How landlords and facilities managers are dealing with empty buildings

Even though many people are working from home, buildings still require ongoing maintenance.

April 02, 2020

From the outside, many offices and public buildings currently appear closed for business across Europe. Inside, it’s a different story as dedicated onsite teams adapt their normal schedules to keep buildings running smoothly – and crucially, ready to reopen when needed.

As coronavirus disrupts working norms, landlords and facilities managers are now spending their days balancing ongoing maintenance work with security measures and health and safety issues.

“As others within the wider facilities management team work remotely, I’m basically their onsite eyes while we manage the critical infrastructure and business demands,” says Alan Epps, Operations Director for Integral, JLL’s Integrated Facilities Management arm in the UK.

It marks a significant shift from a couple of months ago when the focus was on managing the experience of people onsite, explains Shane Betts, head of corporate business at JLL.

“Things have moved quickly back to old-school management of the building itself; an empty building is a challenge for owners who rightly expect the health of their staff and security of their office not to be compromised.”

With fewer, and in many cases, no people in the office, landlords and facilities managers are using the current coronavirus lockdown to carry out minor checks, upgrades and works that could previously only be done at weekends or overnight such as testing lift systems or lighting repairs.

“I’m sending regular emails, photos and taking regular walks to make sure all is as it should be, along with implementing energy efficiency measures and ensuring the site remains safe and compliant,” says Epps.

Deep cleaning in buildings with suspected cases of Covid-19 is also a priority for many buildings. However, major refurbishment works are unlikely. “That’s understandable given firms’ watchful eye on costs right now,” Betts says.

Technology lends a hand

While many tasks still require skilled onsite engineers, advances in technology are helping common tasks to be done more quickly and easily.

Increasing levels of predictive maintenance can flag issues before they become a serious problem. Plus, as buildings get smarter, engineers can monitor their security via live imaging, and track and adjust energy performance offsite using sensors connected to a building’s infrastructure.

“This not only helps with cost savings but also minimises a building’s carbon emissions,” explains David Whiteley, Head of Sales and Solutions at JLL. “We’ve also seen great progress using sensor technology allowing temperature checks at water outlets. That means required compliance standards are met without the need for engineers to be onsite.

“Not maintaining water systems and flushed pipes increases the risk of legionella; making sure enough hot water passes through the system keeps things sterilised.”

With fewer people in buildings, some areas such as lighting are being turned off completely on unused floors as overall energy consumption during vacant periods can drop by as much as 85 percent.

Looking after the human side

Equally it’s not just about ensuring the safety of the buildings, safeguarding the health and wellbeing of onsite employees is also key.

Normal work schedules are being rejigged as facilities managers juggle the needs of the building with staff being off sick or self-isolating and technology such as video calls filling a gap when social distancing measures make face-to-face meetings difficult.

Commuting using public transport can also be an issue – and requires flexibility over working hours, says Betts.

“In London, for example, the underground and rail systems are still busy at their peak times,” he says. “Being able to avoid public transport or start work either at 7am or 10am has been one way to reduce the risk for staff of infection in rush hour.”

And while right now, it’s about onsite staff maintaining core operations, the focus will gradually shift to making sure buildings are ready for when landlords and companies resume their normal activities.

“When this lockdown comes to an end and we start to see the reoccupation of buildings, we don’t want to be in a situation where the restrictions have lifted but the building is not ready because it’s not compliant,” says Betts.