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A Facility Manager’s Guide to Reopening and Occupying Buildings Safely

Peter Kimmel, AIA, IFMA Fellow, and Founding President of CCIFMA recently drafted an eBook focused on return to office. Pamela O’Reilly, NCIDQ, LEED AP, FMP Senior Program Manager at Procon Consulting conducted an interview with Peter to discuss the guide and how to safely prepare for the return.

Q: How should I use this eBook?

A: The purpose of the eBook is really to give people an overall understanding of the way they should be thinking so they can answer their own questions. The book is more strategic than tactical, you can’t cover every possibility in one publication so this acts as a guide to help FMs create the strategy that fits their organization. Once the strategy is built, the book can be used to help prioritize safety measures and activities.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the single most important thing an FM can do to prepare his/her building for the return to work?

A: The pandemic is a very multi-faceted problem, so you can’t choose just one thing. Given that, I’d say that the most important thing you can do is to develop an overall strategy that will work for your facility and your company. Each of these things will need a customized approach; some things will work better for one company than another, and each facility is different, even within the same company. As far as safety measures, the single most important thing we can do to save lives is social distancing. Workers need to continue to have masks and practice responsible hygiene. Any space that is shared is a potential problem—things like Daycare Centers, Fitness Centers, and Cafeterias need to be handled differently, according to guidelines published by the CDC. Some of these spaces may not be able to open with the rest of the facility.

Q: Are there any other safety measures that you would recommend?

A: Beyond social distancing, there are three types of controls the CDC recognizes: Engineering Controls, Administrative Controls, and PPE. Engineering Controls are the purview of the FM—changing filters more frequently, adding ventilation and fresh air, and physical separation between occupants; these measures will give you the most value for your investment. Administrative controls are things like social distancing, hand washing—things that rely on individuals to carry out. The last is PPE—masks, gloves and other protective gear.

Q: It sounds like a lot of these measures referenced in your eBook (incorporating sensors, increasing cleaning, reconfiguring furniture) can be extremely costly. What measures can companies take if they don't have the budget for these things? A lot of firms are just trying to stay afloat right now. What’s the best way to budget for these new measures?

A: What is the value of a human life? If you put someone in danger, especially someone at high risk, or if it’s someone in a high-risk job (per the CDC, covered in Part 3 of the eBook), then you either have to spend the money, or find another solution to get the work done. If a company refuses to take measures to make the building safe enough (taking a risk with its employees), it’s risking that employees will leave. It’s extremely costly for companies when people leave, and it may reflect badly on the company in general. With that said, there are a lot of measures that can be implemented that aren’t that costly: replacing filters, putting together the strategic plan (which gives you the basis for all your decisions). Once you have your plan, you can go through the ideas in the eBook, and you need to figure out what the answers are for your facility. Select those that are not the big-ticket items. Once you do that, you can figure out what additional measures need to be done and figure out a way to budget for them, if not today, as soon as you can or down the road. There will have to be trade-offs made. One of these might be safety or funding for a new program (non-facilities program, or a new product or service to be offered). Safety needs to come first. This is something we need to stress to FMs. In the past, facilities have always been thought of as an overhead function, something that needs to stay within the budget and not get in the way of a company doing its business. For years, companies have made trade-offs with their programs based on funding. They haven’t historically considered the facility when discussing their trade-offs. Given that safety needs to be the primary consideration, companies need to prioritize the facility. Something else that doesn’t cost a lot, but takes thought and time (in the vein of having a good strategic plan) is having a good communication plan—within the facilities group, and between facilities, leadership, and the rest of the organization. This needs to be regular—once a week is best. It demonstrates leadership, confidence, and knowledge and makes the workers feel safe.

Q: What about other cleaning methods? I've been hearing a lot about UV Technology and things like Electro-Hygiene Disinfecting Sprayers. Are those good technologies to incorporate into the cleaning regimen if you have the means? (I know foggers aren't recommended, but what about ULV Atomizers?)

A: The answer is that we’re just not sure yet. These other methods have not been tested yet to a great extent for the virus, because we don’t know a lot about this particular virus. We do know that it can spread through the air. Can it spread elsewhere? We suspect yes, but we really don’t know. We can say what past viruses have done, but this one is different. Foggers should never be used on an ongoing basis. These are a one-time thing to deal with a one-time event. Even if the fogger is effective, conditions change so rapidly that with the virus, it becomes ineffective. We need additional research to demonstrate what else works. Until more research is done, we need to go with proven cleaning methods, don’t look for shortcuts. Foggers and other shortcut measures can give a false sense of security, and people will let down their guard, stop wearing masks, social distancing, etc.

Q: Do you see a permanent shift away from how we occupy facilities? Do you see more of a shift away from actually occupying buildings and moving to more of a remote work culture? Do you think facilities will shrink as a result?

A: From what I’ve heard and read, there are a lot more success stories from people working from home than had been anticipated. Work is getting done. It doesn’t mean that working from home is for everyone, or for every type of work, but it does mean that it can work, depending on the job. There will be a lot of people doing remote work research, and some has already been done. I do think there will be fewer workers occupying offices full time—many will work from home at least part of the week moving forward. The nature of meetings will also change; we won’t have 20 people in a conference room anymore, and some buildings may not even have those kinds of rooms any longer. There will be a lot of huge changes--I think there will be a definite paradigm shift. Facilities may shrink, or they may not—it’s still somewhat early to tell for certain. There will be fewer people in the office at the same time, fewer large conference rooms, more space between individuals, more equipment in the conference rooms than at present for communication purposes. Designers will be very busy. There will be opportunities to get ahead of the curve and take advantage of this. Designers need to build flexibility into the layouts so you can make adjustments as you need to; see what’s working and what’s not working. If you have rigid workstations, if it’s too rigid, then you’re stuck. Need to have what I like to call “structured flexibility.”

Q: Considering things like the "Six Feet Office" (Perkins and Will), is it too early to start reconfiguring and replanning, or will this all blow over in a year or so? Will we ever go back to the high-density open office workspaces we see now?

A: This is the million-dollar question. Six Feet Office is a good example of social distancing, which is great for this virus, but if we gain control over the virus, do we need to maintain social distancing? We don’t know how long it will take for a vaccine. Even if we gain control, we don’t know when it’s going to happen. What we do know right now, is that social distancing is a must until we gain control over the virus—we know it works. As we do more research, we will learn more about the virus, and we may end up with more guidelines, or potentially fewer guidelines. Each company needs to research for itself which tasks and which people work best from the office and which best from home and then need to come up with their own solution. A lot of things need to be tested—which tasks are best done at home vs. at the office? Which personalities work best at home vs. the office? What type of setup works best at home? My guess is that ¾ of the people working at home right now don’t have an ergonomic setup, or one that is distraction free. If this is to work semi-permanently we’ll need to get better setups at home. We will learn that social distancing isn’t a bad idea in general, we’ll be more productive in the office, and offices won’t be as full as they have been. We’ll learn that working at home is not a bad idea for some types of work and workers. We will save money in the long run (may be renting less space), although the decrease in density means more space per person, so that may negate the overall savings in real estate. We’ll also have to furnish our home offices, which is another expense to be considered. There’s a lot to think through.

Q: When allowing people to go back into facilities, should we also consider who of the population may be at highest risk? (older workers, people with medical conditions, etc.). How do we do that and still maintain the privacy of our staff?

A: At some point, you will need to consult with an attorney on this to get the official answer. A good employer will find a way to allow valuable employees to work remotely without telling everyone why they’re working from home. It’s fine for HR to have this information, but you certainly can’t ask something like that in a job interview, for example. Not everyone is going to go back at once, and some won’t go back at all. Some people who aren’t going back may be at-risk people, and some will not be. This will be different for every company.

Q: Should air quality testing be done in the facility prior to occupancy for things like molds, etc. that may have built up in the HVAC system during vacancy?

A: We know the virus can be transmitted through the air, and that the air needs to be changed more frequently than before and have a higher percentage of fresh air, and that we need to use HEPA filters with ideally a MERV 16 (at a minimum a MERV 13). There is not at this time a test for air quality for the virus. Air quality testing as part of Phase 1 should be done prior to occupancy to evaluate quality of air (molds, etc.) Measures outlined in Phase 1 of the eBook are critical to prepare the facility for occupancy, and that’s something you need to be doing now. ASHRAE has not yet identified any tests to check for the virus particles in the air; viruses are different than bacteria, and you treat and detect those differently. You can detect bacteria, but not viruses. Until someone else does come up with a solution, follow the guidelines in the eBook. There are several companies who are now doing research using bio-sensors for virus monitoring—one in Switzerland has been working on this technology even prior to COVID.

Q: As an example, we lease space in a multi-tenant building that is largely occupied by INOVA medical offices, and these offices have been screening sites for COVID symptoms since the beginning of the pandemic. What if the measures our building owner puts in place aren't (in our opinion) adequate for return to the office?

A: As long as the air from other offices is kept separate from your office and you don’t share any common space, you’re okay—but lobbies and elevators are an issue. The most dangerous place in a building is not the restroom—it’s the elevator because germs have nowhere to go. If the air between the suites is not separated, there could be an issue. Many medical office buildings don’t have separate air handlers. Air could be filtered and mixed with fresh air before it comes back to your suite, but all these measures depend on the configuration of each building and how the air is ducted, supplied, and returned. You also need to ensure that other tenants in the building have similar guidelines that they’re following. If all of those conditions are not met, you have a right to be concerned. You should speak with the landlord; depending on the answers you get, you may want to consider not using the facility until the concerns are alleviated. You may have to get an attorney involved if there are serious issues.

Q: A lot of the measures that are recommended are the same as ones put in place during the regular flu season (stay at home if you're sick, wash your hands, etc.), and people still come to work because they feel they have to. How can FMs and employers communicate to people the need to stay home and take those extra measures when they haven't in the past? 

A: A lot of people think of this virus as a typical flu, even though it isn’t. More people need to understand this. Because we have no vaccine, it’s much deadlier. There will have been twice as many deaths caused by the virus than the Vietnam War, and at the time, the war was highly protested. People are also protesting the stay-at-home orders and not taking it seriously. We need to communicate to those people in a better way than we are now. It’s not the same as the flu—more people are at risk. You’re wearing a mask and washing your hands not just to protect yourself, but to protect others who may be at greater risk. It needs to be given the respect it deserves, and caution needs to be the watchword. This can hurt the economy, but it’s not worth losing lives over. This is a message for society in general, as well. Every company needs to address this issue with its employees and communicate measures in place for extra sick leave. The company needs to set the tone for how it is going to respond, and this lies with leadership; the FMs need to communicate the guidelines, and leadership needs to enforce those guidelines.

Q: Why did you write this eBook?

A: I wrote this to get the point across that our buildings are important, and they’re often forgotten. The building has been left out of the equation on whether to open or not, and it needs to be a part of that equation. It’s not about following a checklist—it’s about creating a strategy on the best way to move forward safely. Safety needs to be the most important consideration.

Click here to access the eBook.

Now we want to hear from YOU! What are you doing to prepare your facilities for reopening? Share your insight with us, please comment below:

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