Facility Management Will Require Changes Under New COVID-19 Regulations
Facility managers across the nation are sorting through information about the coronavirus and looking at building modifications that can prevent the spread. Owners and tenants alike in the office and retail sectors have turned to facility management professionals to help their businesses thrive under rapidly evolving circumstances.
REBusinessOnline recently spoke with three facility management professionals from Lee & Associates via video conference about their company’s approach to facility management during the coronavirus pandemic. Teresa Gascho, Director of Management Services, Indianapolis; Frances Smith, Senior Vice President, Property Manager, Cincinnati; and John Rickert, President-Executive Managing Director, Cincinnati, spoke about how facility managers communicate with tenants, encourage healthy behaviors and support businesses in compassionate and creative ways.
Communicating with Tenants About COVID-19 Regulations
Early in the pandemic, facility managers were charged with limiting access to properties as buildings shut down. Now that occupants are returning to retail and office buildings, the team at Lee & Associates sees themselves as “facilitators and accommodators” for their tenants.
Working to reopen buildings under the guidance and recommendations from state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) is a lot more involved than closing buildings — and it can be frustrating for all involved. However, Rickert notes, “We’re not here to set up barriers. We’re here to help tenants and to let them operate within the bounds of what our governments and health departments are allowing.”
Gascho explains that much of her role as a facility manager has been to communicate information to tenants. This means monitoring COVID-19 announcements and statistics and then effectively conveying that information to landlords and tenants (often via email and text message to effectuate the speed of communication).
Smith says that in addition to updates from state and local officials, the real estate industry is looking to industry sources for guidance, including the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM), which has put together a series of free courses and videos to help property managers address COVID-19 challenges in their buildings.
Even as property managers rise to the challenge of their new duties, Rickert cautions, “we have to be careful that we don’t represent ourselves as COVID-19 experts.” Tenants must control their points of entry and decide what they’re going to do in terms of contact tracing in the event an employee tests positive for COVID-19.
How Are Property Managers Adapting to COVID-19 Challenges?
“Regardless of the asset type, our tenants’ business models have been disrupted in some way,” Smith says. “As managers, we are looking for innovative ways to support tenants in the asset while maintaining and managing the building on behalf of the owner.”
Gascho notes that Plexiglass barriers, designated check-in areas, curbside drop-off or pickup locations and increased signage are all ways that facilities managers have been asked to help control guest access across asset types.
Less obvious ways to support social distancing include installing electrical outlets to power non-contact temperature readers in offices, creating new entryways or allowing designated parking stalls for restaurants offering carry-out purchases.
Gasacho and Smith both pointed out the need to consider HVAC systems, which are easily overlooked. Upgrading air filters can be part of an overall risk mitigation strategy, and by increasing outdoor airflow into the building, facility managers can help prevent the spread of the virus.
Office Buildings Respond to Coronavirus Challenges
Many facility managers encourage touchless facilities with automatic hand dryers, lighting and plumbing, Smith says. This effort goes along with an overall effort to reduce crowding throughout the building and to reduce occupancy levels. Increasing janitorial services has also been essential.
Is it difficult to help office tenants keep themselves safe? Gascho, Smith and Rickert all agree: The answer is “no.” Regardless of individual building policies, tenants usually police themselves and socially distance, especially in small spaces like elevator cars. Access to facilities like on-site gyms is on a scheduled basis — if allowed to open at all — to control the number of users. Visual communication (visible hand sanitizing stations or areas marked as sanitized or unsanitized) helps employees in office buildings act safely and feel better about returning to the office space.
Retail Properties Adjust to Coronavirus Restrictions
Facility managers for retail properties must complement tenant efforts, Smith believes: “They understand their model, and I understand the assets. What can I do with the asset to make it more useful [for retail tenants and their customers]?”
Facility managers must promote safe traffic flow and make sure that the landscaping allows clear sight lines for customers. New entrances and awnings have become popular solutions for keeping people out of the elements if they’re waiting outside before they enter the building to accommodate current occupancy restrictions.
Lee & Associates encourages property managers and owners to relax rules prohibiting the use of common areas for customers. The goal is now to help tenants by expanding footprints and using temporary barriers to block off parking lots and sidewalks for additional outdoor gathering or seating areas, especially for restaurants.
Rising to the Challenge
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Coronavirus infection rates vary by county, government regulations and restrictions vary by county. Tenant needs vary by building — or even suite by suite in the same building. Facility managers are navigating an unprecedented situation and coordinating responses with building owners and tenants on an evolving basis.