During the last 12 months, since the pandemic triggered mass lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, the focus of the commercial real estate sector has been on buildings being empty and how or when they can safely welcome occupants back. The truth, however, is that buildings have not been completely empty because, even in a lockdown, buildings need to be maintained. Maintenance staff are viewed in many countries as essential workers, and while neglected in the wider discussions about “returning to work”, these essential workers are the ones that are keeping buildings functional and facilitating that highly anticipated return.
“While most people now work in the safety of their homes, essential facility workers don’t have that luxury. Facility managers and maintenance workers have been working tirelessly to maintain buildings and to ensure they’re ready for reopening,” says Tim Curran, CEO of BuildingEngines. “Without the hard work of facilities’ essential workers, a return to some semblance of normal work life before COVID-19 would be unattainable. However, due to the behind-the-scenes of facility managers, returning to an office, in-person shopping, and other public activities, will be possible.”
Maintenance workers have always operated behind-the-scenes, forgotten when they successfully keep buildings running smoothly, and the focus of criticism when they don’t. It is a thankless job but vital to the operation of buildings, and therefore the functioning of our society. During this extended crisis, maintenance workers have been putting their lives, and the lives of their families, at risk to ensure that when society can return to normal that our buildings are ready too. If we had just locked the doors and dismissed building maintenance for a year, the return-to-the-workplace discussion would be about whether our neglected buildings are even functional rather than public health considerations and new virus-smart building technologies.
“Essential workers continue to monitor and tend to vital systems like HVAC, elevators, and security. They also ensure that spaces are kept sanitized, especially according to new guidelines. That way, occupants can seamlessly return to work or public activities — without having to face a neglected building or worry that they’re coming back to an unsafe or unclean space,” says Curran. “Beyond just ensuring facilities run as well as they did before the pandemic, essential workers have also taken on the added task of using this time to make both big and small improvements to facilities.”
Many building owners have taken the low-occupancy opportunity to make significant upgrades to their buildings without the disruption that would have occurred before the pandemic. This includes major construction and re-development work that would have brought business operations to a standstill during normal times, but also the implementation pandemic specific return-to-work strategies such as sensor networks for occupancy analytics and the installation of contactless technologies, for example. While this represents an unprecedented opportunity for building upgrades and sets up a safer working environment for building occupants, the maintenance workers themselves are put at risk.
“The regular maintenance of equipment is an essential part of safe work, environment, and reliable machines, the absence of maintenance can lead to a precarious situation. Maintenance in general is a verity of tasks (Inspection, testing, measurement, replacement, adjustment, repair, upkeep, fault detection, replacement of parts, servicing, lubrication, and cleaning) in every industry sector with all types of working environments,” explains Carlos Torres, CEO of Power-MI. “As the lifecycle of COVID-19 is highest on metals as compared to other surfaces, maintenance workers are more likely than other employees to be exposed to hazardous situations of COVID-19.”
The pandemic has disrupted the operations and activities of almost every type of building, but not all buildings have experienced reduced occupancy. Hospitals, for example, have remained in operation throughout and have adapted to increased occupancy beyond usual capacity to deal with subsequent waves of critical coronavirus patients. While doctors, nurses, and other healthcare staff have received much-deserved praise for their frontline efforts, they are not the only workers enabling hospitals to face this unprecedented crisis. Hospital maintenance staff are also on the frontline and vital for the fight to save lives during the pandemic.
“Our staff are healthcare workers first, maintenance workers second,” says Edward Dudek, vice president of facilities engineering with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Health System. “They are as critical as any other member of the healthcare family, and they are no less critical to providing the best possible care to our patients and to our staff.”
Be it keeping our vital healthcare infrastructure running during this health crisis, ensuring commercial buildings remain functional and ready for the return-to-work or upgrading buildings to better serve their occupants in the post-COVID era, our maintenance workers are essential. While maintenance work has always been a thankless but vital behind-the-scenes task, this extended crisis can and should shed light on the dangerous frontline environments that our maintenance crews now find themselves working in. We in the buildings industry, and society as a whole, should now give maintenance workers the recognition they deserve.
“Often forgotten and little recognized, essential facility management teams have always worked behind the scenes to keep our facilities going and running at an optimal level. During the pandemic, these teams now have an even more important role to play — improving our facilities and preparing them for the new normal of work life,” says Curran. “Whether that’s increased distance between workspaces, new hand sanitizer stations, or limits on the number of people in elevators, facility management’s essential workers are implementing these changes before we return to work and without any expectation of appreciation. For the selfless work they do, that will make returning to public facilities possible, we thank them.”