Over the past 14 months, we have all spent a great deal of time learning how to navigate life during a pandemic. For those of us who manage commercial real estate, our focus has been on taking the time to learn about COVID-19, how to mitigate its impact in the workplace and what building owners and tenants should do to prepare for bringing employees back to the office.
At NAI Hiffman, one of the largest third-party property management firms in the Chicago suburbs and beyond, here is how we helped to ensure a safe and healthy return to the workplace.
Our current guiding principles for a safe return
While assisting our owners and tenants, we followed three main principles:
• Air is where it's at. Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially focused on disinfecting high-touch areas, since March 2021 it has emphasized that the virus is transmitted through droplets and aerosols, putting the focus on air filtration and air quality. While this was always an area of focus, we believe going forward a commitment to systems and designs that result in excellent air quality will be a top office amenity.
• One size does not fit all. From physical barriers like partitions to air filtration, solutions are unique to each building and often require expert input. We recognized this early and recommended each property have its mechanical systems reviewed by a licensed mechanical engineer for updated technologies, creating system enhancements or modifications specific to the building's equipment and occupant use.
In one example, a client had two highly amenitized multi-tenant buildings, each about 240,000 square feet. Working with the owner and mechanical engineers, we suggested the addition of ion generators (bipolar ionization) because of their cost efficiency, ease of installation with these buildings' systems and scientifically proven effectiveness. Introducing positive ions into the air stream can reduce viruses, bacteria, mold, allergens, dust, odors and VOCs.
• Communication is key. When it comes to navigating evolving COVID-19 restrictions and preparing buildings for increased occupancy, you cannot over-communicate. Employees have myriad concerns about returning to the office, requiring human resource departments and business owners to review, discuss and be able to explain what improvements and steps have been taken at the property to ease the concerns of employees. We continuously communicate with our owners and tenants, not just through notices but also on individualized calls, allowing each to address specific questions and concerns. Communication is crucial to excellent property management.
Guidance from WELL Health-Safety Rating and ASHRAE
Our team also researched third-party facility certifications so owners and tenants could highlight their commitment to building health and safety. After researching several programs, we recommended the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) WELL Health-Safety Rating due to its focus on overall building health and well-being.
Introduced in June 2020, WELL Health-Safety is based on IWBI's WELL certification for healthy buildings with additional input for COVID-19 from hundreds of virologists, epidemiologists and other experts. Buildings submit information in 15 of 22 areas under five categories:
1. Cleaning and sanitation
2. Emergency preparedness
3. Health service resources
4. Air and water quality management
5. Stakeholder engagement and communication.
While there is a cost for businesses to apply, the WELL Health-Safety Rating is an affordable, achievable metric to help management teams ensure they are taking all steps possible to keep their building, tenants and visitors safe.
We also recommend all building engineers review the update to standards set by ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers), a professional association focusing on HVAC and refrigeration systems design and construction. While it does not offer certifications or endorse specific systems to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, ASHRAE does recommend operating procedures for commercial properties. These include increasing building HVAC run times and outside air intake during occupied hours, weather permitting, as well as increasing MERV ratings for filters -- the higher the rating, the more filtered the air.
As state and federal restrictions lift, we're seeing an increase in tenant populations and employers moving up their return-to-office dates. We anticipate most employers will want their workforce back in the office full- or part-time in the coming months. Our property management team will continue to work proactively with office property owners and tenants by reviewing the latest recommendations and new technologies that will help employees feel confident about returning to the office.
• Carrie Szarzynski is director of management services at NAI Hiffman.