Doug Wendt is a co-founder and senior partner with Wendt Partners.
As the United States begins the complex process of staging a return to business under the shadow of COVID-19, the process by which building re-occupancy takes place will prove to be extraordinarily pivotal to the ultimate success of the nation’s economic recovery.
Workers returning to offices will be a concrete and highly visible indicator of our ability to manage forward though the crisis effectively, and as a result, this will be a high-stakes endeavor, with extremely significant risks being borne by property owners and managers.
One essential component in the re-occupancy process must be strategic communication between building owners and managers; facilities management teams; tenants; sub-tenants; and individual employees and visitors.
The challenge is that property management communications has historically operated on a very limited basis, typically between building management and one or two tenant representatives per office. Any communications with employee-level impacts would then trickle down through a cascade of forwarded emails, PDF attachments and “for your reference” updates in an informal and often haphazard manner.
In the post-COVID environment, this lack of structure and process cannot stand, as it leaves enormous risks on the table. An errant employee of a tenant company who smokes too close to the building is a frustration. An errant employee of a tenant company who props open a secured loading dock door is a security risk. But an errant employee of a tenant company who fails to follow post-COVID procedures is a health and life safety risk to the entire building.
As a result, building owners and managers need to interweave a strategic communications program deeply into the foundation of their re-occupancy program. Key points should include the following:
- Identify multiple tenant contacts and establish a Health & Safety Contact for each tenant organization.
- In larger buildings, have tenant companies establish a Health & Safety team of employees and managers to support internal compliance with health standards. This is not without precedent; many large high-rises have for years required tenants to appoint employees as fire captains to assist with orderly evacuations in the event of a major incident. This approach is similar in scope.
- Establish a coordinated process for directly communicating to tenant employees. This may be via email, text, phone or all of the above. It may be easiest to achieve through an app, or by using a CRM system to track employee-level contacts, but what is clear is that you cannot afford to just send a notice to your one contact at the tenant and rely on them to “send it on to the appropriate people”. That era is over; today, every person in the building is a point of risk and you need to be able to communicate with them directly.
- Define tenant-level standards for Health & Safety and implement across the building or campus. This includes cleanliness standards, mask requirements, temperature and symptom checks, badging standards, visitor security controls and more. Whatever you implement in the public areas of the building, you now need to implement at the tenant level.
- Establish your incident response process and how tenants are to notify and address COVID-19 confirmed cases in the building. They will invariably happen, and having ten different remediation and communication strategies for ten different tenants is a ticket to disaster. Also, an incident with one tenant will no doubt generate concerns and panic among other tenants. You have to be able to communicate rapidly and with effective updates so that no one is surprised. The moment a tenant calls in a cleaning company to their space and other tenants see this, they will panic. Panic is your enemy, and that’s where there have to be no surprises.
In summary, this kind of coordination requires systems, processes, a contact management and communications platform, and tools such as portals, apps and other real-time notification methods, as well as staff training and support with posters, handouts, updates and information. Communication is truly a critical cornerstone to these efforts as we prepare to bring America back to work, one building at a time.