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By Mark Hawkinson, President, Technical Solutions Group, ABM
We are coming up on a year of the pandemic. While a path forward is emerging, challenges remain.
COVID-19 case counts are surging and new virus strains are creating new health concerns. The arrival of vaccines in late 2020 was the first signal of progress, but distribution is still ramping up. Many companies who shifted to remote work for their employees have pushed out formal reopening dates to the summer or later.
For the past year, ABM has worked closely with clients in all industries, from large-scale distribution centers and manufacturers who never ceased operations to corporations and property management companies who have a majority of employees and tenants currently working from home (WFH). We’ve been part of the same planning and pivoting you have been doing.
The question on everyone’s mind: Now what?
Based on where we have collectively been throughout the crisis and how our clients and teams see 2021 playing out, there are four points to keep in mind—with an emphasis on seeing and doing everything through the lens of the people who will be in your buildings.
1. Re-occupancy will be in phases. Prepare to scale.
People will return to offices gradually in phases throughout the year. WFH has proven to be effective for most companies and a high percentage of employees prefer it for both flexibility and productivity reasons. However, people miss the ability to collaborate and build relationships that happen working together in the workplace.
Companies are focusing on re-occupancy strategies that flex increasing percentages of people into the office to manage office headcount to maintain social distancing protocols. Many companies are considering hybrid models with a person’s workweek split between office and WFH. We anticipate that as more people are vaccinated and as HR teams see that their people feel the workplace is resilient and safe, those numbers will increase.
What to do: Be ready for the start and the steady increase of people coming back to work. Ensure that your resources and supply chain are ready to scale for the increase in occupants. A faster increase in re-occupancy could upset the supply chain for cleaning products as it did in the early months of the pandemic and create shortages of critical products. Above all, continue to adhere to CDC guidelines.
2. People will be highly concerned about their health when returning to offices. Provide reassurance in multiple ways.
For the past year, people have created their own bubbles to protect their own health and the health of their families. They have created their own cleaning and disinfection protocols, shifted to curbside grocery pick-up, food delivery and added to the surge of online shopping. They have also limited contact with the outside world. Returning to the office creates new risk.
In a recent Pew Research Center survey about returning to the workplace, 64% of people say they would feel uncomfortable returning, with 31% feeling very uncomfortable. Being exposed to the coronavirus was a major concern for 57% of respondents.
What to do: Think in terms of the first impression you make on someone’s first day back to the office. Will they feel safe from your front door to elevators, offices, desks and restrooms? Maintain or expand your high level of cleaning, disinfection and safety protocols. Provide visual assurance of safety with signage. Have cleaning teams visible frequently throughout the day doing their work. Throughout the pandemic, cleaning teams have been seen by the public as essential frontline workers.
3. Understand your tenants’ needs and expectations. Communicate, listen and adapt.
Every corporation and their HR departments will develop their own policies and protocols for reoccupancy, including headcount, masks, distancing and vaccinations. Within your building they will want to work with your teams to take added precautions to ensure that the entire building along with their offices, conference rooms, kitchens and common areas are being adequately disinfected and cleaned. Tenant employees expect high levels of transparency and communication for their organizations.
What to do: Create open lines of communication about your COVID-19 program. Listen for rising expectations and make sure that your plans are resilient enough to meet those expectations, especially as more and more people start to return. Be prepared to share information on the steps you are taking to ensure facility safety. Make sure that the enhanced steps you are taking are visible in your buildings to demonstrate what is being done to help protect viral spread.
4. Continue to evolve and gain new insights. Use these next months to your advantage.
The one thing everyone has learned is that the coronavirus is constantly changing. When people and organizations have let down their guard, the virus has come back at higher and higher levels. New coronavirus strains are proving to be more infectious, compounding the surge in cases and hospitalizations that started around Thanksgiving.
Preventing viral spread has now expanded to indoor air quality with research showing that the virus spreads through the air. This means your safety protocols must reflect the health of your entire building, from surface and high touch disinfection and cleaning to steps to improve indoor air quality.
What to do: Continue to monitor what you are doing with an eye on potential gaps. Distribution centers, manufacturers and other sectors that remained operational over the past year have consistently built on what they have learned both operationally and from a human perspective. If your building is less occupied now, use the next months to understand potential risks and make modifications in touchless systems, disinfection protocols, supply chain and air management. In a new survey of facilities executives sponsored by ABM, 94% of respondents said that they plan to continue or increase their current frequency of surface disinfection.
ABM’s EnhancedClean™ and EnhancedFacility™ programs are data-driven approaches to overall building health, from surface disinfection and cleaning to indoor air quality. These programs were informed by experts in infectious disease and industrial hygiene. Our clients use them to get a critical, factual baseline along with strategic steps to ensure higher levels of safety in their buildings to help keep people safe.
Build on what you’ve done, focusing on people first.
Despite the uncertainty, fatigue and constantly shifting readiness plans, now is the time to build on the work you have done to protect the people who are in your facilities now and those who will return in greater numbers and with higher safety expectations throughout 2021.
On February 17 at 1PM EST, ABM is holding a webinar in conjunction with Facility Executive Magazine. A panel of ABM experts who have worked closely with clients throughout the pandemic will present new research, best practices, and the latest solutions as facility executives plan for 2021. There is time for your questions and you can register for the panel here.
Want to read more about how ABM can help get people back to work? Click here.