Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic swept over America and compelled workers to flee their offices for the isolated security of their own homes, commercial real estate leaders have found themselves struggling to answer a single question:
How do we make employees feel safe in corporate settings again?
In a time when social distancing is a necessity, and the risk of disease transmission in the close confines of an office is both real and pressing, it’s a difficult question to answer. However, some organizations have already taken strides towards a solution.
In early June, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) rolled out a new “Health Safety Rating” that will help building owners certify that their business spaces are designed and run in a way that minimizes the likelihood of infection spread among occupants. This rating can be applied to various commercial real estate types, including offices, restaurants, hotels, retail shops, and more.
However, certification isn’t all that easy to obtain. According to press comments shared by IWBI’s president, Rachel Gutter, commercial real estate providers must document their sanitation procedures, waste disposal practices, and water quality protocols in exhaustive detail. IWBI assessors will also consider if commercial tenants have a culture that encourages sick employees to go — and stay — home.
The idea underpinning the IWBI’s new certification is that if pandemic-shy employees and consumers know that a business space is certified as having a high “Health Safety” rating, they may feel more comfortable with the idea of spending time there.
It is worth noting that the IWBI isn’t the first to offer certification as reassurance. Their rating follows the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) design to add health and social distancing standards to its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification.
Before the pandemic, LEED offered several certification levels based on a property’s adherence to sustainability best practices, with the idea that the more practices the owner followed, the more “credits” they would receive, and the higher their certification would be. The organization’s new measures build on the organization’s preexisting point system by offering four new “Safety First Pilot Credits” that specifically address COVID-19 preparedness.
As the organization described in its press materials, “[These] credits outline sustainable best practices that align with public health and industry guidelines related to cleaning and disinfecting, workplace re-occupancy, HVAC and plumbing operations.”
To obtain these new credits, commercial property owners must, among other requirements:
- Develop a re-entry plan and establish a means to measure progress after occupants return to the space.
- Implement cleaning policies and training protocols that create a healthy indoor environment, uphold worker safety, and adhere to established best green cleaning practices.
- Create and execute a water management plan to ensure high water quality and address the health issues posed by any stagnant water that may have resulted from long-term business closures.
- Ensure that indoor air quality systems are functioning well and, if necessary, alter ventilation to limit the spread of COVID-19 through the air.
There’s little doubt that any one of these credits, let alone all four, will demand considerable time and resource investment from commercial real estate providers. However, establishing some certification of safety is critical to the recovery of the CRE sector.
According to a recent Citrix survey, 77 percent of surveyed workers claimed that if no measures were taken to protect occupants against COVID-19 spread in the office, they would either work from home permanently until the situation changed or go to the office only for specific purposes.
The same study also noted the steps that employees wanted taken. Researchers found that over a third of employees wanted regularly documented deep cleaning procedures, 32 percent wanted floor markings that would direct and enforce social distancing, 31 percent wanted employers to use thermal cameras to check worker temperatures upon entry. A full 42 percent asked for hand sanitizer to be available throughout the office space.
Many employers seem willing to take such measures. As Tracy Wymer, a VP at the design firm Knoll, recently commented, “We can’t ask employees to come back to the same office. Companies feel we have to address the root fear.”
IWBI and USGBC have provided a formal means for companies to do so. However, it is worth noting that many corporate real estate providers have already taken informal steps to protect employees. According to recent reporting from the New York Times, common corporate redesigns include building plastic partitions around desks, eschewing conference rooms in favor of outdoor gathering spaces, and building with germ-unfriendly materials like copper.
However, it is crucial for commercial real estate providers, employers, and workers to recognize that even the most well-implemented measures can’t fully insulate a space from COVID-19. Measures like IWBI’s Health Safety Rating and USGBC’s Safety First Credits can improve safety, bolster confidence, and reassure employees — but neither poses a perfect solution.
As Dr. Rajneesh Behal, an internal medicine physician and the chief quality officer of One Medical, recently shared in a webinar on business reopening, “Do not expect your risk goes down to zero.”
Battling COVID-19 and ushering workers back into (physical) workspaces will be a long-term endeavor. While health certifications will be an invaluable tool in the struggle, commercial real estate providers should be prepared to strap in for the long haul.