Rebuilding Trust in the Built Environment for 2022

The pandemic continues to baffle building owners and managers into 2022.

After two years, pandemic fatigue has set in for building owners and managers, their occupants, contractors, and suppliers — yet COVID-19 is still here, and it’s been worse than expected.

US deaths are over 800,000 with projections reaching 1 million deaths by March of 2022 — with hospitalizations and ICU capacity spiking back up as they did in January and September of 2021.

But there’s good news on the health front

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Getting office workers back into buildings is a return to normalcy

As we move from pandemic to endemic, COVID-19 will remain a disease we live with but protect against.

As the true new normal, this makes getting office workers back into buildings a priority for the economy and businesses in 2022.

But conflicting information makes it confusing to know how to do that.

Media news and business surveys show confusing pictures of which office workers will return, when, and how often they will be in their buildings. Scenarios vary by the Good, the Bad, and the Maybe. Examples include:

The Good

The recent Cushman & Wakefield (C&W) office report of December 2021 shows approximately 40% of all global office workers have returned to the office in SEP 2021 — they expect most office workers globally will be able to return to the office in Q1 2022.

The Bad

Aviation and global tourism are expected to remain down for some time still (both feed into office building occupancy through B2B support services and marketing):

The Maybe

A number of large employers have:

  • Adopted a hybrid model (days in office plus days working from home)
  • Delayed return-to-work dates
  • Made office attendance voluntary

Add to the above trends the repurposing of closed malls and decommissioned office campuses into distribution centers, and Class C office buildings into residential — what does it all mean?

  • Do millions of square feet of office space lose value or become obsolete?
  • What if businesses shrunk their office square footage in 2022 — then in 2023 employees want to return to office buildings? How will businesses quickly reacquire and build out the needed space?

Image by JayMantri from Pixabay

Office Building Occupancy is in a No-Man’s Land

“What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. —T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” Click To Tweet

The “end” building owners and managers look for will occur when COVID-19 becomes an endemic, a disease we live with but protect against.

Until then, they, like their contractors and suppliers, are in a no man’s land. With no definitive answers, no certainty, and no clarity of when the COVID pandemic ends, and the new normal begins.

How could building owners and managers regain occupancy?

Here are a group of ideas that could help building owners and managers, as well as their contractors and suppliers make it to a new beginning. And while not all of these ideas are groundbreaking, what better time to try them than now?

1) Communicate with stakeholders that near-term certainty is a moving horizon, a mirage

When communicating with employees, tenants, staff, contractors, and suppliers, consistently remind all that new information is part of the vaccinated learning to live with COVID-19.

New information, like the identification of new variants can cause momentary confusion, even panic. But this is to be expected.

Now is the time to Keep Calm and Carry On.

Until the next variant arrives, and science develops new vaccines, or new protective measures, or finds we’re already safe with the current ones.

This has been the pattern after vaccinations first came on the scene, then boosters. The new vaccinated/boosted normal greatly minimizes severe illness or death, first with Alpha, then Delta, and now, hopefully Omicron.

2) Align actions to words organizationally

If businesses say they care about employees and tenants’ health, then spend the money on things that have influence.

Consider expanding PTO (paid time off) for contractors’ staff as well as employees to minimize “presenteeism,” including care for family members (spouses, children, partners, and elderly relatives).

Continue remodeling and upgrading co-working and common areas for health concerns:

  • Upgrade HVAC air flows & add UV-C disinfection (air & light)
  • Hands-free technologies (building access, reservations for co-working spaces/conference rooms, virtual concierge, etc.)
  • Visual cues of cleanliness (digital signage & time-based physical signs)

3) Define “purpose” as part of a property’s identity

For leased properties, building owners and managers can’t help tenants create their purpose — but the building can have its own identity that does have a purpose (beyond leasing brands).

Consider a major commitment that is highly visible and ongoing (the following are not mutually exclusive):

  • Living Wage For US to overcome barriers and create incentives for employers to pay living wages
  • Sustainability / LEED / WELL / Zero Waste
  • Internships, mentorships, and hiring from underutilized communities, such as persons with disabilities, veterans, people without housing, vocational education, etc.
  • Becoming a primary supporter of a local charity, i.e., hosting events, donations, sponsorships, etc.

4) Make office buildings destinations for more than just office space

The employee/tenant experience is the new differentiator. Rather than merely adding perks or amenities, give office workers a reason to come into the office, more than because they have to. Consider events that have broad appeal, such as:

  • Cloud kitchens (aka ghost kitchens) for delivery-only options placed on-site in unused/underused spaces, e.g., parking structures, along reclaimed sidewalks, etc.
  • Brown-bag educational seminars hosted by the building and sponsored by contractors or suppliers
  • Motivational speakers and/or talks on local happenings, e.g., Chamber of Commerce on nearby developments, Boys and Girls clubs on involvement, etc.
  • Entertainment, e.g., music recitals, comedians (careful here, yes?), etc.
  • Training sessions, e.g., “hands-only CPR,” First Aid certifications, community preparedness, etc.

5) Innovation time – Sprint in Scrum

Take advantage of lower office worker volumes to experiment with tenant services, operations, and maintenance. These areas have long been a focus area for improvement but during normal occupancy it can be difficult to make changes without disrupting office workers in the buildings.

In the near-term, building owners and managers may have vacant space and unwanted free time. Consider taking a page from the Agile project management playbook.

Try a sprint in Scrum.

A Scrum is an iterative approach to project management, which means it’s designed to deliver small things rapidly.

A sprint (an iteration that lasts a couple of weeks) is a short period of time wherein a development team works to complete specific tasks, milestones, or deliverables. Multiple sprints in a Scrum break a project into digestible blocks of time in which smaller goals can be done.

Why not experiment for the eventual return to occupancy?

6) Ideas from the 2020 version of “Rebuilding Trust in the Built Environment”

In this first article, “Rebuilding Trust in the Built Environment,“ several ideas remain valid today though the timing may have been overly optimistic — still they may be worth a read:

#1. Enlist Occupant Participation to Rebuild Confidence Indoors

  • Create/Expand Site-Based Collaboration Teams
  • Brand Teams with Name & Identity

#2 Reinforce Healthy “New Normal” Behaviors

  • Over Communicate – Especially the Unseen
  • Gamification to Boost Engagement

Summary

Office building occupancy is in a no man’s land where it is unclear how many office workers will return to their buildings, when they will, and how often they will attend.

News media and industry surveys tell different stories that make it hard for building owners and managers to know how to fill their buildings and return to normalcy.

The road to occupancy is dependent on rebuilding office workers and employers’ trust in the built environment. And it’s become more difficult as pandemic fatigue set in over two years and new COVID-19 variants still emerge.

The inexpensive and easier solutions to rebuild trust have been tried in 2021, unfortunately leaving the heavier and more expensive work to come in 2022. This article provides six areas to explore:

  1. Communicate with stakeholders that near-term certainty is a moving horizon, a mirage
  2. Align actions to words organizationally
  3. Define “purpose” as part of a property’s identity
  4. Make office buildings destinations for more than just office space
  5. Innovation time – Sprint in Scrum
  6. Ideas from the 2020 version of “Rebuilding Trust in the Built Environment”

Rebuilding Trust in the Built Environment for 2022” was first published on LinkedIn.

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