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Out in the Open: The Security Challenges of New Office Spaces

​Five people were killed in a shooting at the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. The gunman walked into the building and barricaded the rear exit of the newsroom before he began shooting. The newsroom’s design was open-concept, a popular design choice for news organizations.

“There are glass windows all around the room,” Terry Smith, a columnist for the Capital Gazette, told CNN in an article released shortly after the tragedy. “There is nothing except for a few half-walls at the editors’ offices on the left to impede a shooter.” 

In addition to the open-concept layout, which left victims exposed, there was no receptionist or access control system the shooter had to bypass to enter the newsroom. 

“They had no access control in the front of the building,” notes Pete Blair, executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University. “And that was a decision they had made, saying, ‘Look, it’s a community newspaper and we want people from the community to be able to come in and find reporters to tell stories to,’ and that’s how they got a fair amount of their information.”

Blair spoke on a panel at an American Society of News Editors​ conference that addressed the security of newsrooms in light of the Capital Gazette shootings. He tells Security Management that since the shooting, the Annapolis newspaper said it would change the location of the newsroom. “Now they have made the decision that they are not going to allow easy access to places,” Blair says. “A lot of places were starting to talk about moving their newsrooms up off the first floor to the second floor, or something like that, to make it more difficult to find them and access them.” 

The Annapolis shooting has raised questions about the challenges of open-concept designs in the event of an active assailant situation. While these sleek office interiors may be pleasing to the eye, experts note their design make it harder to seek cover or lock down in emergencies. And the challenges don’t stop at active assailant situations. Cybersecurity and information protection can also be an issue in open office environments.

Open-concept office spaces aren’t just popular with newsrooms—the design choice is on the rise. A 2017 survey by office staffing firm Robert Half shows that about one in five companies switched to an open-office configuration in the last five years. Forty-eight percent of respondents said they believed the open concept helped productivity; 32 percent said it was hindering to productivity; and 20 percent believed there was no impact. 

Other studies show more negative feedback on open spaces. According to a survey of self-identified “high-performance employees” by software strategist William Belk, 58 percent of these individuals “need more private spaces for problem solving.” His findings were published in a March 2017 article on CNBC. In addition, 54 percent of these employees said they found their office environments distracting. 

Office design isn’t just critical for productivity considerations—it’s key to providing a safe and secure environment for employees, says Herbert Ubbens, CPP, PSP, president of Paratus Consultants Group and member of the ASIS International Commercial Real Estate Council. 

“There are a lot of challenges within those open spaces where there are a lot of cubicles,” he says. In the open-concept office, there are fewer walls and office doors to close, potentially hindering employees’ responses in the event of an emergency. “When you have a reduction in hard surfaces… there’s some concealment but very little cover out there when a shooting does occur,” he notes. 

Blair echoes Ubbens’ sentiment about active assailant situations. “The new designs look pretty—but they are not well designed for safety,” he says. 

Active Assailant

In the event of an active assailant, transparent designs—from conference rooms to office walls—don’t provide any type of concealment when fleeing an attacker. “The attacker would be able to see where everybody is, and be able to guide themselves that way, so that’s a problem,” Blair says. He recommends film that goes on the glass, even if it is simply to provide concealment. 

“The films that you can put on windows that are affordable tend to be ones that are designed to maintain the integrity of the glass, but not to stop bullets.” While bulletproof film is available, most organizations find it cost-prohibitive.

When it comes to active shooter training methods, the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center teaches a three-step approach. “We teach ‘Avoid, Deny, Defend,’ which means you should avoid the attacker if you can and get out of there,” Blair says. “If you can’t, deny access to your location—close, lock doors, barricade, that sort of thing—and as a last resort, defend yourself.” 

In cases where those three steps are difficult to implement, the casualties tend to be higher, he notes, such as the Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre shooting that claimed 12 lives. 

Shopping malls, on the other hand, are designed to allow traffic to flow freely. “So very quickly people can hear the gunshot, know something bad is going on, and there are plenty of ways to move away from that and get out of the location,” he says.

For companies opting for the open-concept spaces, Hubbens recommends a saferoom for emergencies, a concealed and secure room not offered by many open-concept designs. “One thing we’re seeing is the use of saferooms, essentially secure areas that would be used for a tornado shelter, as well as an area for everybody to go into and lock,” he notes. “It would be located somewhere toward the core of the building.” 

For example, one client he works with has a nine-floor building and decided to install a saferoom on every floor. “They wanted to make sure that all of their people have somewhere they can evacuate to, or a safe haven for a hurricane or other environmental incidents,” Ubbens notes. 

While saferooms seem like a viable option at first glance, Blair points out there are considerations for security staff and management. “It could be that, depending on where the attack starts, the safe room is in a position that is totally wrong for you to get to,” he notes. “It’s just not reasonable for you to try, and yet if you’ve trained people to go to the saferoom they may try it anyway.” 

Secondly, employees may have to keep others locked out of the saferoom, a difficult decision and scenario for anyone to be faced with. “Having a saferoom means getting your head around the idea that you could have coworkers outside the door banging trying to get in, and you’re not going to let them in,” Blair explains, “because you can’t be sure that it’s not the attacker pretending to be somebody, and if you open the door and the attacker’s right behind the person, then the attacker gets into the saferoom.” 

Blair recommends designing an office layout that has clear escape routes and training employees on various points of egress in the event of an emergency. He says that all too often, in an emergency people get caught up on the idea of exiting the same way they entered a location. 

“One of the examples we use a lot in our trainings is from the Station nightclub fire,” he says, referring to the deadly blaze in Rhode Island in 2003 that left 100 people dead. Many of those victims died at the front entrance to the club where they came in, trying to use that same route to escape. 

“Why did everybody go to that exit? Well, when you get placed under stress you’re going to go where you know. So, people turned and they went to that place they came in from,” Blair notes. “And yet if you are in your calm state, your rational mind, you know that fire code says there have to be other exits here.” 

With any open-concept office space, access control on the front-end is essential. “You might have an open office design in the back of your workplace, but in the front end you have an entry vestibule where people come in and they are screened there,” he says.

Newer technologies like weapon and gunshot detection systems are also valuable, according to Mike Neugebauer, CPP, a security and business development consultant for Johnson Controls. These are especially useful in environments with public spaces like courtyards or restaurants attached to the building.

“The beauty of the newer systems is they take a lot of the human interaction or response out of the equation and set in motion responses,” he notes. “The more steps that we can extract and make automated, the smoother that event is going to run.”

The “See Something, Say Something” mantra is also more difficult in any larger corporate environment without permanent workspaces, where workers cannot be acquainted with everyone else. “Now with this open space, where you may travel 20 floors to go to a conference room that’s been deemed a public conference room, you don’t know who’s supposed to be there and when,” Neugebauer notes. “And when you work at a building with two or three thousand employees you can’t possibly know every one of them. So, it makes that situational awareness even more valuable to a company.” 

​Information Security

The financial sector has faced new security challenges as it modernizes branch offices, says Neugebauer. “With the picnic bench design, so-to-speak, where you sit in a different spot every day, you may be sitting next to someone who is working on a sensitive project on his or her laptop, and you have no need to see it,” he explains. “Banks used to be very mindful about separating employees that have customer information versus ones that have no access and no need for customer information, and those folks kind of mingle today so it really presents a lot of other security issues.” 

Neugebauer, who spent several years as the security director for a large regional bank, explains that the security culture of the organization must be instilled and reinforced in employees, from where they store their computers to where they choose to have confidential conversations. “They don’t want to stand in a social area and have that confidential conversation, because in a large company you may not know everybody, and you may not know the person sitting three seats away from you, not knowing that person sitting there is just collecting data and information.” 

Companies opting for open-concept designs should take clean-desk policies into consideration to keep information as well as business and personal assets, safe, according to Neugebauer. “The organization has to make sure it has lockers or somewhere in that space to put purses or briefcases, or your laptop if you’re not taking it home,” he says. “You don’t want to leave it out.” 

If organizations have the chance to design the open-concept spaces from the ground up, Neugebauer says physical security teams should collaborate with IT to consider the holistic security picture. 

“We’re moving from a hardwired environment, where you have a hardwired computer, to the laptop, so now you have open Internet available and more people—especially if you’re in a multitenant building,” he notes. “Someone may be able to pick up that signal and hack your network more easily, so that situational awareness has to be turned up a notch or two.” 

To foster security awareness throughout a company, all departments—from human resources to legal to IT and beyond—must be involved. “It’s almost like a three-legged stool—you take one of the legs away and the whole thing collapses,” he says. “And the employee has to become more responsible for the holistic security of their environment.”

Regardless of design, Blair points out that there is a balancing act when it comes to any security plan. Providing an environment that makes employees comfortable can be just as critical as keeping them safe. 

“We could have massive screening up front…then another screening to get into actual building, and make things very secure,” Blair explains. “But it would be very uncomfortable. So, there’s always that issue of finding the right balance.”  ​