Improving Security While Offices Are Empty

John T. Orloff


August 3, 2020

In the first half of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced offices around the world to close, either as a proactive measure or in response to state-mandated stay-at-home orders. Hordes of employees found themselves working from home indefinitely and previously busy workspaces became veritable ghost towns. Now, even as states begin to reopen, many companies have decided that the safest place for their workers is still at home, leaving office spaces vacated. Though these temporarily vacant spaces may just seem like eerie dust collectors, it is important to recognize that they still face security risks and will continue to do so when employees stop working from home.

Fortunately, empty offices can actually be optimal environments for strengthening your security posture so that you can provide a safer, more resilient workspace for returning workers. Granted, not all testing done in an empty office will be fully representative of the conditions when occupied, so assessments and plans should be reassessed under actual use and occupancy conditions. Still, this period of closures or reduced occupancy can pose a valuable opportunity to do the bulk of assessment, planning and improvements. Some security assessments can be conducted very effectively in completely or nearly empty offices, such as:

  • Physical and technical security assessments
  • Fire and life safety testing
  • Counter-surveillance sweeps
  • Egress modeling for social distancing
  • Emergency preparedness planning

Additionally, the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic can make security teams even better poised to respond to and mitigate the impact of a future crisis.

Conducting Security Assessments

Physical and technical security assessments apply both a strategic and tactical lens to a facility’s security measures—or lack thereof. Vacated office space is like a blank canvas to a security expert, enabling them to review or test security factors without interrupting regular operations.

When offices are vacant, security consultants can conduct studies without having to do as much detailed coordination with staff. This reduces the time from assessment planning to execution. Conducting assessments now also gives assessors time to determine system effectiveness and identify gaps in baseline levels of protection and system coverage in a more sterile environment. Implementing improvements can be done more promptly without needing to coordinate with staff or disrupting on-site operations.

Inspection, Testing and Maintenance of Systems

Whether for fire detection and suppression, mass notification or security, any integrated system requires rigorous inspection, testing and maintenance protocols to keep occupants safe. With most facilities closed or unoccupied, it is important that building or facility managers keep up with scheduled inspection, testing and maintenance activities to ensure that these safety and security systems are working, both when the building is idle and when it is occupied again. This may also help you to keep ahead of evaluations and regulatory inspections.

Assessing Sensitive Information at Risk

Do not underestimate the risks of illegal wiretapping, audio surveillance and electronic eavesdropping. Now that offices are empty, confidential information that could impact your stock price or board-level discussions may be more exposed. A technical surveillance countermeasure sweep applies sophisticated, laboratory-grade technical equipment to discover powered devices, locate transmitters and identify resident radio frequency signals to determine if sensitive information is being compromised. Vacant offices make managing this risk more important and these sweeps can be easily conducted in empty offices.  

Preserving Life Safety While Social Distancing

Unobstructed and free-flowing egress paths are critical to ensuring life safety. As buildings become reoccupied and social distancing remains key to minimizing the spread of COVID-19, it is important to take a look at your current egress paths and consider whether people will be able to maintain a six-foot separation in an evacuation. You will also need to make sure previously used exits have not be been modified or blocked as part of social distancing efforts to limit the number of entrances and exits and control how many people come in and out of the building, or in the process of modifying workspaces with physical barriers. As with other security assessments, the “blank slate” nature of an unoccupied building can simplify the process of evaluating and mapping out critical paths and facilitate prompt improvements to ensure employees’ safety upon their return.

Ensuring Future Resiliency

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven many people to reassess what is most important to them. The same can be said for your approach to safety and security. The following may have seemed like nice-to-haves before the coronavirus outbreak, but are now critical to maintaining a strong security posture:

1. Digitized security plans: A detailed, comprehensive security plan does not do your facility or security team much good if it is sitting in a binder in a closet in a vacant office. Digital planning software allows you to access plans from anywhere while also aligning the protocol for various types of plans, including security master plans, emergency plans, and business continuity plans for multiple sites.

2. Resiliency and emergency planning: Conducting resiliency planning and creating or updating emergency plans now helps you learn from current actions, identify vital inputs and more accurately develop recovery time and recovery point objectives without negatively impacting daily operations. In addition to a pandemic response plan, you should look into developing or updating your plans for business and supply chain continuity, corporate communication, crisis management, and occupant emergencies.

3. Regular security plan updates: If you are revising or adding pandemic protocols to your current security and emergency plans, you may find many areas in need of updating. Take this time to implement processes for ensuring plans are informed by new developments in the threat and risk landscape and updated on at least an annual basis. When plans are housed in a web-based software system, this process becomes exponentially easier.

4. Ongoing cybersecurity training: Now that some or all of your employees are working from home, it is critical that everyone have a strong understanding of proper data privacy and protection practices. If you have not already, implement ongoing training that tests individuals’ resistance to cyberattacks, especially those that can be less obvious such as social engineering.

Be Proactive, Be Prepared

By performing these activities when offices are vacant, you can ensure a safe and secure operating environment for employees once they begin returning to work and for customers and visitors when they walk through the door. Taking advantage of an otherwise unused office is a “no-lose” scenario that allows for easier assessments and ultimately a safer and more secure workspace.

John T. Orloff is senior vice president, security risk management, with Hillard Heintze, a Jensen Hughes company.