By Michael G. McGuinness
I can’t believe I’ve already lived through four decades this century — the aughts, teens, ’20s and March of this year. The abruptness, speed and magnitude of the COVID-19 virus disruption was unreal. There was no comparison to previous disruptions that have rocked our economy, like the terrorist attacks and collapse of the twin towers on 9/11, the stock market crash in September 2008 or the rapid onslaught and aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. March was a very scary month, as was most of April. It is now May and the governors of neighboring states have released plans to reopen the economy by allowing segments of the workforce to return by region, once certain health data milestones are achieved. With eyes on recovery, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has formed a “cabinet-level” advisory commission to focus on the macro issues, including resilience, infrastructure and messaging, and a Restart and Recovery Advisory Council with subcommittees to work out the details of how and when various sectors of the workforce will resume operations. This article addresses the myriad issues that landlords and tenants will confront as the stay-at-home restrictions are lifted and businesses reopen under a new set of protocols.
Re-entry to the office and other commercial buildings will likely be staged over several weeks. According to Gensler, “This journey back to work will require companies to strategically rethink people and protocols, organizational culture and agility and workplace impacts. The new normal workplace will require greater organizational intelligence, multidiscipline planning, effective change management and strategic design.” It’s akin to producing a movie with everyone playing their role and doing their share to minimize further spread of the virus — property managers, janitors, security guards, HVAC and mechanical staff, vendors, contractors and tenants. Landlords and employers all need to embrace this new responsibility and continually communicate and collaborate with their tenants and employees to help them feel safe. “You’ll need to think like Walt Disney on ways to motivate employees (and tenants) so that they want to return to the office,” said Rachel Casanova, senior managing director for workplace innovation at Cushman & Wakefield during NAIOP’s May 7 webinar.
There are several excellent resource documents for guidance on re-entry and a broad range of building operations and workforce issues, including: the comprehensive BOMA International Guidance Document #4, “Getting Back to Work: Preparing Buildings for Re-entry amid COVID-19”; JLL’s (Re)Entry: A guide for working in the next normal; the C&W Recovery and Readiness Guide 1.0 version 2; the Washington State COVID-19 Response “New Normal” Planning Return to Work Guide (April 27, 2020) prepared by Boston Consulting Group; and a series of valuable blogs from Gensler at https://www.gensler.com/design-responds-to-a-changing-world. These documents focus on the safe return of office tenants, building personnel, visitors, vendors, contractors and others, and identify operational and safety procedures and protocols that should be implemented, updated or enhanced as we transition to the next phase of life in the COVID-19 era.
Preparedness, agility and resilience will be key. Health, safety and financial implications need to be balanced. Prior to re-entry, property managers and employers should procure adequate personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and disinfectants for use where needed. Signage must be used to instruct tenants about the new protocols for use of the building and offices. Training of building personnel and janitors will be critical to ensure protocols are followed.
Both property managers and employers must not underestimate the need to address tenants’ and employees’ fears and psyches resulting from COVID-19. Communicate with your tenants, employees, contractors and vendors about new protocols and procedures for use of the building, elevators, common areas, bathrooms and offices. Remind them to follow CDC guidelines and federal, state and local mandates for social distancing, sanitation and hygiene. Property managers will be charged with following government directives and best management practices related to cleaning, building entry, security, building capacity and social distancing for elevators, common areas and amenities. Separate entry and exit doors, and one-way up or down stairwells are suggested to minimize traffic. Able employees could be encouraged to use stairs. Leverage automation and technology (voice-activated, sensors, etc.) to limit skin contact. Increase frequency of cleaning and disinfection in high-density and high-touch areas: building and elevator lobbies; elevator interiors, buttons and surfaces; restrooms; furniture; fixtures; doorknobs; switch plates; shared conference spaces; building and suite entrances; mats; handrails; turnstiles; counters; trash containers; and other frequently touched surfaces. HVAC equipment may need to be serviced and updated and care must be taken to improve air quality. Experts recommend four air exchanges per hour.
Employers must educate employees on new safety protocols to be followed in the office. Minimally, this should include staggering of work hours and/or work from home (WFH) hours, use of six-foot social distancing at all times (without use of PPE), mandatory daily cleaning for work area high-touch surfaces (phone, desktops and surfaces, mouse, keyboard, monitor, kitchen surfaces, microwave, etc.). Additional guidelines include: limit size of meetings to adhere to social distancing protocols, eliminate use of shared equipment, de-densify workstations, encourage employees to bring lunch to work to minimize outside contact and respiratory etiquette. Employers should also review all legal documents (lease, insurance, contracts) and revise if needed to reflect new liabilities or other modifications. Property managers and employers must also prepare plan for “quick-close and shutdown, and isolation rooms.”
Remember to continually take steps to ease the anxieties of your tenants and employees by documenting and communicating the frequency of sanitation procedures. It is strongly recommended that responsibilities be clarified between property manager and tenant, and between employer and employee, regarding self-screening and notification if a tenant or employee is confirmed to have the COVID-19 infection. Where feasible or relevant, visitors and customers who come on premise should be tracked. It is not recommended at this time that employers do screening for COVID-19 tests, tracking or tracing.
When we return to whatever becomes normal, our anxiety about invisible contagions will persist, resulting in a new definition of personal space and a change in our comfort level with physical closeness. Some experts suggest a “re-entry” gift for employees to celebrate their return and provide peace of mind that all matters have been taken care of. Businesses will need to think concurrently about the now, the tomorrow and the future. Employers should routinely enhance investments in virtual working technology and empowering staff so that they are more agile and less hierarchal, and better prepared for future disruptions. The new normal will require the ability to continue to communicate and provide services and programs to your clients, customers and/or members. We will need to be ready for a permanent hybrid way of working (Gensler).
The last two months have been nothing less than the “largest pilot project in history.” Almost overnight, millions of us learned how to effectively work from home. Get used to it — it is not going away.
Michael McGuinness is CEO of NAIOP New Jersey and has led the commercial real estate development association since 1997. NAIOP represents developers, owners, asset managers and investors of commercial, industrial and mixed-use properties, with 830 members in New Jersey and over 19,000 members throughout North America.