Rebuilding Trust in the Built Environment

Building owners and managers are in an existential bind.

They have trillions of dollars invested in the built environment, yet many occupants are concerned about returning indoors (55% of U.S. adults are “very” or “somewhat” scared they will contract COVID-19).

While building owners and managers have always faced economic variations and seasonal fluctuations, the fear in this new normal is monstrously large and possibly long-lasting.

What if our built environment is no longer used because of occupants' pandemic fears? Click To Tweet

Occupants’ Legitimate Concerns

Occupants want to protect the health and safety of themselves, family, and friends while returning to work, worship, recreation, and school.

While essential workers haven’t had the opportunity of waiting to go back to work, non-essential workers (occupants) may be hoping for a quick arrival of vaccines to relieve their COVID-19 fears.

Unfortunately, vaccines will at best (at best) be 70-80% effective when they arrive, though the FDA only requires a vaccine to be 50% effective to be approved. And with development, production, and distribution, WHO believes there won’t be widespread vaccination until mid-2021 and the CDC believes the third quarter of 2021.

Add to this reality, the likelihood the pandemic will get worse before it gets better.

COVID-19 will remain dangerous for another 10-12 months and may become even more deadly in the short-term. Some health professionals fear COVID-19 infections will combine with seasonal flu to bring ever-higher death tolls this flu season.

COVID-19 alone, not seasonal flu, is projected to have caused nearly 400,000 deaths by January or February of 2021 (click the chart below to see the latest projections).

IHME Covid-19 Death map

The Pandemic is Personal

While many of us may not know someone who’s died or had their health wrecked by COVID-19 today, there’s a good chance by year’s end each of us will (a tragic version of the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon“).

As these personal experiences pile up, they will collectively scar public consciousness for years afterward.

Obsolescent Buildings

The New Normal “Fear” in the Built Environment: Obsolescent Buildings

In their new normal, building owners and managers could be facing an almost unfathomable number of obsolescent buildings.

While there are examples of buildings repurposed for new uses (e.g., shuttered malls into distribution centers for online retailers), they took years to morph into their new purpose and functions.

The pandemic fear driving building obsolescence will primarily hit office and non-essential buildings that cannot easily or quickly be repurposed.

The commercial real estate industry knows these changes are coming, and they will take time to adapt. Here’s one vision of that change: “How to Bring Older Office Buildings Back to Life Amid a Struggling Commercial Real Estate Market.”

Occupant Confidence is New Game

Occupant Trust & Confidence is the New Game

While waiting for trusted vaccines and safe therapeutics to relieve COVID-19 fears, building owners and managers must get occupants confidently back into buildings now.

The new game is to rebuild occupant trust and confidence within their indoor communities.

In the pre-pandemic past, building owners and managers built trust with occupants in limited interactions, primarily to attract and retain tenants, employees, shoppers, and/or students.

Today, building owners and managers are in a new version of the trust-building game – one where occupants ask:

“Am I safe inside?” — AND — “Can I trust my life on what you say?”

To answer these questions, building owners and managers need more and better ideas than in the past: ones that will gain broad uptake with their indoor communities, and establish deeper relationships with occupants.

Blueprint to Rebuild Trust

Blueprint for Rebuilding Trust in the Built Environment

Here are two pillars on which to rebuild trust in the built environment.

#1 Enlist Occupant Participation

Occupants must feel that everyone inside a building is complying with protective measures against COVID-19 — that they’re all in it together, which they literally are when inside.

And occupants are more likely to follow those protective measures if they’re involved in their development and deployment. Building owners and managers can collaborate with occupants to:

  • Develop building rules for COVID-19 protective measures & corrective actions for non-compliance — rules based on CDC & local health professionals’ guidance — yet currently, most direction is coming unilaterally from building owners & managers
  • Design awareness communications & remain ongoing content contributors
  • Visibly reinforce protective measures & recognize successes

Enlisting occupant participation is a more acceptable alternative for building owners and managers than to enforce rules with punitive measures, which is difficult when occupants are considered “customers.”

Collaborative Teams

#1.1 Create/Expand Site-Based Collaboration Teams

If building owners and managers don’t already have cross-functional site teams to address COVID-19 protective measures — they should form them. And include and/or add participants to the team from:

  • Occupant influencers (like on social media except these are in the building)
  • High-profile onsite service members (the friendly Security Officer, Building Engineer, or Day Janitor)
  • Random occupants & onsite service team members (rotate for fresh new faces)
  • Building manager representatives (including administrative staff)

Team Identity

#1.2 Brand Teams with Name & Identity

Obviously, no one asked for COVID-19, and protecting against it is not fun or enjoyable.

However, our response to this pandemic defines who we are. And since protective measures are our new normal, what about bringing a little joy back to indoor communities?

After forming a site-based, collaborative team, articulate its purpose and state its goals, which could include:

  • Rebuild occupant trust indoors
  • Optimize compliance with COVID-19 protective measures
  • Raise awareness & maintain participation in protective measures
  • Contribute to occupant productivity & creativity above pre-pandemic levels
  • Increase occupancy volumes via a healthy & safe indoor community

For team cohesiveness and momentum, have a little fun: create a team name and identity.

For example, have the team name itself, such as the “Columbia Tower Healthy Hack Team,” or “Healthy Hackers” for short. Create a logo for printed and digital use so team members can identify themselves to fellow occupants, maybe even a humorous face mask for the team.


#1.3 The Seriousness of Fun against COVID-19

There’s a long-term goal for building owners and managers here that justifies what may be considered trivial or light-hearted in #1.2 above. The goal is now:

Building owners and managers must help occupants transform protective measures into normal behaviors for collective health. Click To Tweet

Also, defining and deploying “protective measures” against COVID-19 will always bring out the rebel in some occupants, who will invariably push back against healthy behaviors that protect the larger community.

And since it only takes one spreader to infect many others indoors, why not strive to bring humor and lighten up the grim business at hand?

Of course, there will/should be corrective actions for occupants who don’t follow the indoor protective measures. But rule enforcement is never as much fun as making a game out of behavior modification.

Reinforce Health New Normal Behaviors

#2 Reinforce Healthy “New Normal” Behaviors

It’s common sense to reinforce the CDC’s guidance to protect oneself and others yet these protective measures are not universally followed.

And if “protective measures” don’t become the “new normal” behaviors, occupants will face the inevitable surge of infections and illness — and that brings more misery and lockdowns for everyone: employees, congregants, students, sports fans, and shoppers alike.

Over Communicate

#2.1 Over Communicate – Especially the Unseen

There are noticeable efforts building owners and managers have/will/can take to allay occupants’ fears. But all the actions in the world won’t matter to occupants if they’re not aware of them.

So, besides the visible mask-wearing, plexiglass sneeze barriers, one-way directional paths, and four-square elevator limits, building owners and managers must communicate more.

They must over-communicate with occupants about the protection efforts that occur behind the scenes, which can include:

  • Disinfection & deep cleanings done after business hours
  • Surface bioburden (ATP) testing programs & their results
  • Indoor Air Quality enhancements; more outdoor air, humidification, bipolar ionization, UVC disinfection, etc.

There are plenty of onsite communication channels to get the message out and keep it on the forefront, such as:

  • Common-area communications; digital signage, posters, floor banners, decals, etc.
  • Socially-distanced lobby “meet & greets” (different from pre-pandemic but can work with a little tweaking)
  • Socially-distanced site-based townhalls and/or video conferenced versions
  • Email distribution lists to key occupants
  • Site-specific web site & opt-in email newsletter

Communication and interaction with occupants have always been part of the job description for building owners and managers. That need has increased tenfold in the pandemic, so new and old communications must reinforce positive behaviors and correct negative ones. Communication cadence must be:

  • Continuous — to combat willful non-compliance & ordinary forgetfulness
  • Frequent —to vary communication channels & interactions to keep awareness
  • Regular — to fight the fatigue that wears down diligence & can easily spread more infection


#2.2 Gamification to Boost Engagement

Gamification is a tool/platform that applies game mechanics to non-game contexts in order to boost engagement and successful end-results.

The idea of gamification may be a heavy lift for building owners and managers because it’s new and different. It will be hard but then again what’s easy about this pandemic?

Building owners and managers can use gamification in their efforts to increase occupant compliance with healthy “new normal” behaviors and to maintain their continued participation.

Whether it’s taking voluntary awareness training or contributing to communications, building owners and managers can do their best to make healthy “new normal” behaviors enjoyable, and maybe fun.

The teams mentioned above in #1.1 Create/Expand Site-Based Collaboration Teams are a great place to start a plan using gamification. Teams will provide a diversity of ideas, ownership, design, and insight coming from those who have to live with the consequences.

Gamification for occupants will take a measure of creativity to flesh out analog methods to add to already established digital software. Elements of gamification include:

  • Badges
  • Leaderboards
  • Points or purchase-based rewards
  • Social interactions & sharing
  •  Story & choose-your-own-adventure plots

Gamification for occupants will be the new frontier to deepen occupant connection with their building environment, and building owners and managers are first in line to tackle this evolution of indoor behaviors.

Summary Rebuilding Trust in Built Environment


  • Building owners & managers are in a tight spot with trillions invested in the built environment – they need occupants occupying their buildings
  • Occupants are legitimately scared of returning indoors as COVID-19 & seasonal flu are likely to make this flu season deadlier than ever –
  • Since wide-spread vaccines are 12-18 months away it’s time to gear up & step up for the marathon

Novel times call for a novel approach. Here’s a two-pillar blueprint to rebuild trust in the built environment:

#1. Enlist Occupant Participation to Rebuild Confidence Indoors

  • #1.1 Create/Expand Site-Based Collaboration Teams
  • #1.2 Brand Teams with Name & Identity
  • #1.3 The Seriousness of Fun against COVID-19

#2 Reinforce Healthy “New Normal” Behaviors

  • #2.1 Over Communicate – Especially the Unseen
  • #2.2 Gamification to Boost Engagement

“Rebuilding Trust in the Built Environment” was first published on LinkedIn.

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