With many employers encouraging workers to return to offices in the coming months, building managers are getting ready.
Managers at real estate services firms CBRE and JLL also say that they continued to maintain levels of on-site property services throughout the pandemic—even with so many tenants having employees working remotely—so their existing on-site personnel levels remained stable, which will make for a smooth transition as more workers return to their offices.
In part, building management staffing levels had to be maintained at the same level to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended hygiene procedures, notes Atlanta-based Randy Fink, managing director with the property asset management group at JLL. Fink’s team is responsible for management of 245 properties with 65 million sq. ft. of space in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.
“We needed to be operational even with a low building census, regardless of whether there were five or 500 people in a building,” he says. However, Fink notes that janitorial staffing was modified according to occupant needs to reduce costs, while engineering and maintenance staff remained at full capacity.
He cites a 300,000-sq.-ft. building near his office as an example. The building had a pre-pandemic occupancy level of 1,500 people, but its census dropped to 6 percent, including Fink’s own staff, at the height of the pandemic. During that time, there was reduced need for night cleaning and the daytime janitorial staff was able to pick up some additional cleaning projects along with completing their normal duties.
Chicago-based Neil Pendleton, a senior managing director with CBRE’s investors services group, oversees the management of 61 million sq. ft. of office, industrial and retail properties in downtown Chicago and says that all CBRE management staff remained on duty during the pandemic.
“We had to deliver the level of service guaranteed in our management contract and promised in tenant leases,” he says. “We didn’t cut back on services we’re obligated to deliver, but managed the bottom line from a financial standpoint while under occupied.”
According to Pendleton, the level of third-party janitorial, security and landscaping staff levels maintained during the pandemic varied with each building owner’s instructions.
Both CBRE and JLL property management teams implemented hybrid work models early in the pandemic, rotating management staff between working from home and on site, but both companies quickly returned to full-time on-site staffing. “We realized that we could be more effective on site,” Fink says. “We’re a very collaborative team and are always trying to come up with new ideas for building on our relationship with clients.”
Pendleton says his team tried rotating from home to the office for six to eight months, but eventually realized that all staff members needed to be on site to know what was happening on the property.
Today, “No one knows exactly when people are coming back, but we need to be prepared,” Pendleton adds, noting that CBRE-managed buildings have already staffed back up in anticipation of the return of tenants’ employees.
Meanwhile, Fink says that JLL is not currently adding back third-party staff in the markets he works in, but has developed flexible plans with service providers that will enable buildings to staff up quickly when more tenants begin returning to the office.
He notes that JLL has also deployed technology that automates routine business processes to free up on-site management staff to build relationships with tenants and focus more on the level of service provided. “Folks who used to do that are now working on developing and customizing services for tenants,” Fink says.
CBRE launched a tenant app and enhanced experience service called CBRE Host a few years ago, according to Pendleton, but the firms has recently received much more interest in this product as landlords look to welcome back tenants to their buildings. He notes that this app allows property managers to directly communicate with tenants to discuss important building procedures and protocols.
Both Fink and Pendleton note that all the extra COVID-19-related services provided by building management have not affected established budgets, as they have been able to compensate for any added expenses by reducing costs elsewhere. For example, while opening the HVAC system to more outside air to improve ventilation increased the cost of electricity, strategies were implemented to cut electrical usage elsewhere, such as installing inexpensive technology that activates lighting only when a space is occupied.