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Organisations everywhere have responded differently to COVID-19. Some have all of their employees working entirely from home with offices empty or on skeleton staff. Others, such as the Department of Social Services, working from a Cromwell building in Canberra, ACT are running at 130% of capacity as they deal with a huge increase in demand for their services.
Irrespective of the number of people in a building, it is more vital than ever that the built environment continues to function safely and efficiently. This responsibility lies with Facilities Management teams, who are tasked with ensuring the buildings they manage remain safe, operational and available throughout the pandemic.
The importance of sound facility management practices has been highlighted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Managing a building’s systems including lifts as well as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and monitoring systems to minimise disease spread, as well as support decisive and agile decision-making and consistent communication with tenant-customers is key to ensuring a safe work environment.
Cromwell’s Facilities Management team has been at the forefront of its response to COVID-19 and their actions can be divided into three distinct phases - before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, during and after.
Witnessing the extent of the outbreak in China, and having seen firsthand what was happening with a local office in Milan, Cromwell was able to implement a number of early, proactive measures across its Australian property portfolio.
Planning for dealing with an outbreak actually started in early February with the business continuity plans for each property being reviewed and assessed against likely pandemic requirements.
Cromwell employs over 800 service providers in Australia alone, many of whom enter and leave the buildings on a daily basis. The risks associated with high volumes of site visits for maintenance and other vital work were identified and plans put in place to ensure all contractors were aware of, and had received sufficient training to be able to meet their obligations to maintain the health and safety of their own staff and also the tenant-customers of the buildings they were visiting.
Additionally, services that could be completed remotely were identified and the contractor sign in platform, myBuildings, updated to include advisory information ensuring no works were undertaken onsite if a contractor had flu-like symptoms.
Beginning in early March, Facilities Managers initiated a number of preventative actions to limit the likelihood of a positive case at each property. Hand sanitisers were installed, social distancing measures were enforced, and additional bathroom supplies, including toilet paper, were purchased to ensure each building was able to remain safe and operational.
Educational material was also distributed to tenant-customers and displayed prominently in foyers, lifts and other common areas. Daytime cleaning frequencies for high touch areas, such as elevator buttons, doorhandles and handrails, were increased.
Planning was also undertaken for the possibility of a positive COVID-19 case in one of the buildings. Across all states, a scope of works was collated from all cleaning contractors to perform tenancy decontamination and ‘deep-clean’ sanitising in the event of a positive COVID-19 case.
Vigilance was heightened and proactive communication plans put in place once COVID-19 was announced as a pandemic in mid- March. Consistent communication and ‘COVID-19’ updates have been distributed to tenant representatives ever since the announcement.
Meetings have also been held on a weekly basis with contractors to ensure a best-practice cleaning strategy remains in place. Routine tasks which ensure building compliance have been revised. For example, fire warden training remains necessary, however, training for tenant-customers is now online and the emergency procedures have been amended in line with changes in building occupancy and the number of wardens present in any one building.
As team members are generally based on-site, and have remained on-site throughout the pandemic, ‘shadowing’ plans were implemented to ensure each building could be covered by at least one other team member in the event of someone falling ill.
How are Facilities Managers staying safe?
In March, Cromwell employees based in Australia were directed to work from home. The Facilities Management team, however, stayed at their respective buildings to continue normal operations. As exposure to COVID-19 was a risk, Facilities Managers created a ‘safe haven’ by sanitising their offices and excluding tenant-customers, contractors and visitors wherever possible.
Additional precautionary actions included distributing a personal supply of sanitiser to each Facilities Manager, and each manager avoiding commuting via public transport.
As lockdown restrictions are progressively lifted, the concept of ‘building and occupant health’, inclusive of heating, ventilation, air quality and filtration, deep cleaning and general facilities management preparedness will be right at the forefront of every single occupants’ mind as they return to work.
In mid-May, Cromwell circulated a ‘Workplace Readiness Guide’ to all Facilities Managers which provides a framework for a building-specific plan to be communicated to tenant-customers as part of their return to the workplace. The Guide outlines communication and support strategies for them through the transition of returning to their tenancy, as well as instructions on how to maintain a safe environment in common areas.
Buildings that do not meet occupants’ increased expectations to work in a healthy and safe environment, will no doubt see issues reflected in capital values over time. The Facilities Manager role will be as important as ever to ensure there is both no ‘second wave’ of infections and that buildings maintain their value in a time of heightened market uncertainty.