. In March, he published a blog post, “The Coronavirus Isn’t Your Fault, But How You Ran Your Restaurant Before Is!” in which he explains that restaurants that have gone under during the crisis “did not do the critical things they know they should have done.” To help, he offers Mastermind Memberships, starting at $350 a month, which include weekly meetings, a private Facebook group, and his Restaurant Rebound Plan.
For many business owners, the big question that remains is what reopening will mean: Will it save their companies or not? The good news is if one of these social distancing consultants doesn’t have an answer, at least there will be dozens more in line who might.