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Lessons Learned (So Far): More Tips From the Facility Experts on the Front Lines

On May 14, Women in Facilities Management (WIFM) hosted the second part of its “Best Practices from the Front Lines: Decisions for Today and Tomorrow During COVID-19” webinar series. The panel of facility management experts returned to share what they have learned so far and what they are doing now to ready their facilities for re-entry. 

APEX Surface Care President/CEO Thomas Holland once again facilitated the event. “Information is flowing very quickly. Things are changing very quickly, and all planning has really become very tactical as it relates to building re-opening,” Holland said. “However, it’s important facility managers understand that many of the decisions they are making today can have a lasting impact on the surfaces in their facility and, more importantly, on the health and well-being of their building occupants.”

Throughout the webinar, the panelists discussed the results of the decisions they made 30 days ago, where they are today, and how they plan to move forward as they prepare for re-entry. Here are a few of the things they have learned.

It’s Hard to Prepare. Do It Anyway.

It’s become a cliché: We’re navigating uncharted waters. But that doesn’t mean facility managers can’t set their own course and start preparing to the best of their ability.

“I think probably the best thing that we did way back in the beginning of March right before everything really, really hit the fan was we went ahead and ordered hand sanitizer and desk wipes even though we still had some in stock,” said Aimee Janousek, CFM, FMP, facilities director at Visa and WIFM president. “Some people I’ve spoken with in the industry are having trouble sourcing that, but we are in a position right now that we don’t need to.”

Maria O’Callaghan-Cassidy, CMF, SFP, senior director of operations at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and vice president of WIFM, said bringing together stakeholders and partners early on helped everyone think through the situation.

One thing that really helped us is we identified early in March who were the key people who needed to come into the building, who were the key stakeholders, who were our key partners. It was a very specialized discussion. We did some scenario drills around a table when we could actually meet in a room together,” O’Callaghan-Cassidy said. “And we identified key individuals who became our ongoing partners, sometimes in daily conference calls, to help us prepare. Those conversations still take place, if not on a daily basis, then on a weekly basis.”

When It Comes to Cleanliness, Appearance Matters. Especially in the Bathroom.

Employees who have been working from home for the last few weeks or months have felt relatively safe. Facility managers must ensure they feel safe at work, too. That means making sure the facility is—and looks—as clean and sanitary as possible.

“Employees are heading out into an unknown world. And one of the things that they will gauge the sanitation of a building by is the restrooms,” said infection prevention consultant Darrel Hicks, MESRE, CHESP. “If the restrooms are unkempt and obviously a sanitary problem, then why would they believe the office space where they’re working eight hours a day is sanitary and sanitized? We need to focus on keeping those restrooms policed and keeping the trash off the floor and making them appear to be well taken care of.”

“Your cleaning has now changed. Your cleaning isn’t just disinfecting on certain days on certain surfaces and then doing a bunch of policing and cleaning,” said O’Callaghan-Cassidy. “You’re really going to have to disinfect those high-touch areas.”

In addition to implementing new, more thorough cleaning and disinfecting regimens, many facility managers are looking at other ways to prevent the spread of disease-causing germs.

“We want everyone to feel safe, but more importantly we want them to be safe when they get back into the building,” said Brett Seibel, engineering manager with the Denver Broncos. “Right now we’re replacing every faucet in the building to touchless. We’re replacing every soap dispenser, every hand sanitizer and paper towel dispenser to touchless. We want everything touchless in the bathrooms.”

Consider All the Possible Scenarios. Then Consider Them Again.

If there was one thing all the panelists agreed on, it was that the workplace is going to look very different for the foreseeable future. But what exactly does that mean? What’s the biggest unknown right now?

“One is the consistency of the supply chain,” said Jared Call, senior workplace services leader with Intuit. “The last thing we want to do is make a determination that we’re going to open based on supplies we have in hand and kind of a hope of supplies being there in the future and then have to close because we ran out of disinfectant or toilet paper or something like that. Nobody really seems to know exactly where that supply chain is at.”

“For me, it’s the social covenant around wearing masks,” said Hal Brownstone, RPA, LEED-AP, senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle. “The general philosophy has been that you wear a mask to protect others, not necessarily to protect yourself. Walking around without a mask on is kind of akin to walking around with a loaded gun. The bullet’s fired, and you just don’t know where it’s going to land until three weeks later. Also, most people don’t like masks because they’re uncomfortable and hot, so what do I need to do to the building HVAC systems to counteract that for tenant comfort? One thing affects another, which affects another, which affects another. That’s my biggest concern.”

Reconfigure, Rearrange and Remove.

All the panelists were taking a close look at the configuration of their facilities and how they can make the best use of their space. While it’s important to encourage employees and tenants to take responsibility for their own health, facility managers should try to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.

“Early on, it’s not like you will have all of your common areas open. You’ll probably close down committee conference rooms, cafes, things of that nature,” said Sandy Heistand, senior director of GWS and real estate at Dolby Laboratories. “You should create as many touchless components as possible. Going back to masks, make sure that while people are moving about they are practicing their own precautions. Sanitizing stations are also really important.”

“We took all the tables and chairs out of all of the small collaboration rooms,” said Susan Boyle, regional facilities manager at Vroom. “We took out the appropriate amount for spacing in the boardrooms and in the large conference rooms. The coffee areas, we did the same thing, we took the tables and chairs away. We didn’t even leave the option to have the tables there and let people self-distance.”

Don’t Just Communicate. Overcommunicate.

As employees return to the office, they will feel a mixture of emotions, including anxiety. One of the best things facility managers can do right now is explain what actions have been taken to ensure the workplace is safe and what actions will be taken to ensure it stays that way.

“Communicate to your staff what you’ve been doing to make the area safe when they get back to work, whether it’s through a nice little goody basket with sanitizer and a notecard that says, ‘Hey, since you’ve been gone, here’s what we’ve done,’ or an email blast,” said Seibel.

“What happens if you have someone who calls in sick and they have a temperature and they are going to be tested? What is your housekeeping company’s plan for disinfecting the area so that it doesn't impact the continuity of your business?” Hicks said. “You don't want to start and then shut down because someone or their husband is sick and it turns out that they were possibly exposed to COVID-19. You need to plan and then communicate with employees what the plan is in case that event happens.”

While overcommunicating is good, overpromising is not, Janousek noted.

“Make sure that the communications are going to be in line with what you can actually do. Don’t allow leadership to overpromise things that you are not going to be able to implement,” she said. “And make sure employees know what to expect. They’re going to be coming back to something completely different, and you want to make sure that they’re comfortable coming back.”

Ultimately, it comes down to doing as much as you can now to prepare for an unknown future.

“Be proactive instead of reactive. Understand what you can control, and then define the things that you can’t control because things are going to come up that you probably didn’t think about,” O’Callaghan-Cassidy said. “You’re going to need to be all-hands-on-deck for the re-entry because it’s something that we just haven’t experienced before.”

For more tips, including how to choose the right disinfectant, install wayfinding signage and encourage social distancing, watch the full webinar.