Re-opening buildings as cities come back to life

Re-opening buildings to employees takes careful planning and ongoing risk management

May 13, 2020

As European countries turn their attention to easing coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdowns, offices temporarily shut during the pandemic are implementing plans to welcome back staff.

Even with a staggered return to office life, facilities management teams running currently empty buildings need time to prepare both public and behind-the-scenes spaces for the ‘new normal’ of the coming months.

“Companies are looking at how many weeks they would need to be able to get ready to welcome back staff,” says Mark Kirby, head of private sector contracts at JLL’s Integral business.

“There’s a desire to get back to some sense of normality – but not without absolutely guaranteeing the wellbeing of staff. That’s the number one priority for all companies.”

Focusing on office hygiene

Throughout current coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdowns, facilities managers and landlords have been working to ensure Europe’s empty buildings can re-open as quickly as possible once they have the green light to do so.

This has largely involved ongoing maintenance to keep building systems such as ventilation and lighting running smoothly – albeit on a much-reduced scale to normal. With people set to return in the coming weeks and months, the focus will now shift to ensuring high levels of hygiene through enhanced cleaning and implementing post-pandemic workplace guidelines such as regular handwashing and new ways to use communal equipment.

“Decontamination will be an ongoing challenge,” Kirby says. “Cleaning will need to be both preventative and reactive, meaning more teams may be needed to keep levels of hygiene throughout the working day.”

Any new measures will need to be operational – and tested – before employees return to the office. “That starts at the front door of any building where personal temperature screening measures may, if government stipulates, be put in place,” says Kirby. “Issues such as indoor air quality and ventilation may also come into consideration although the focus is on contamination through contact.”

With physical distancing measures set to remain in place for months to come, offices could need to be reconfigured to accommodate even 30 percent occupancy.

“Space planning, specifically seating at office desks, can hopefully be organised fairly efficiently,” Kirby says. “But an increase in sneeze screens and signage – like we are seeing in shops – could be required as occupancy levels rise.”

People may also need to rethink old workplace habits such as jumping in the lift to go down a floor. Stairs could be more widely used with hand sanitiser stations at entry points where doors aren’t contactless. Workplaces may equally need one-way systems to manage the flow of people going to meetings or communal areas.

The changing role of onsite teams

Facilities management rotas have already been fine-tuned, particularly in large cities with heavily-used transport networks, to minimise contact with other key workers.

“You need a watchful eye on employee safety. A sensible way to achieve that is through rescheduling of shift patterns,” says Phil Byrne, head of public sector contracts at JLL’s Integral business. “That may mean earlier or later starts to avoid rush-hour peaks or weekend and night-shifts.”

As buildings launch plans for re-opening, landlords and facilities management teams will also need to rethink their existing maintenance schedules.

“Works that may have been put on hold, such as annual checks or desired upgrades, may be carried out in the coming weeks before re-entry,” says Byrne. “That comes alongside budget planning of course, with cost an important factor for all companies at present, bringing, for example, energy spend into focus.”

Plus, it’s not just COVID-19 that’s top of mind. For many buildings it’s the first time they’ve been under-occupied for prolonged periods of time with an unprecedented decline in water use. Health experts are warning that the lack of chlorinated water flowing through pipes and temperature changes raises the risk for Legionnaire’s disease. Equally, fire alarm systems could have last been tested months ago.

“Such risks can be managed with proper planning to ensure that company employees and building facilities management teams are kept as safe as possible,” says Byrne. “That’s what will be at the heart of all decision-making in this new normal we’re entering into.”