The Fraught Future of the Post-Pandemic Office Elevator

As remote workers return to their buildings, iconic elevator maker Otis grapples with a product everyone’s suddenly terrified of

The first movie to include coronavirus was, appropriately enough, a horror film. Corona, a Canadian film, unfolds like the stuff of an oft-tweeted pandemic nightmare: Seven neighbors are trapped in an elevator — where it’s impossible to socially distance — and one of them has Covid-19.

Stephen Nichols hasn’t seen the film but he doesn’t need to. Nichols is the associate director of engineering for Farmington, Connecticut-based Otis, the 167-year-old elevator company that operates in more than 200 countries, maintaining some 2 million elevators. “My family doesn’t like watching movies that involve elevators with me because I kind of squirm,” Nichols says.

The frequency with which people are stuck in elevators on film bugs Nichols, since being trapped, at least for a significant length of time, is sufficiently rare that it can be national news. (It last happened to Otis in 2009, when eight passengers were trapped for five hours in an elevator stuck between the 42nd and 43rd floor in a Toronto tower.)

It also bugs Nichols that the details of the elevator, like fans or ventilation, are never shown in movies, which contributes to the widespread misperception that elevators are closed boxes, where no fresh air circulates. It doesn’t help that the ventilation is also usually behind the ceiling or underneath the floor.

“Even if you get trapped, the air is not stale. It’s one of the best-ventilated spaces in the building,” Nichols says. In some elevators, he says, there may be 72 air exchanges per hour (meaning the air is replaced approximately every minute), versus, for example, a building lobby, where there might be as few as 10 exchanges an hour.

Innovation in the elevator business has always been as much about psychology as it is invention.

But TV Tropes, the 17-year-old wiki, has a whopping 23 subcategories for “elevator,” including “hellevator” and “trapped in an elevator.” And you can’t fight more than 100 years of pop culture with a couple of airflow studies, though Otis has tried. So by the time the film Corona debuted in August, Otis — whose elevators can be found in places like the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building — had long been at work on other ways to convince customers its lifts were not incubators for the virus.

Otis is old enough to have been in business during the 1918 flu pandemic, but in those days there was only ever one person touching the elevator buttons: the elevator operator. (Still, some cities, like Minneapolis, forbade using elevators in buildings shorter than six stories.) That obviously isn’t the case now, as companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Salesforce make plans for hundreds of thousands of employees to return to offices in the coming months — while others continue to mull whether to ever return to full-time cubicle life.

There are no buttons inside the car in Otis’ “destination dispatch” elevators, which could — the company assured customers — also be programmed to limit the number of people per ride. Of course, there were low-tech, low-cost solutions aplenty such as the tissues and toothpicks its customers in China used to avoid touching surfaces in early 2020. But as the global pandemic spread, the company quickly began offering air purifying devices and UV-powered lights that sanitized handrails — mostly invisible solutions which Otis soon learned building managers and other customers instead wanted to be in-your-face. “Where they’re spending the money is the signage,” says Chris Smith, an Otis vice president who oversees product strategy and marketing. “They want it very visible.”

For elevators installed after the early 2000s, you could also use an app, dubbed Otis eCall, to summon the elevator from your phone. Otis actually introduced the app in Europe in 2016 but it didn’t take off with anyone except “germophobes,” Smith says — in those days, a much tinier segment of the population than they are now. But one of the biggest projects has been engineering a completely touchless elevator outfitted with motion sensors and voice activation: You call it with the wave of your hand, then command it to take you to the floor of your choice.

Of course, you can make an elevator as touchless as you want (and Otis started this project at a point in the pandemic when people were still wiping down groceries). But the problem that remains is this: An elevator is still usually a space too small to socially distance. Will a fancy new elevator distract people from this fact? Probably not. But innovation in the elevator business has always been as much about psychology as it is invention.

“I think most people’s biggest fear is getting stuck in an elevator.”

Otis — which was acquired by United Technologies in 1976 and spun off from the company almost exactly a year ago — has increased its research and development investment 60% since 2015, tripled its patents in that same time, and its new product releases are up 200% since 2018. That said, the company has been playing “a little bit of catch-up” with its competitors’ offerings, CEO Judith Marks acknowledged on the company’s most recent earnings call in February. Last year, Swiss elevator maker Schindler introduced sensor-equipped buttons, where users hover a finger centimeters away to select a floor. Meanwhile TK Elevator — until last year part of Germany-based ThyssenKrupp — offers voice recognition in certain markets, though not yet in the U.S.

Footprint markers showing how to socially distance are seen on the floor of an elevator in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

“I think most people’s biggest fear is getting stuck in an elevator,” Smith says. Add in the heightened fear of a small, enclosed space in the time of Covid, he said, and “it was like, ‘Oh, boy.’ We knew the touchless was something we really had to address to get rid of that fear.”

The company had demonstrated voice activation at a 2018 expo in Shanghai, but interest was muted. The big question at the time, Smith says, was whether — in a Manhattan or Hong Kong elevator, where you’re “packed in” — the technology would be able to recognize so many different voices.

“People were like, ‘Well, maybe for residential buildings this would be a neat solution,” Smith says. “But then finally with Covid… the interest definitely has accelerated.” One big question: Could the company make it work with masks?

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the elevator, a piece of technology that is unnoticed and unappreciated when it works, but the cause of all your troubles when it doesn’t. Without the ability to leap multiple stories in about a minute — the length of an average elevator ride — there wouldn’t be skyscrapers, population density, or even the mythology of penthouse glamour. (Before elevators, the top floor of a house or building was often reserved for servants to have to trek up to.) There are also elevator pitches and of course, #elevatorselfies. Says Lee Gray, the senior associate dean of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte’s College of Arts and Architecture and an elevator historian: “It’s one of the very few pieces of technology — certainly building technology — that has such a profound cultural presence. It’s this fascinating thing because it moves. And it’s the only kinetic piece of technology that people really engage with.”

Before Otis founder Elisha Graves Otis invented his safety brake in 1853, elevators were thought too dangerous for passengers at all.

But for as long as there’s been an elevator business, there has been fear and anxiety around riding in a box suspended by cables careening up and down a shaft. Elevator design even today nods to this, with a door-close button you can jam all you want — but in most cases, it won’t do anything. It’s been left there to give passengers the illusion of control. (This isn’t true in New York City, where law requires that the button works.)

Elisha Graves Otis shows his first elevator in the Crystal Palace, New York City, 1853. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty)

Before Otis founder Elisha Graves Otis invented his safety brake in 1853, elevators were thought too dangerous for passengers at all — what if someone fell off the platform? (Elevators have been around in one form or another since the times of Archimedes, though mostly for freight.) Even after the addition of the brake, there were fears about ropes breaking (capacity limits didn’t arrive until 1938), plus the social anxiety of this little island with its lack of personal space, where new rules of behavior had yet to be written. Was an elevator a private space where men should remove their hats, or was it a public conveyance where they didn’t have to? This debate went on in papers like the New York Times from the 1880s until well into the 1920s.

In the early 1900s, technological advancements brought new fears: Self-service elevators could run without human operators, the Uber driverless car of the 20th century. At first, push-button elevators were used mostly in private homes; it wasn’t until the 1950s that the first fully automatic operator-less elevators were introduced. Riders were, at first, leery of running the elevators, Gray says. It took most of the 1950s for them to get over that. There was also the persistent anxiety about — whether or not the elevator malfunctioned — it being a space where you could become temporarily trapped with God knows who and that people outside could be doing who knows what. In February 1968, when Lyndon Johnson was stuck in what was then the Pentagon’s only passenger elevator for 12 minutes, people trapped with him wondered if a coup was afoot. (Besides the disaster of the Vietnam War, there had been eight military coups around the world the previous year.)

Being trapped is never far from the mind. On the earnings call, Otis’ CEO Marks talked about a new piece of technology that, if there’s an issue in the elevator and it has to stop, would allow it to do so on an actual landing floor, rather than in between floors, so “passengers aren’t entrapped” for any length of time.

Given all this elevator anxiety, maybe it’s not surprising that Otis is extremely protective of its image. The company’s PR representatives taped every (strictly time-limited) phone interview I had with anyone on staff and frequently would call me instead of replying to a question by email. A lot was shrouded in secrecy. A fairly typical conversation was this one about the company’s 28-floor test tower in Bristol, built in the 1980s, with three floors of offices and the other 25 for testing elevators. I asked, how many elevators are there? “That’s kind of a competitive thing,” said Ross Gottlieb, the engineer who runs it. So, too, was what kinds of tests the elevators undergo, how they would test an “outside” elevator (like one in a parking garage) versus an indoor one, and anything specific that had also been tested there. (A few days after I spoke to Gottlieb, a PR representative emailed a few “tidbits,” as he called them, about the tower. It tests parts “for the range of systems used in Otis elevators around the world. These include: cables, belts, safety systems; small and large motors; lifting hardware; full systems and destination management systems.”)

Gray, the elevator historian, says this secrecy is not unusual for the industry. He also suggested it might be related to the company’s skill at mythmaking over the years. Stories about how the generously bearded, top-hatted Elisha Graves Otis made crowds gasp at New York Crystal Palace (now Bryant Park) as he demonstrated his safety brake have likely been embellished over time. Nor has Gray, who says he has a good relationship with Otis, ever been able to confirm independently things like the company’s claim that it installed the first passenger elevator in 1857 in New York’s fancy Haughwout’s department store, where Mary Todd Lincoln had the White House china engraved. No newspaper account Gray can find about the store opening mentions the elevator, something so notable no paper would have ignored it. (Gray says he is “convinced” Otis installed an elevator then, but suspects it was a freight elevator that was later converted for passenger use.)

I wasn’t allowed to visit the Bristol test tower because of coronavirus protocols. But in September Otis agreed to let me see the touchless elevator, powered by voice command and gesture. They’d installed it in the Grand Pequot Tower of Foxwoods Casino, located in southeastern Connecticut, so they could tweak it further. Otis wanted somewhere with a wide variety of voices that would be constantly changing; they are also testing it in an apartment building in Connecticut.

As I stood before the elevator doors in the parking garage, a woman in an oversized tie-dyed T-shirt and matching leggings told me she’d been to the casino four times and the elevator had not worked once for her. “Don’t do it if you want to go anywhere,” she warned.

It’s possible she couldn’t figure out how to use it because neither could I. But I was also about to be late, was conscious of limited time, and hadn’t been in an elevator of any kind in more than six months, which couldn’t have helped. There was a small black sensor mounted above the button panel, which looked like something you’d have to tap a card on to open the door. I looked around to see if anyone else had cards, then tried waving at the doors. Nothing happened. Behind me, someone reached over to push the call button for the elevator.

Each time I had to yell louder, I had to stop myself from wondering if anyone with coronavirus had done the same and whether any virus particles lingered in the air.

When I met Chris Bowler, the senior director of service marketing, along with two people from Otis’s PR and marketing team, we stood around the parking garage talking, because — unlike the robust crowds that had returned to the casino on a random Thursday afternoon — none of us was keen to spend extra time indoors. I learned the tiny black credit-card-sized panel I’d seen was the sensor, and you were supposed to wave at it: Up for an elevator going up, and down to go down. Otis had recently added signage that said in blue letters “TOUCHLESS ELEVATOR BUTTONS” and in smaller type: “WAVE UP TO GO UP” after discovering people were waving from side to side.

A notice in an elevator in Tokyo, Japan, requests that people avoid talking to avoid the spread of coronavirus. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

When the four of us got inside the elevator, it took three times of me having to yell “Hey, Otis,” as instructed, for the elevator to recognize my voice through a mask. Each time I had to yell louder, I had to stop myself from wondering if anyone with coronavirus had done the same and whether any virus particles lingered in the air. And each time, Bowler — a cheerful Brit carrying a bottle of water and wearing a butter yellow mask — didn’t lose his faith that the elevator would eventually do as instructed, like a recalcitrant dog that finally sits.

Finally, a tiny blue light above the button panel came on to indicate the elevator had heard me, a tweak Bowler had recently ordered installed after observing Foxwoods patrons stymied by the lack of acknowledgment. (He thinks the panel needs to be changed to make the light more prominent, but he said Foxwoods didn’t want them to make any hardware changes.) I asked for “Level Three” and up we went. Maybe the experience would feel run-of-the-mill if you own an Amazon Alexa device (I don’t), but talking to the elevator gave me the same ping of delight as the first time I cashed a check by taking a picture of it on an app — like I was living in the future. Later, though, when I took the elevator back down to the parking garage with strangers, I admit I was too self-conscious to yell, and pushed the button.

Will the new elevator take off? Otis doesn’t expect to start selling it until later this year, and elevator sales typically take up to nine months. One question that looms is whether the focus on stopping the coronavirus spread will shift from the more performative cleaning of surfaces to reducing virus-laden particles in the air — something indoor air experts like Richard Corsi, dean of engineering at Portland State University, have advocated. Another, of course, is what the post-pandemic office might look like, and who wants to invest in its infrastructure.

Then again, in the early days of passenger elevators, no one envisioned them having a business purpose. The lifts were unbelievably slow: A luxurious novelty outfitted with chandeliers and sofas and used to draw customers to department stores and hotels. Maybe the voice and gesturing technology will make them novel again.

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