Pandemic Lessons Learned—So Far

BY JOHN SALUSTRI

Mark Dukes, BOMA Fellow, CCIM, RPA, says he’s ready now for virtually anything: “Storms? Okay. Blackouts? Bring it on. Pandemics? Sure. We have a procedure for that.” The trials of social distancing, widespread quarantine and business interruption that continue to define many of our lives caught most of us unprepared. But, as Dukes, who is vice president of Asset Management for Physicians Realty Trust, indicates, the COVID-19 pandemic has added yet another capability to property managers’ arsenal of contingency plans. Lessons on preparedness have come out of this extended trial, lessons that extend far beyond the obvious, low-hanging fruit of stocking up on facial masks and hand sanitizers.

At this point, a lot of ink has been spilled about implementing best practices for maintaining operations during and after the pandemic. But, those best practices—social distancing stickers on elevator floors, plexiglass dividers deployed at reception desks, limited access points in and out of buildings—are only half of the equation. The pandemic also has prompted building managers to beef up their emergency preparedness plans (see “The Emergency Preparedness Plan: Revisited,” sidebar ), re-evaluate their communication protocols and even redefine how they view work-life balance. In many cases, rather than unveiling better ways of working, the first seven months of this year also reaffirmed current policies and procedures. For those firms, COVID-19 became a corporate proof of concept.

“Our first coronavirus communication to our tenants was on January 27,” recalls Dukes. “We were way ahead of the curve, and we had to be because we’re in the business of healthcare.” In fact, he explains that cleaning supplies recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the pandemic were already standard for use by Physicians Realty. And, BOMA International’s first guidance document on the topic was available in early February.

“So, changes to our cleaning protocols really revolved around stepped-up frequency,” he says. “But, we needed to let our tenants know early on that we were doing all that. We had to let them know we were wiping down frequently touched surfaces, such as elevator buttons, more often and that we disabled water fountains. We didn’t need to go through a ‘reopening phase’ in May; our buildings remained fully operational throughout the pandemic. So, our communications throughout have been focused on education to ensure that our patients, our hospital partners and all our tenants knew that we were doing all we could.”

FLEXIBILITY—WITH SAFEGUARDS

And to the extent possible, he did so with a maximum of flexibility to ensure tenant comfort. That included allowing them to use the parking lots, as requested, to take patients’ temperatures. “The majority of our buildings are multitenanted,” he notes. “If the primary tenant, which is usually a hospital, was willing to do so, we allowed them to screen patients in our lobbies or even in our parking lots before they got out of cars.”

Dukes says that procedure has been practiced in as much as one-third of the REIT’s buildings (which total 270 assets in 38 U.S. states). But, to allow for that flexibility, the trust had some precautionary measures of its own. “We needed an executed license agreement in those instances,” he explains. “Parking lots are an area that tenants technically weren’t leasing from us, and they needed to assume the liability.”

The Emergency Preparedness Plan: Revisited

One of the key lessons to come out of the COVID-19 crisis has been the need to update building managers’ emergency response plans, which, for the most part, did not cover pandemics. Everyone interviewed for this article already knew that their emergency preparedness plans were living documents, updated as new thinking informed best practices in terms of safety and recovery. Pandemics, to that extent, were simply the newest wrinkle.

Much of the new pandemic guidance came from BOMA International itself. And, much of it is obvious advice—given human nature and the power of habit—such as maintaining a stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the building team; guidance for tenants, vendors and staff on the proper ways to cough; and how many people can occupy an elevator at one time. Some is more arcane, like engaging legal advice on such issues as the implications of an outbreak in your building and how to deal with tenants seeking rent relief.

“We live in earthquake country,” says Orange County, California-based Melanie Colbert of LBA Realty. “So, we have to update our plan on a regular basis. But, who would ever have thought we’d be fighting an invisible enemy here?” That realization has resulted in both a business continuity plan and a separate re-entry plan “to help our customers feel safe and comfortable coming back to work and to inform them of what will change in terms of procedures.”

Physicians Realty Trust also had a preparedness and response plan as part of both its management and tenant manuals “so our tenants can see what our team will do in the case of a major storm, a fire or active shooters,” for instance, says Mark Dukes.

What they didn’t have, however, was a pandemic guide, he says, frankly. That’s changed, and, just as the REIT marshalled its forces quickly to expand tenant communications, “by early March, we had a procedure covering cleaning, maintenance and resources with hyperlinks to the CDC; BOMA International; the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA); ASHRAE; and other resources.”

And, it’s a good thing that the plans are living documents since, as we’ve seen, guidance changes as rapidly as the disease can spread. So, they have to expand and contract as governing bodies change their protocols and new intel comes in from medical authorities like the CDC. Such is the case for New Jersey shopping malls, which were scheduled to reopen at the end of June, but with severe restrictions, including PPE and a capacity of no more than 50 percent occupancy. Food courts and theaters remain shuttered. Shifting protocols, while great for most businesses, “make the creation of a rock-solid re-entry plan more of a challenge,”says CBRE’s Richard Kenwood.

When will it all end? When will we put COVID-19 behind us and put the emergency prep plans back on the shelf? Everyone we spoke with thinks that will be sometime next year, at the earliest.

For a better answer, we need to wait for medical science. “We’ve implemented a number of recommendations for health and safety that best practices currently dictate,” says Colbert, “We have those protocols in place. The current situation is very fluid, and this all can change until a vaccine is widely available. Only time will tell.”

Going forward, Dukes speaks of a “tasteful” approach to those communications and preparedness plans, one that moves such crises out of the reactionary realm. “We’ll be dealing with the results of the pandemic for a long time,” he says, “and we also need to be prepared for future events. So, tenants will see a consistent, coordinated and professional marketing effort. For instance, our in-house marketing team created templates for signs in English and Spanish reminding everyone of our protocols, such as washing their hands and limiting only four people to an elevator.”

The challenge is managing the population, he adds. “While the communication encourages the use of masks and social distancing, it’s difficult for property management teams to enforce these activities.”

For Melanie W. Colbert, CPM, principal of Operations for LBA Realty, headquartered in Irvine, California, the pandemic has underscored the critical importance of stepped-up communications—with tenants and staff alike. “What’s changed for us is tenant outreach,” she says. “That’s the number one thing. When we first started dealing with COVID back in March, we encouraged all of our managers to proactively reach out to all of our customers to understand what they were dealing with and how we could help.

“As we all started to work from home, we also realized how efficient it is to connect via Zoom or other platforms,” she continues, adding that the capability took pressure off of everyone and allowed them to connect in a time of enforced social distancing. “The expectation going forward will be more proactive communication with our customers and team members.”

STAFF ARE PEOPLE, TOO

As indicated, all of the property professionals interviewed for this article already had in place a fairly robust approach to communications for both tenants and staff. As a result of the pandemic, those communications also have become much more than a simple tool for maintaining productivity.

Beyond basic communications, Colbert doesn’t underplay the added importance of virtual connections through platforms like Zoom or Google Meet as tools of engagement in an age of quarantines. She continues: “Some of my team members in different states say they feel more connected to the corporate office today than ever before. Prior to this, our contact was primarily via phone or email. The ability to see someone via digital connections is one higher level of connectivity, and I can see all of our meetings going from conference calls to Zoom.” Colbert reports that as many as 200 people have participated in a single virtual meeting.

Richard Kenwood, BOMA Fellow, CPM, CRRP, CRX, CSM, FMA, RPA, agrees on the importance of this connectivity in a uniquely stressful time. “The last few months have been challenging for everyone, professionally and personally,” says the vice president and general manager of an enclosed, high-end lifestyle mall in Princeton, New Jersey, a property in the CBRE portfolio. “Not only do they have their professional responsibilities, but they have their personal responsibilities as well: childcare, home schooling and taking care of aging relatives, to name a few. I check a few of those boxes myself.” He explains that the importance of ramping up connectivity is something he will advocate for to accommodate employees juggling these factors. Much as in Kenwood’s case, the quarantine has both validated and refined many of the protocols and policies already in place at Realterm, a real estate operator focused on logistics and air cargo facilities. Senior Vice President of Property Management Michael A. Bodendorf says many of these revolved around a solid people-first mindset. “Even though it seemed to hit us overnight, our transition to pandemic mode was pretty seamless,” he says. “Did we have stress factors? Sure. But, what’s kept us glued together is the level of communication and the company’s investment and approach to utilizing innovative technology in our day-to-day operations. We’re a highly collaborative company. We meet and talk all the time, and we were doing that before this pandemic started. Now, we’re holding company meetings three times a week, and department meetings twice a week.” Even in a highly collaborative company, he notes, “we got to know each other even better than before.”

Realizations such as that further solidified the people aspect of what Bodendorf terms a “successful business model. Understanding their challenges, remaining flexible with what we are asking them to do—staff and vendors alike—and helping them take care of their family first all help us to stay afloat and allow us to keep the right people in the right seats. There’s no way you can operate a successful company without focusing on your people first.”

But, the bottom line is still, well, the bottom line. “We have work to do on behalf of our clients,” Kenwood says. “But, this pandemic has made all of us more aware of the need to be compassionate and understand the challenges that the workforce—both our own and those of our tenants—are facing. It’s up to leaders to stay engaged with employees whether near or far.”

Understandably, while service providers also are partners in the process of providing safe and healthy work environments, that partnership is, by contract, a bit more arms’ length. Proper vetting of vendors means “you won’t have to hold their hand and remind them to put on their face masks,” explains Kenwood. “Of course, if they need a gentle nudge, we’ll provide it.”

“You want to partner with the best-in-class,” says Colbert.“It’s their responsibility to stay abreast of trends and best practices.” But, arms’ length doesn’t mean hands’ off. “We’ve had heightened communication with them to make sure they stay up to speed with all of the CDC requirements and BOMA recommendations.” In fact, she adds, many of her vendors are on various BOMA committees “helping to formulate guidance that can be applied across the industry.”

COVID & WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Most of the managers we spoke with have adjusted as necessary to the new work-from-home lifestyle, and they see its benefits for those who will want to use that option going forward. But, will it work for them personally in the long term? That may be another story.

“Zoom is a great tool, but I’m sure people are getting tired of it and miss live face-to-face interaction,” says Kenwood. In terms of work-life balances, “I’ve always been able to delineate between home and business, but I’ve gotten even better at it.” Which, in part, means, “no longer banging away at the computer for 12 hours a day, all night and on weekends.”

In contrast, Dukes makes the most of the technology at his fingertips and doesn’t sound tired of video conferencing at all. “We can be so effective using technology, not just to accomplish our tasks, but also to see people eye-to-eye and stay connected. We’re in a people industry, and, while I can’t get on a plane now, I can Skype, check in and see how our clients feel we’re performing for them.” Dukes lives in Atlanta, but has spent most of the pandemic at his lake home in a “sleepy little town of about 15,000 people. I’m on the phone all day and unable to travel, so why not?”

On the other hand, Colbert says she was never a fan of working from home, and COVID has done nothing to change that. “We continue to operate our office buildings, so I wanted to be there and lead by example,” she states. “My home is my domain, and it’s where I am a wife and a mom and not a principal of Operations. We’re already tethered to a cell phone 24/7.”

That’s where game faces come in. “I’ve had a hard time separating home life and work,” she says, frankly. “When I’m in work mode, I have a different psychology and a different persona. I’m all in. And, when I’m home, I want to be all in for my family.”

“I’m definitely one of those guys who traveled quite a bit,” notes Bodendorf. “I love working in the office and being able to just walk over to someone’s desk to ask a question. I love watching people’s reactions in conferences, and the camaraderie of meeting with my teams.” All of which implies a return to that modus operandi post-COVID.

For now, however, he says he has come to appreciate “the simple things,” and he also tries to stick to “strict hours, 8:00am to 6:00pm, and then take a walk to transition from work to home life.” His laptop stays on the bureau over the weekend these days, waiting for Monday morning. “The most important piece of this since my business travels have taken such a dramatic pause is being home with the family every day for dinner.”

In all, the coronavirus pandemic has taught us new ways of approaching our businesses and our own lives. It also reaffirmed beliefs and practices we already held as true. Bodendorf knows that, soon enough, he’ll be back with his teams and clients, watching their reactions in face-to-face meetings. And, soon enough, he will be back on airplanes, even if there’s still a bottle of Purell tucked away in his pocket. However, he also will be carrying an important reminder of what these past months have meant.

Beyond work, it revolves around those nights at the dinner table. “They were an immeasurable gift,” he concludes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Salustri is editor-in-chief of Salustri Content Solutions, a national editorial advisory firm based in East Northport, New York. He is best known as the founding editor of GlobeSt.com. Prior to launching GlobeSt.com, Salustri was editor of Real Estate Forum.

This article will be published in the July/August 2020 issue of BOMA Magazine