The Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has affected each of us differently in our work lives. Most notably for me, social distancing has been the most challenging element both in terms of physical proximity and adapting the ways in which we communicate. I work at a normally bustling, virtually full industrial/business park where roughly 1,800 people come in every morning to work or school and several hundred more visit throughout the day for business meetings, education, special events, conferences or to call on their clients. Separately from this is the never ending parade of trucking — deliveries, pickups, movement of goods between the buildings — plus any number of contractors across the spectrum of the trades such as plumbers, electricians, roofers, riggers and systems maintenance.
From the very start of talk about a possible ‘shut down’, it became apparent that we needed to address the primary realities of operations for a facility the size of a small city with 40+ tenants of all different sizes and needs. A key factor is that our mechanical systems (HVAC strong enough to heat or cool hundreds of homes, massive amounts of plumbing, a water treatment plant and two high voltage electrical sub-stations) cannot be safely operational without staff on-site. Several of our tenants are ‘essential’ as their businesses are in the fields of healthcare, food distribution, defense subcontractors and a pharmacy. With the waiver program others were allowed to come back to work as well. It very quickly became apparent that we needed to adapt to being ‘open’ in a pandemic and that we needed to figure a whole lot of things out.
Normally 70 percent of my job is commercial real estate and leasing space in the facility, and 30 percent is managing the tenants and the facility. With the real estate side completely down, showings against the rules, tours prohibited, prospects in the pipeline going on hold and face-to-face meetings all cancelled, we changed our methods of communication and went into support mode. Every aspect of day-to-day life — in a facility where not all that much has changed in terms of 24/7/365 mechanical operations since 1942 — needed to be considered. Some tenants were fully operational in terms of staff on-site. They needed the full complement of systems, services, access and security. Others completely shut their doors, sent their staff home and had spaces sitting vacant with no eyes or ears inside to be aware of issues. They still needed a few basic services but at a much lower scale. Others had rotating staff on site, juggling who went into work on some set days and working from home on the other days. Trying to keep track of who was doing what and their needs in terms of support and services was like herding wet cats. Much like the pandemic itself, things kept changing.
A lot of emphasis has been placed on what is and is not ‘essential’ work in our culture lately. For our company the mechanical staff and the janitorial/custodial staff took the brunt of the workload. They were here throughout working more than they had been before. Services that we depend on like non-emergency roof work had to be put on hold and monitored. Services that we supply like the recycling of metals, for example, needed to be stored. Products ordered before the shut down were arriving with no one here to move the goods. With the construction industry shut down, building materials and equipment pre-ordered for specific jobs needed to be warehoused until they could start building again. Our warehouses were filled to overflowing with stuff crammed into the aisles and all the nooks and crannies. One tenant due to move out was not allowed to work and had to hold over. That caused the company that had already leased their area (which was actively working and needed space) to have to wait to occupy. The “I need more space” distress calls which are normally a leasing agent’s dream take on a whole new perspective when you are not allowed to be there to practice real estate or show space. The communication needs to be a whole lot different and a whole lot more adaptable. Relationships and trust become the true essentials.
My job became a hybrid of work from home — I am the 24/7 on-call emergency person and tenant contact — and coming into the facility Wednesdays and Saturdays. We wanted to have a person in management on-site every day to be supportive. Most of those in-office days I would see at most one or two coworkers briefly. In general people really kept to themselves and stayed inside their spaces. Email, text, phone calls and Zoom meetings were another thing . . . crazy! When we were in the office we were also to be supporting the efforts to keep things extra clean. We were all to do our normal work plus get out and about to clean the facility doing things to protect people from germs by wiping down push bars, door knobs, entrances and exit areas, handrails, light switches and common area elements. This also got us into every building and able to use our eyes and ears as we have all been taught over and over again in our circa 1950s industrial safety training classes that “the five senses are the hallmark of industrial safety”.
Once we were allowed to get back to work, we resumed our Monday to Friday schedules on June 8th. I had a showing that first day, and they leased it . . . not a bad start despite the whole rigmarole of questions, mask and gloves and the pre- and post-cleaning thing. The population here at Burle is still less than half of “normal”. We have two new tenants moving in July 1st, but so many people are working from home for the foreseeable future. It is still to be determined what effects this will have on space long-term, especially with people still getting sick and talk of another wave. Our tenants, without exception, have moved through this well. Unlike so many horror stories of commercial real estate, we are seeing nothing but stability and strength with a lot of flexibility. I am also noticing more of them working together which is something we always encourage, but it seems more prevalent. Maybe that will be the upside . . . more partnerships and shared efforts among neighbors.
We have had no outbreaks or reports of sickness here at the facility (knock on wood). I do know we have had people quarantine after a possible exposure elsewhere, but they did not end up getting sick. . . of course with HIPPA we may just be unaware. What we are being told today . . . and I swear we get new information every day . . . is that they are now recommending increasing fresh air intake circulation for indoors AND shutting the toilet lid when flushing to prevent airborne vapors. Interesting perspective . . . how many industrial bathrooms have you ever seen where any of the toilets have a lid to put down? NONE. So I have roughly 57 toilets and 0 lids . . . but I will worry about that tomorrow. What is essential to us is to try to keep up in order to help people stay safe. The LAST thing we want is to ever have any of our tenants have to ‘shut down’ again. So from my small microcosm bubble viewpoint, life is still going on . . . a bit different maybe, but still good . . . knock on wood again.
Althea Ramsay Carrigan, Burle Business Park
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