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As America Reopens, How Can Building Owners Keep People Safe?


As Americans return to the office, the top question on building and company owners’ minds is: How can we keep the people in our offices safe? This is a difficult question to answer as people continue to debate coronavirus restrictions and, in some places, struggle to gain access to the vaccine. 

Despite all these challenges, how can building owners and their tenants navigate these difficult times and promote the safety of everyone who passes through their facilities each day? 

Dr. Matthew Trowbridge is an associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine who recently accepted a role as the chief medical officer at the International WELL Building Institute because he said it is the responsibility of the real estate industry to help answer these questions, and he wants to help. 

“The reason I, a physician by profession, have chosen to work with the real estate world is that I believe our built environments can act as a caregiver to nurture our health and general well-being,” Trowbridge said. “For example, the way a company builds and manages its commercial real estate embodies and communicates the organization’s overall competency to manage its health, well-being and equity impacts for employees, tenants and broader stakeholders. ”

Bisnow spoke with Trowbridge to learn more about how companies and building owners should consider approaching issues related to health and well-being in the coming months and years as Americans adjust to their new post-pandemic reality. 

Bisnow: What role can organizations and building owners-operators play to help with vaccine rollout?

Trowbridge: We have all learned that buildings where we work, live and play have an important role as our first line of defense in the fight against infectious diseases. In the specific case of vaccine rollout, organizations that occupy or operate buildings can help create access to vaccines, enhance education about the importance of vaccines and generally work to make health services more readily available.

This mindset and focus are built into the WELL Building Standard, a global framework helping organizations to prioritize health and well-being in buildings and communities they build and operate. In fact, programs to promote vaccinations in general are one of the requirements for WELL Certified buildings. It’s clear that there is a lot more that real estate and its owners and operators can do to support the health and well-being of the people it serves and impacts.

Bisnow: What questions should organizations and businesses be asking about vaccine rollout and the return to the office?  

Trowbridge: The pandemic is forcing every industry to ask a wide range of questions about the responsibility of organizations to protect and promote the health and well-being of the individuals and communities they impact. Short-term, this means management of issues like Covid-19 vaccination among building occupants and balancing safety versus productivity requirements in the formulation of policies for return to in-person work. 

But organizations need to be thinking beyond their direct operational space. They need to ask themselves how they can improve vaccine access for all employees and stakeholders and how the organization can help bridge the gap for those who are not yet vaccinated. Moreover, they need to ask themselves what indirect policy and operational changes they can make upon reopening to ensure smooth operations while protecting their employees and stakeholders. For example, organizations may consider offering health benefits to encourage employees to stay at home with paid sick leave if they are at risk of contagion.  

Bisnow: How should businesses handle individuals who can't receive Covid-19 vaccinations or refuse to reveal their status?

Trowbridge: One of the hardest things about the Covid-19 pandemic is the dynamic nature of both available evidence and conditions that impact decision-making for business leaders at all levels. A prime example is the emergence of virus variants with higher or lower degrees of infectivity and virulence. However, despite this uncertainty, we all still need to make decisions and move forward. 

To do this, it’s essential to build a culture of trust with your employees by emphasizing transparency and consistency regarding your process and information sources for key decisions related to health and safety. It’s also important to be clear from the outset that policies like indoor mask use or social distancing are reliant on conditions like degree of vaccination or virus epidemiology. This illustrates the collective action required by everyone impacted by the facility. It also highlights that while policies related to health and well-being will need to change over time, investing in education related to issues like the prevention of spreadable diseases at workplaces must be viewed as the new norm. As evidence, according to statistics by the World Health Organization in its 2013 edition of Health Literacy: The Solid Facts, together with other studies, low health literacy costs the U.S. economy anywhere between $70B and $240B each year. 

Bisnow: How much longer do you think a person's vaccination status will be a pertinent issue in the CRE community? 

Trowbridge: It’s a good question but a challenging one to predict with certainty. The Covid-19 virus, like other infectious agents, is likely to persist even after global-scale vaccination becomes better achieved. Experts suggest that Covid-19 vaccination, and most likely boosters, will become a required part of health maintenance going forward in the same way we receive regular flu vaccinations to help protect against dominant strains each year. 

But looking beyond Covid-19 vaccination, I think the commercial real estate industry should use the pandemic as a catalyst to think proactively and collectively about its critical role in the health and well-being of the people and communities impacted by our built environment. 

And this isn’t just about risk mitigation. I also see this as an enormous opportunity for leadership. The Covid-19 pandemic is fostering a new appreciation for ways in which buildings can either foster or inhibit safe and productive work, social gathering and residential places. Investing in and communicating about differentiating features of buildings and other spaces proven to support and foster health and well-being, such as through WELL certification, is an enormous opportunity for value creation. 

The bottom line, the key thing to focus on right now as we work together to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic is the development of a clear, transparent and trusting relationship with your employees and community members. Be clear and forthcoming about your trusted information sources and how you're going to make decisions that impact their health and well-being. Not only are your employees looking for that, but I also think, increasingly, investors will be looking for companies that can clearly articulate that they have those competencies well in place. 

This article was produced in collaboration between IWBI and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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