This pandemic, without a doubt, will leave indelible effects across all types of businesses. After more than four weeks of working at home, social distancing, and other measures, a glimpse of light is slowly emerging at the end of the tunnel, and people are pondering what returning to work will look like. Will it be safe? Will social distancing be a part of the office environment? How will that work? The variables are all up in the air, but once we are given the green light, how comfortable will employees feel about returning to work? What changes will be made to office space to address employees’ concerns? This experience may transform how we live and work for years to come.
Apprehension is likely to be high for many at the beginning, but for the most part, people are longing to get back to work, back to their routines, back to “normal.” Adjustment to a post COVID-19 environment may, in some ways, be similar to how we adjusted after 9/11. The fear of flying eventually subsided, but how we board an airplane forever changed. Employers will have to address coronavirus fears by providing a clean, safe work environment.
Life will resume with a new sense of normalcy as we adapt to a “don’t-get-sick lifestyle.” This will include an ongoing form of social distancing, wearing gloves and masks and persistent handwashing. While companies cannot guarantee the health and safety of their employees, supporting a don’t get sick lifestyle, and in keeping with many company’s commitments to employee wellness, will help to ease trepidation.
We are starting to hear government officials cautiously make statements of getting the American people back to work. The process will likely be in waves to ensure public safety while trying to restore the economy. It could also mean flexible work hours combined with others still working at home. In Houston, targeted re-openings of businesses, schools and churches may begin in the next couple of weeks as the curve continues to flatten. It will be a delicate balancing act but a necessary one to avoid further damage to our economy. In the last few weeks, up to 200,000 people in the Houston area have filed for unemployment, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. An interactive analysis we recently released explores the impact of COVID-19 on state unemployment in comparison to past crises if you want to see state-level data.
Companies will hyper focus on the health and well-being of their employees as they shift from home to the office. Setting realistic expectations of a healthy work environment will be key to transitions. The setup will be unique to each industry and how they operate but maintaining productivity with a healthy workforce is the common goal. A healthy employee is a productive employee.
Implementation Offices do not need to be transformed into sterile hospital-like environments but implementing small changes can make a big difference. It will likely involve steps by landlords such as intensive routine cleaning with technology upgrades. Tenants, as a response to social distancing in the workplace, may continue with work from home technology and flex schedules. Another consideration for tenants is to create less density in a floorplan (less people per square foot) which is the reverse of long-term trend of what has been to increase density.
In the long term, we could see landlords adopt healthy building features by endeavoring to provide a touchless environment throughout a building, including elevators, exit and entry doors, parking garages, and bathrooms. Improvements to ventilation systems and upgraded cleaning policies are also possibilities. Specific changes to public use bathrooms could also include touchless sanitizing dispensers, auto-flush toilets with ultra-violet auto clean, hands-free sinks, soap dispensers, hand dryers and toilet paper and paper towel dispensers. Distancing measures that buildings may also consider include limiting the number of passengers on elevators and escalators, and perhaps sensible distancing recommendations for tenant common areas. The challenge for building owners will be evaluating tenant demand for having a clean building and implementing a building strategy to meet those demands.
I believe there is light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. The conversations of how to get people back to work in a healthy way are happening at many levels within society. Ultimately, it will require governments to set standards, businesses to enact protocols and individuals to take personal accountability for their own health.
Rand Stephens is a Principal of Avison Young and Managing Director of the company’s Houston office.
The content provided herein is not intended as investment, tax, financial or legal advice and should not be relied on as such. While information in the article is current as of the date written, the views expressed herein are subject to change and may not reflect the latest opinion of Avison Young. The spread of COVID-19 and the containment policies being introduced are changing rapidly. Like all of you, Avison Young relies on government and related sources for information on the COVID-19 outbreak, such as the World Health Organization, Government of Canada, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UK Government, and Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Case Tracker.