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As Offices Reopen, Cleaning A Building Moves From 'Hygiene Theater' To A New Reality

Just a year ago, many of our offices — the ones many companies are clamoring to reopen — were filled not with employees but cleaners clad in hazmat suits that looked straight out of a medical thriller. In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, concerned property owners, following the best advice available at the time, spent considerable sums scrubbing their offices down in what, it appears a year later, might have been a misdirected effort. 

“Last year, there immediately was a knee-jerk reaction to cleaning and deep, deep sanitization, almost to the point [where] it was overcleaning and got into hygiene theater,” said Paul Scialla, CEO and founder of Delos, a firm that promotes its own building wellness standard and provides certification of a building’s health and wellness for property owners.  

Updated CDC guidance has found that pandemic-era concerns about surface sanitation were overblown.

As Jaime Sturgis, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based commercial real estate firm Native Realty said, in unprecedented times, an abundance of caution was a good idea. But going forward, property managers and landlords are focusing on altering sanitation and cleaning protocols and plans to take into account updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which has decidedly shifted toward a focus on air quality and circulation as opposed to deep surface cleaning, and changing attitudes around the pandemic and a return to work. Sturgis said his company is cleaning more now than it did in 2019, but not as much as it did during the summer of 2020.

Striking the right balance is critical as workers are coaxed back into the office. 

“There are two, bifurcated, independent trains of thought right now,” he said. “The vaccinated feel comfortable coming back to work, since physical mandates and cultural perceptions have changed. The other group is still very much concerned and going to continue to work from home until we’re totally through this thing.” 

It’s clear that at the onset of the pandemic, so-called cleaning theater took center stage, as understandably worried property owners invested in deep cleaning and sanitation services. Many large cleaning and building service firms, not surprisingly, suggest additional sanitation services will still be necessary; in its Q1 2021 presentation to investors, ABM, a facilities management company that boasts $6.5B in annual revenues, suggested that clients would seek “higher value-added services” to meet new "hyper-vigilant" cleaning environments. 

But property managers stressed to Bisnow that these services never really cost as much as some may think and have been used less and less as the pandemic progressed and scientists underscored that surface transmission is exceedingly rare, if not nonexistent. Linsey Marr, an airborne virus expert at Virginia Tech, told The New York Times, “there’s really no evidence that anyone has ever gotten Covid-19 by touching a contaminated surface.”

Sturgis said that last spring and summer, with so many people working from home, many offices didn’t really do deep cleaning that often and just had skeleton crews in place in many buildings. And Lotus West Management owner Ari Chazanas, who runs a property management firm that oversees roughly 500 residential units in west Los Angeles, in mostly midsized rental properties, said that cleaning crews haven’t really changed their process much, outside of wearing more protective equipment themselves. 

Phoenix-based commercial cleaning service provider SolSource Janitorial owner Lyle Gilbertson said Covid-related business has never been central to his company’s revenue. Extra office cleanings and sprayings meant more work, but it wasn’t sizable or steady. More significant were the roughly 20% of regular customers that cut services when their facilities were locked down, who are now slowly starting to resume normal services. 

“It’s been about a month since I’ve gotten a call for a special cleaning for Covid,” he said. 

Cleaning outside the Empire State Building.

That’s not to say pandemic-era concerns over safety and sanitation have disappeared. JLL’s Caroline Gadaleta, regional managing director for property management for the New York/Tri-State region, said her staff had prepared for “a tidal wave of people” coming back last May, preparation that included stocking up on hand-sanitizer stations, plastic barriers and floor decals for social distancing. That’s set them up well for reopening today, along with a focus on communication with and education of tenants around air quality and cleaning measures.

“We’ve adapted to a new reality,” she said. 

Many companies have planned to redesign offices to accommodate more common areas and collaborative spaces, which means that policies and procedures around cleaning and sanitation will be crucial as workers readjust to shared workspaces once again. Atlantic Monthly’s Derek Thompson wrote that overreaction in this regard carries the real threat of diverting needed funds, and in the office, “workplace-sanitation rules also carry the risk of enforcing an awkward parent-teen relationship between bosses and employees,” a real danger when employers want to do everything they can to get people back into the office. 

“So much has been written about that return to the office,” Ware Malcomb Director of Workplace Strategy Cynthia Milota said. “I think the more important issue is how to get people to want to return and sustain it over time. Nobody wants to sit in a bland cube drinking mediocre coffee and talking to people on Zoom.”

Milota believes that companies need to over-communicate about new office policies, from mobility plans and hybrid schedules to how safety and sanitation is being addressed. Educating and informing employees about how changing scientific consensus about virus spread is being translated into sanitation routines and office policies is crucial. It needs to be done early, often and on-site, not via a one-off HR email attachment.  

“For companies where people are just starting to come back in, you can’t over-communicate this,” Milota said. “We’re still in the inviting mode. What will incentivize me to go back to the office? What can my organization do to make the office a destination? The cleaning and social distancing parts are a byproduct of creating the best employee experience.”

The renewed focus on airborne transmission means the International WELL Building Institute has seen skyrocketing demand for the Delos-designed wellness certifications this year, as companies begin to gear up for expected office reopening. In the five years since the company started offering WELL certification, a 100-point measure of building health and wellness, the company has certified roughly 1B SF. 

In the last seven months, the company has certified another 1B SF alone via its Health Safety Rating, a less comprehensive standard focused mostly on air quality and circulation. Certification, obtained by the same organization that does LEED environmental certification, takes several weeks to a few months, and it doesn’t include an on-site inspection. Brookfield Properties recently had 200M SF of its portfolio certified. Gadaleta said she’d heard lots of property managers talking about the new standard, and she believes there’s great desire for some kind of standard rating system. 

Native Realty’s Sturgis said that concerns over sanitation, as well as larger macro-trends pushing for smaller offices, has even contributed to shifting leasing demands toward smaller office buildings. 

“I’m definitely seeing a demand shift,” he said. “There’s a systemic shift from large, institutional offices towards free-standing, low-rise offices that have their own AC systems and more access control.” 

Many businesses are waiting for banks, law firms and big institutional players to return to work, Sturgis said, and provide a signal to reopen. He expects there will be big, one-time costs for deep cleans before reopening, and more thorough cleaning routines going forward. 

“If there’s one thing we learned from 2020, we probably don’t know as much as we think we know,” Sturgis said. “I won’t be surprised if, in a couple months, with more time to research, we’ll find out there’s more we missed.”