COVID-19 Facility Management Feature: A Look Back At 2020

Over the past year, facility management played a major role in keeping people safe from COVID-19. Here are the lessons learned, challenges, and achievements.


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Over the past year, facility management played a major role in keeping people safe from COVID-19. Here are the lessons learned, challenges, and achievements.
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A Look Back At 2020

Facility management leaders met the challenge of COVID-19 in a variety of ways.

COVID-19 Facility Management Feature: A Look Back At 2020

By Anne Cosgrove
From the February 2021 Issue

As the world continues to adjust to the “new normal” brought about by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, facility management and related professions comprise a significant piece of the puzzle in keeping people safe and healthy. Buildings of all shapes and sizes, that facilitate a wide variety of activities, are front and center of this task. Offices, schools, healthcare, senior living, hospitality, retail, houses of worship—all commercial and institutional facilities are central to mitigating the spread of the virus. The past year has brought about numerous lessons learned, challenges, and achievements. This article takes a look at some of those stories.

COVID-19 facility management
(Photo: Adobe Stock /kaiskynet)

Office Facilities

In December 2020, BOMA International, Yardi, and Brightline Strategies released findings from the first in a series of nationwide commercial real estate COVID-19 impact studies. Fielded among 3,010 office space decision-makers and high-level influencers from across the United States, the “BOMA International COVID-19 Commercial Real Estate Impact Study” assessed the latest in tenant sentiments relating to the pandemic as well as its impacts on their businesses, attitudes towards physical work environment, and office space decisions going forward. The findings provided an indication of the pandemic’s broader transformational effects on the office sector, but these also enable owners and operators to model the financial and operational implications and implement measures to mitigate risk.

Key findings from the study include:

  • 78% approve of the response their current property owner or operator has implemented during COVID-19, and 77% are confident they understand how to reduce and manage risk in their physical office.
  • 47% of all tenants say their landlord’s coronavirus response exclusively has made them more likely to renew, the result of proactive communications and a renewed focus on safety and security. Almost half of tenant decision-makers (46%) are seeing more value in personal relationships with their property management teams.

In other office activities, McCarthy Holdings Inc., a leading construction company and general contractor, moved its St. Louis, MO headquarters from a building it has occupied for more than 50 years to a new, larger space in the city. McCarthy, in collaboration with the building owner, completed extensive interior and exterior renovations. These efforts included demolition and renovation of all interior space, façade cleaning and resurfacing of parking.

In the new office, various accommodations were made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the health and safety of employees and guests. The building’s existing HVAC system was upgraded to a state-of-the-art air treatment system designed to neutralize pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and mold, as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This system also includes a MERV-13 filter system that can be programmed to optimize the system’s capacity for fresh air changes.

COVID-19 facility management
A training room at the new headquarters facility for McCarthy Holdings Inc. in St. Louis, MO. The company incorporated measures throughout in response to COVID-19. (Photo: McCarthy Building Companies)

In addition, workspaces were arranged to maximize social distancing. Divider screens ensure adequate separation between individuals in various work areas, and panel heights between workstations in the open office areas were increased by 16 inches. All finish materials and surfaces were selected with a focus on the ability to effectively clean and disinfect all touch points, counters, and furniture.

Education Facilities

Facilities in K-12 and higher education sectors have faced challenges as well. Among the stories from this sector is the actions of the Chicago Public Schools district. The district closed its schools in March 2020 in response to the pandemic, and reopened for in-person learning in February 2021. The first confirmed positive case in the district occurred on March 6, 2020.

Clarence A. Carson, chief facilities officer, for Chicago Public Schools oversees the district’s 1,100 buildings over 535 campuses.  He recalls that in March 2020, “the virus was still considered new and a means of transmission was still in discovery by leading organizations (i.e., CDC, WHO, ASHRAE). As such, we closed schools and quarantined all occupants. We performed an industrial cleaning and disinfection remediation by a licensed independent environmental contractor. At the conclusion of those activities, we closed the school for two weeks.”

COVID-19 facility management
In March 2020, Chicago Public Schools were closed for in-person learning by Executive Order of the Illinois Governor. Shown here is Englewood High School. (Photo: Chicago Public Schools)

Chicago’s schools did not open at the end of the two-week period, however, since the Illinois Governor declared an Executive Order to close all public schools at that point. As the pandemic continued, Carson, his facilities team, and other stakeholders maintained the buildings to be ready for a safe return of students and staff.

Throughout 2020, Carson continued to adapt. He points to collaborations inside and outside of the facility management industry. In addition to resources from groups including APPA, IFMA, ISS, and Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), Carson is involved in a weekly roundtable with other K-12 facilities leaders from a number of districts across the United States. “We’ve evolved together on identifying ideal products in alignment with CDC and scientific guidance,” he explains.

For others, construction projects became a challenge throughout 2020. Health concerns for workers and supply chain interruptions contributed to delays or complete halts in many projects. One example of an education project that continued is the Parkway School District in St. Louis County, MO.

When the COVID-19 pandemic sent students and staff home in Spring 2020, McCarthy Building Companies identified ways to streamline project schedules. Despite the pandemic-related challenges, including supply chain slowdowns, newly implemented safety protocols, and labor shortages, McCarthy completed the first phase of a three-year program for the district. McCarthy’s scope of work, which continues every summer through 2022, ranges from HVAC and security upgrades to classroom renovations, and roof replacements.

“With our buildings vacant since spring, McCarthy was able to get a jump start on work originally not scheduled to begin until the end of the school year in June,” said James Swingle, P.E., group manager, facilities planning & construction for Parkway Schools. “Having the early start turned out to be an important advantage considering supply chain challenges encountered during shutdowns.”

According to Swingle, when the closing of an overseas factory caused a 10-week delay in the expected delivery of two switchboards needed for electrical rooms, McCarthy relied on its network of local trade partners to develop a solution and identify a way to make the switchboards locally. In another instance, the manufacturer of a compressor for a rooftop heating and cooling unit agreed to install a standard compressor until the specified digital compressor became available. This creative solution added no additional cost to the district and enabled the buildings to be completed on schedule.

Healthcare Facilities

In Greensboro, NC, Cone Health took just 28 days to transform its former women’s health campus into a designated COVID-19 hospital. Using teamwork and technology, the Cone Health Green Valley campus became the area’s first specialized COVID-19 hospital, boasting the latest development in coronavirus care, negative pressure ventilation, and hands-free communication throughout the facility.

More than 80 leaders from multi-disciplinary teams across the health system were involved in redesigning the former Women’s Hospital and opening it as a COVID-19 only facility in April 2020. By the end of 2020, more than 1,500 patients had received care at the 116-bed facility.

“It was exactly what we needed for our community. We wanted the new COVID-19 hospital to be the safest place in the city,” said Brent McQuaid, MD, chief medical officer at Cone Health’s COVID-only campus. “We also wanted to design an environment to protect and empower staff with the right tools and technology, remove physical barriers, and enable them to provide hands-on care at the bedside without worry or fear of contamination.”

Senior Living Communities

With the pandemic impacting the senior population disproportionately, senior living facilities are on the frontlines. Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA), shares insights that the association and its members have experienced over the past year. For instance, he points out that the COVID-19 pandemic “dramatically affected the operations of all senior living organizations, costing jobs, billions in lost revenue and the emerging effects of social isolation, declines in cognitive and physical function and loss of spiritual and social engagement. Communities quickly pivoted to counteract these negative impacts by instituting many policies to keep residents and staff as safe and engaged as possible.”

While the pandemic has challenged operations for senior living facilities, leaders, funders, investors, residents, and families look to the future. And as Milner explains, “There are questions to be answered: What will life in a senior living community look like next year, or in three years, or in five? Which communities will flourish, which will remain challenged, and which will cease operations? Will people want to live in senior living communities—and why?”

ICAA formed a task force in response to the pandemic, and to address these questions. He explains, “As an aid to strategic planning, the task force members developed six strategies that can apply to many types of organizations.”

These strategies are listed here:

  • Design, redesign, and/or renovate exteriors and interiors of buildings.
  • Develop purpose-driven staff.
  • Provide technology to increase connections, aid efficiency and optimize health
  • Develop the culture of positive aging.
  • Establish trust by being prepared to respond to emergencies and unexpected events.
  • Update perceptions to reinforce the new value proposition of each type of senior living.

Would you like to share your work and lessons learned related to COVID-19? Please send a brief overview by e-mail to the Editor at [email protected].

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