Best practices for a data-driven approach to office re-entry

What property owners and managers can do to ready their buildings for a new work environment

As cities and states across the country maneuver to re-open their economies amid the COVID-19 pandemic, office property owners and managers are grappling with the issue of readying their buildings for a new kind of work environment.

Weeks before Colorado’s stay-at-home orders were lifted to allow offices to re-open at reduced capacity, many building owners were planning a methodical and deliberate approach to support the re-entry process across their portfolio – including communication with tenants, enhanced cleaning efforts, common area reconfiguration, operational changes to building mechanical and HVAC, and egress and security protocols.

A new kind of office experience

When stay-at-home orders rolled out in mid-March, companies in traditional office settings had to adjust their operations overnight to allow for remote working. The transition was abrupt, but many businesses soon found a new rhythm.

While the majority of offices emptied out, buildings largely remained operational. Working with individual tenants, builder owners adapted ways to limit the use of energy consumption along with various other operating services to accommodate the drop in occupancy. This was done to ensure the asset was cared for and remained open for essential businesses.

As chatter began to circulate around the potential re-opening of offices at the end of April, the top priority for owners was clear: Keep tenants safe and help them feel as comfortable as possible coming back into the office.

Getting tenant feedback

As local and state governments issued re-opening guidelines for offices, each company still has to make their own informed decision about when and how to re-open. To best serve tenants, owners might consider conducting a portfolio-wide survey to get the pulse on what tenants were planning to do for their own re-entry plans.

Commercial real estate firm, Unico Properties, surveyed its portfolio and found that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The survey found that the percentage of employees expected to return to the office largely followed state and local restrictions. Nearly 55% of respondents said they would allow more employees to work from home, and 29% remained unsure.

The majority of respondents were planning to temporarily create a less dense environment, identifying staggered schedules and dispersed seating as the top two strategies. The verdict is still out on permanent density changes. While sentiments around personal protective equipment (PPE) varied, the majority said they will either encourage or require face masks in the office.

When it came to the role of landlords, respondents expressed strong interest in asset-wide protocols. 91% said they wanted increased cleaning and sanitation in common areas, 74% said they wanted increased cleaning and sanitation in tenant spaces, and 72% said they wanted increased fresh air and filtration of HVAC. An additional 71% of survey respondents said they’d like landlords to limit the number of passengers in elevators.

Responding to data-driven demands

Based on the data collected and analyzed from tenants, property managers and owners should, where they can, implement new policies to address their tenants’ concerns.

Before tenants return to their offices, send tenants detailed communications outlining the new protocols to help set tenant expectations. Managers and owners should focus on making the tenant experience as enjoyable and welcoming as possible, paying close attention to how new social distancing and precautionary signage would greet people as they entered the buildings and common areas.

Common area seating can be reconfigured to accommodate for social distancing or removed if necessary. Set up signage around elevators to outline queuing and limited ridership instructions. For larger assets, security guards should be trained to help tenants navigate the new guidance.

While tenants are not required to wear face coverings within their offices, in Denver and Boulder, they are required to wear them in common spaces per city guidelines. While many buildings were still cleaned during the shutdown, consider increasing the frequency of cleanings as buildings’ foot traffic also increases. Consider updating HVAC systems, where feasible, with MERV-13 filters, which can filter out particles that are smaller than one micron in size.

As tenants continue to increase their capacity in these buildings, owners and managers should plan to reevaluate the process and adjust as necessary following city and state guidelines. While it’s clear that one size does not fit all, making tenants as comfortable as possible is a shared goal that all owners can work to achieve.

Categories: Business Insights, COVID-19, Management & Leadership, Real Estate