Getting Ready To Return To The Office Increasingly Means Getting Scientific
By Rich Gottlieb, president and COO, Keystone Property Group
While executives have differing perspectives on the future of remote work in a post-COVID-19 environment, most (52 percent) are targeting a return to the office in the second half of 2021, according to a recent survey of Fortune 500 executives.
Based on the responses of survey participants, vaccine availability (51 percent) and improved COVID-19 therapeutics and treatment (14 percent) are the clear determining factors in their decisions to bring employees back. But changes to office space (13 percent), like onsite testing or temperature checks, also weigh heavily on their direction.
The return is already happening. Data from a separate survey published in late March found that nearly a quarter of office-using employees are working at their office in 10 major U.S. cities. In New York City, some 80,000 municipal workers began staggered returns to their buildings on May 3. Major corporations are planning “soft reopenings” or hybrid-style returns.
Proactive building owners need to be ahead of tenants in terms of preparing for post-pandemic concerns, implementing the latest industry standards and technologies and addressing overall health and safety requirements. This is not always easy, especially because the science of the coronavirus continues to evolve.
It’s more important than ever to pay attention to these scientific trends and stay agile in terms of responding to them. Shifting health guidelines, data and feedback from initial returns to the office, as well as emerging COVID-19 variants, ensure that things will change on short notice.
Understanding Office Changes
The business environment and people’s expectations and priorities within it have changed since the pandemic began. But there are larger threads of change being sewn across other associated areas of concern.
Prior to COVID-19, sustainability in commercial real estate typically referred to energy and water savings, public transportation access and a reduced environmental and carbon footprint. Health and wellness have always been high on the list, but not the immediate focus. COVID-19 recast health and wellness among landlords’ sustainability efforts.
It’s only when buildings become more flexible and adaptable to accommodate the needs of occupants that true sustainability occurs. In July 2020, the United States Green Building Council released six LEED Safety First pilot credits outlining sustainable best practices related to cleaning and disinfecting, workplace occupancy, HVAC and plumbing operations and pandemic preparedness and response. This demonstrates the new attention to detail that is required of office owners and operators and just how intertwined sustainability is with wellness.
Checklists Make Life Easier
The CDC recently updated its guidelines for employer information for office buildings. Directed at office building employers, owners and managers and operations specialists, the guidance serves as a checklist for a safe return. Most of these professionals should be adapting their COVID-19 workplace health and safety plans in accordance with the most current guidelines.
Next, office owners must evaluate the building and systems for proper operation — including assessing any issues with mold, pests or stagnant water systems — and determine whether they need to be addressed. A thorough review of ventilation systems, especially for those HVAC systems that were shut down or put on setback, with guidance from professional organizations like American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), will enable changing the circulation of outdoor air as required.
This sort of guidance also serves as a way to keep the many players involved in an office building on the same page, from security to operations.
The Air Up There
Office building operators are accustomed to dealing with factors like regionality, seasonality and industry or government regulations when it comes to managing indoor air quality. But COVID-19 caught everyone by surprise.
The CDC recently updated its own guidance on ventilation with a more layered strategy. However, since the consensus is clear that COVID-19 is an airborne disease, technology and system upgrades are happening everywhere because operators want to monitor air both inside and outside the building and understand how this data impacts the overall air quality.
At Keystone Property Group, we’ve installed thicker air filters — up to MERV 13-rated — which are nearly twice as thick as most previously installed filters and effectively capture airborne virus germs. Many operators have taken the same approach. These thicker filters require more air pressure and can be difficult to fit into many older assets, but they represent solid solutions to improving air quality.
At our APX building in Morristown, New Jersey, we went the extra mile by installing a bipolar ionization system. Recently, operators have been installing GPS needlepoint ionization systems that are integrated with HVAC systems. The technology takes oxygen molecules from the air and converts them into charged atoms that surround and deactivate harmful substances such as allergens, viruses and more. This means that buildings won’t have to open up to excessive outside air or alter building criteria to clean or “change” air quality.
Has your firm made upgrades to its office space? What’s your own company’s plan to bring employees back? Empathize with your tenants by asking these questions and putting these actions into motion yourself.
Building owners and operators should devote additional resources to communicating key guidelines like the number of people on elevators and establishing easy-to-understand distancing guidance. Relaying these details will go a long way in building trust and enabling tenants to focus on the minute details involved with coming back to the office.
Virtual tours are useful not only for safe showings, but also for tenant updates where landlords can virtually walk prospective users through buildings. Likewise, it will be even more common for building owners and operators to take advantage of data analytics systems and monitoring. These features represent just one of many examples of how technology is enabling a more efficient office experience.
A continued focus on the science of the situation is the most effective way to re-establish the office as the center of culture and productivity, and enabling a safe and healthy return is the best way to drive more leases and renewals.
— Keystone Property Group is a commercial development and investment firm with offices in Northern New Jersey, metro Philadelphia and South Florida.