The spread of the coronavirus is now a worldwide crisis that not only threatens the health and wellbeing of the general population but is also having a significant impact on the economy and businesses. Analysts are projecting the outbreak could eventually wipe $1 trillion from the global economy. For facilities managers preparing for this pandemic and how it will impact their business operations, there are new challenges they face to protect their employees and maintain operations for their offices, and stores, if they remain open during the recommended quarantine period.
This article will provide some shared best practices, links to useful information, and practical advice for facilities managers as they enter uncharted territory dealing with this crisis. COVID-19 has been active for many weeks (at the time of this article), but its impact on many organizations in the US has been limited until recently. As a result, many businesses are in a reactive mode. Eventually this will be replaced by review and iterative improvements of policies and procedures to put the necessary steps in place for a better response the next time a crisis on this scale occurs.
Stepping Up as Crisis Managers:
Due to the nature of this global crisis where the virus is spread through personal contact and proximity, the role of the facilities manager is at the epicenter of decision points and controls for safety at every organization. They have become the defacto crisis managers during the pandemic, taking charge of the security response plan and acting as the designated source for information on workplace safety.
The safety of employees, customers, on-site contractors, and visitors has become the first priority for every facilities manager. Some of the best practices we have heard from these individuals across our diverse customer base include the following:
- If your employees can work from home, they should be mandated to do so. Deactivating building passes or security keys are one way to enforce this.
- For employees who can’t work remotely, facility managers should create workplace policies that limit the spread of infectious disease and protect both staff and any visitors. For example, can you create a separate entrance for employees or restrict visitor access to certain parts of the facility?
- Consider splitting employees into multiple teams that each work different shifts or sets of days to create separation between teams and limit the spread of infection if an employee were to get sick.
- For workspaces that are set up in close proximity or collaboration zones, you should try to create more separation and leverage available single-office rooms to capacity.
- Also make sure that employees frequently wash their hands and routinely disinfect their work area (see Cleaning and Sanitation best practices below).
For additional information on how facilities managers are stepping up during this time of crisis, please reference the online knowledgebase from the International Facility Management Association (IFMA). They have created a Coronavirus Preparedness Resource Center that includes numerous helpful articles and links. And check back often as they continue to update this information on a regular basis.
Deferring Scheduled Maintenance Activities:
As facilities technicians have become overwhelmed with high priority tasks during the pandemic, there are logical steps that should be put in place to reduce the activities for scheduled maintenance where possible. Facilities managers should review and defer scheduled maintenance for non-essential assets.
However, all considerations should be made for the consequences of deferred maintenance, as it may increase the risk of a component or system failure. As always, have a plan in place to respond to any major problem, coordinating with maintenance vendors and manufacturers as necessary, to ensure issues can be addressed. Appropriate guidelines to following include the following:
- If equipment failure cannot be addressed in a timely manner, ensure procedures to address safe shutdown/isolation of the equipment and the service to facilities is sufficiently resilient to absorb the loss of failed equipment (at least until the workload can be transferred to a backup system).
- As time passes and restrictions from the pandemic remain in place, revisit deferred maintenance work orders, and determine whether continued delay increases risks beyond reasonable tolerances.
Customer and Employee Health and Safety:
The coronavirus has workplace safety at the forefront of employers’ minds. To support that focus, facilities managers are on point to lead the initiatives to promote hygiene and health practices within the workplace. Having a carefully coordinated and well-thought-out approach to the coronavirus should help mitigate risks for organizations while reducing many customer and employee concerns.
The starting point is around communication. Remind employees, and visiting customers, to take basic preventive measures and safety precautions that may help to reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus or spreading it in the store, or workplace, including:
- Frequently washing their hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
- Avoiding touching their eyes, nose and mouth.
- Covering sneezes or coughs with tissues, if possible, or else with a sleeve or shoulder.
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
- Staying home when sick; and
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and objects.
To facilitate these practices, facilities managers should ensure that they maintain adequate supplies in the workplace, including tissues, soap, alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol, and hand wipes. The CDC has also recommended that employers provide no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees, place no-touch sanitizer dispensers in multiple locations including every entrance to the building and in conference rooms to encourage good hand hygiene, and provide employees, and visiting customers, with disposable wipes so that they can wipe down commonly used surfaces, such as door handles and shopping carts, before each use. Additionally, you might want to put up posters directing employees to wash hands frequently, cough or sneeze into tissues, and stay home if they have any symptoms.
“Unfortunately, by the time someone in an office looks or feels ill, they are likely to have left the virus on hard surfaces in the office, akin to shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.”
Group Managing Director, SafeGroup
Besides the focus on personal hygiene in the workplace there are new studies that have been released recently which describe additional changes that can be made by facilities managers to reduce the coronavirus transmission. A study from Condair shows that raising air humidity by humidification reduces the risk of virus spread in hospitals and other buildings at low-cost and without causing negative effects. OSHA also offers guidance for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including safe work practices and appropriate personal protective equipment based on the risk level of exposure.
Office / Store Cleaning and Sanitation Best Practices:
There has been a myriad of different approaches to cleaning and sanitizing office space, store counters, and shared surfaces since the outbreak of the coronavirus. What type of products can be used for mitigation or sterilization to prevent potential contamination? Very few products are known to be a “guaranteed kill” but they do exist. “Botanical Disinfectant Solution” is one effective product, and several brand-name products, such as Lysol and Clorox, are also recommended. (See a complete list of approved products here.)
If your business, or store locations, are allowed to remain open through the pandemic, cleaning and sanitation will be the most important activities to help employees and customers stay safe and healthy. Normal sanitation procedures and cleaning frequencies may not be sufficient—especially in areas such as restrooms, meeting rooms, and on high touch surfaces such as door handles, elevator buttons, countertops, faucets, or touch keypads. Your sanitation plan should also include processes for decontaminating workspaces and common areas if confirmed cases present among employees or visitors to your buildings.
For a virus pandemic, sanitization is, of course, critical. The following steps will improve protection:
- Intensify housekeeping measures — conduct multiple rounds of cleaning daily, especially of heavy-contact surfaces (e.g., door handles, light switches, elevator buttons, handrails, faucet handles). If possible, have a cleaner continually cycle through the facility disinfecting high-touch surfaces during hours of operation. (This includes workstations, offices and personal and shared technology.)
- Place hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes (with disposal units) throughout the facility, as well as signs to remind staff and visitors to use them frequently.
- Place signs in bathrooms reminding staff to wash hands often, using proper techniques.
- Post signs through the facility reminding staff to carry tissues and sneeze and cough into those tissues, then dispose of the tissues into, those tissues, then dispose of the tissues in a waste receptacle.
- Provide cleaning supplies and require staff to disinfect all work areas at the beginning and end of each shift.
- Review the scheduled replacement of make-up air intake filters and HVAC unit air filters. Consider replacing filters more frequently and/or using filters with a higher minimum efficiency reporting value rating.
- Consider closing all fitness centers and cafeterias in facilities, keeping open only kiosks/micro-markets with prepackaged food.
Additional precautions we have heard from other facilities managers include a review of the procedures and materials used by the facility’s contracted cleaning company. Consider hiring a specialist cleaning firm that follows recommendations for disinfection from recognized public health authorities (e.g., US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]).
How a Connected Workplace Solution Helps:
A connected workplace solution like ours will assist your management activities, schedule/assign and track cleaning tasks, and coordinate your facilities resources efficiently during this crisis. The following items showcase how facilities management and workflow technology can assist your efforts during the coronavirus:
- Manage Cleaning and Sanitation Activities: A specialized software solution can help you manage repetitive cleaning tasks by extending access to your janitorial and sanitizing operations. Preschedule additional work orders for wiping down high touch surfaces, including flat surfaces, door handles, elevator buttons, handrails, and touch screen panels.
- Coordinate Inventory Audits and Replenishment: The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting supply chain disruptions have underscored the need to intelligently manage inventory. Modern workplace management solutions have a built-in management module for warehouse inventory tracking and audits. Threshold numbers can also be configured for each inventory item so that automated replacement orders are created when those thresholds are reached.
- Streamline Asset Maintenance: Centralized facilities management solutions make it easy to operationalize preventative maintenance activities and enable you to schedule new HVAC decontamination routines, setup more frequent filter changes, and coordinate other maintenance tasks.
- Simplify Asset Location Tracking: A modern facilities management solution will keep track of the location for your equipment and supply areas and when coupled with corrective maintenance work orders can enable facilities management to direct tasks such as locating, inspecting and filling hand sanitizers, as well as restocking cleaning materials.
- Mobile Access to Work Orders: The most popular facilities management solutions provide a mobile application that field service technicians can run on their phones or tablets so they can quickly respond to urgent maintenance requests while working remotely at different stores or office locations.
Pandemic Planning Resources for Facilities Management
- IFMA Foundation Pandemic Preparedness Manual
- IFMA COVID-19 Preparedness Resource Center
- CDC Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers
- ASHRAE HVAC Guidance for COVID-19
- S. EPA List of Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-COV-2
Global and Federal Information, Situation Updates, and Guidance
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
- United States Government
- Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center
- Coronavirus Tech Handbook (a crowd-sourced reference for the tech industry)