Recalibrating for COVID-19: Protecting Occupant Health, Safety and Wellbeing

2020 marked the start of a new decade, bringing with it a variety of crises that dramatically impact human health, safety and wellbeing. In addition to a number of natural disasters and humanitarian crises around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc as communities scramble to control the spread of the virus and respond to unprecedented challenges such as the social upheaval of stay-at-home orders and the resulting economic recession. The pandemic coincided with riots and protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement that drew thousands to the streets throughout the country and in cities around the world, marking the largest social movement in the history of the United States.  

As a result of these crises, interconnected and holistic environmental, social and governance (ESG) efforts that emphasize social and governance issues are now of greater importance to building owners and managers and their stakeholders. Organizations are being called to both improve their relationship with the environment and protect the health and wellness of their employees and customers, forcing a recalibration to care for E, S, and G comprehensively. 

Placing Health and Safety in the Forefront 

While the environmental aspects of ESG have traditionally taken center stage, the S and G are now entering the limelight as health is a top priority in the midst of the pandemic. As explained by the International WELL Building Institute, health is a critical element of ESG: “The COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impact has placed a spotlight on the links between population health and the economy. Once considered the invisible H in ESG reporting, health now is the pivotal piece that underpins all of ESG, and it will play a key role in how companies and shareholders assess where to invest in the years to come.” 

With health squarely in the center of attention throughout the pandemic, there has never been a more crucial time for building owners and operators to implement new health and safety measures as cities work to survive the pandemic and eventually return to a new normal. Thoughtfully planned re-entry strategies are essential as employers follow regional guidelines to welcome back employees to the workplace following widespread pandemic stay-at-home orders. Beyond simple compliance with OSHA guidelines to provide a safe workplace, owners and operators are now tasked with providing occupants a sense of trust and security during uncertain times.  

Safeguarding Occupant Health 

Taking preventative steps to reduce the spread and chance of infection by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in buildings is an important aspect of building trust with tenants. Managing indoor air quality remains the biggest challenge given that studies now show that the coronavirus is primarily spread through respiratory droplets in the air and can transmit the virus if they are inhaled or if they land on surfaces such as doorknobs, elevator buttons, or other office equipment. Combatting this challenge is complicated by the fact that the majority of office buildings in the U.S. do not have adequate HVAC systems to bring in enough outdoor air, and recirculated air promotes the spread of airborne pathogens. To fight transmission, experts recommend running fans, upgrading to MERV13 or 14 filters coupled with Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation (UVGI), and above all, increasing the rates of fresh air being brought into the building. In addition, maintaining optimal higher-humidity environments minimize the virus’ chances of survival and spread. New tools and technologies, such as WellStat and Monit among others, are supporting building owners to meet these new demands of protecting occupant health and safety.  

In addition to increasing and improving building ventilation and filtration, real estate managers should ensure they have effective disease control protocols in place. Strategies may include frequently scheduled cleanings using cleaning protocols from the CDCWHO, and EPA. They should consider increased orders of disinfectants and supplies, providing access to hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes in common areas, and daily cleaning of frequently touched surfaces such as elevator buttons, counters and door handles. Ample educational signage should be provided to remind occupants of handwashing and social distancing protocols. Properties are also urged to make contingency plans for future pandemics that include information on how to adjust building operations procedures to prevent the spread of disease. 

Other innovative approaches to protecting occupant health and safety include social distancing measures such as the “6 feet office” concept that provides specific guidance for behavior within workspaces when employees return to offices. It encourages reduced employee density with one-way foot traffic and desks spaced six feet apart, all of which discourage viral transmission and seek to protect employee health and safety while in the building.  

In terms of strengthening organizational resilience, attention should be given to updating policies and procedures, building back up supplies of protective equipment and other essential resources, and revamping communication channels with stakeholders as we continue to navigate the current crises we face and prepare for other unknown events. Whether it be weather-related or an infectious disease, these strategies are intrinsically related to ESG programs, which make portfolios better prepared and more resilient to new risks. 

Communicating to Build Trust and Protect Health 

Frequent, clear communication with stakeholders is more critical now than ever before. Organizations should act rapidly and provide frequent and transparent communication from company leaders to build trust and create lasting relationships with tenants as part of an effective COVID-19 return-to-work plan. Not only will communicating regularly on re-entry protocols be helpful in building confidence among occupants, but it will also ensure compliance with evolving public health recommendations.  

One such example of coronavirus building signage is a series that the Verdani Partners team developed to help our clients and the real estate industry at large to protect occupant health by clearly communicating safety protocols throughout properties. We created a variety of free, informational posters with building re-opening guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and support successful re-entry for occupants. These posters summarize various health and safety guidelines to ensure tenants are aware of the recommended precautions to take and can be displayed throughout building common areas. To ensure ongoing success with occupant communications, it is recommended to collect employee and occupant feedback at regular intervals, respond to changing circumstances, and prepare for future emergency response needs. 

Fostering Well-being  

Occupant health and well-being trends in real estate have only been amplified with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Major green building standards and certification bodies like LEEDASHRAE,  

Fitwel and WELL have all developed Coronavirus-specific guidelines for building operations to protect occupant health. Updates include recommendations for ventilation, water quality, cleaning protocols, and mental health promotion.  

For example, the new Fitwel Viral Response Module supports decision makers with adapting their projects and portfolios to handle the challenges presented by the pandemic. It now provides annual, third-party certification of policies and practices informed by the latest public health research on mitigating the spread of infectious diseases. One Fitwel strategy in particular requires testing indoor air quality and its complimentary strategy is to share those test results with building occupants. WELL’s Building Standard v2 pilot also incorporates guidance for COVID-19 prevention, preparedness, resilience and recovery with approaches that span from enhancing air quality to supporting mental health.  

In addition to providing safe building spaces, caring for employee wellbeing is particularly important during a crisis. Recent studies of the general public showed higher anxiety and depression scores and lower psychological well-being compared to before COVID-19. Many people have had to adapt to working at home, with surveys showing that 70% or more workers consistently said they would prefer to remain working from home rather than return to reconfigured offices where they would be required to wear masks. Many organizations are now developing hybrid approaches to office life with a balance of a scaled back office presence and remote options.  

As employees settle into new work from home routines, the wellness habits that were reinforced daily through cues in Fitwel or WELL workspaces are no longer present throughout the workday. To support well-being, it is particularly important to establish a Working from Home Wellness Program. Six best practices include establishing a consistent morning ritual, staying connected to coworkers, maintaining work-life balance, eating nourishing foods, creating a productive at-home work environment, and scheduling time to be active each day.  

Looking Towards the Future 

In summary, the buildings and places that form our communities are experiencing a major recalibration process that will ultimately help us to be more resilient and adaptive to challenges the future may bring. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, we are tasked with re-conceptualizing how we design and build our communities to be safe and healthy environments that support holistic well-being. As we look towards the future of sustainable real estate and ESG, real asset owners and managers will have a key role in responding to the pandemic and social justice issues we collectively face. They will be essential in creating sustainable building spaces that empower communities to be more healthy, equitable and resilient. 

About Verdani Partners 

Verdani Partners is an award-winning full-service sustainability and ESG consulting firm with over 800 million SF across 4,300 properties in 11 national and international real estate portfolios with over $650 billion in assets under management. Contact us about our Covid-19 building re-entry toolkit, your ESG program management, green and healthy building certifications, and GRESB reporting needs. 

This article is written by Lindsay Clark

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