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Rebuilding Trust in the Built Environment

Building owners and managers are in an existential bind.

They have trillions of dollars invested in the built environment, yet many occupants are concerned about returning indoors. According to, 55% of adults in the United States are “very” or “somewhat” scared they will contract COVID-19.

While building owners and managers have always faced economic variations and seasonal fluctuations, the fear in this new normal is monstrously large and possibly long-lasting. We may wonder, “What if our built environment is no longer used because of occupants’ pandemic fears?”

Legitimate concerns of occupants

Occupants want to protect the health and safety of themselves, family, and friends while returning to work, worship, recreation, and school.

While essential workers haven’t had the opportunity of waiting to go back to work, non-essential workers (occupants) may be hoping for a quick arrival of vaccines to relieve their COVID-19 fears.

Unfortunately, vaccines will (at best) be 70-80% effective when they arrive, according to a recent CBS news report, though the FDA only requires a vaccine to be 50% effective to be approved. And with development, production, and distribution, the World Health

Organization (WHO) believes there won’t be a widespread vaccination until mid-2021 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believe it may not even be available until the third quarter of 2021.

Adding to this reality is the likelihood that the pandemic will get worse before it gets better. COVID-19 will remain dangerous for another 10-12 months and may become even more deadly in the short-term. Some health professionals fear COVID-19 infections will combine with seasonal flu to bring ever-higher death tolls this flu season.

COVID-19 alone, not seasonal flu, is projected to cause nearly 400,000 deaths by January or February of 2021, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

The new normal ‘fear’—obsolescent buildings

In their new normal, building owners and managers could be facing an almost unfathomable number of obsolescent buildings.

While there are examples of buildings repurposed for new uses (e.g., shuttered malls turned into distribution centers for online retailers), they took years to morph into their new purpose and functions. The pandemic fear driving building obsolescence will primarily hit office and non-essential buildings that cannot easily or quickly be repurposed.

The commercial real estate industry knows these changes are coming, and they will take time to adapt. Steven Paynter and Charmaine Lam, in their article How to Bring Older Office Buildings Back to Life Amid a Struggling Commercial Real Estate Market at, describe one vision of that change.

The new game

While waiting for trusted vaccines and safe therapeutics to relieve COVID-19 fears, building owners and managers must get occupants confidently back into buildings now. The new game is to rebuild occupant trust and confidence within their indoor communities.

In the pre-pandemic past, building owners and managers would build trust with occupants in limited interactions, primarily to attract and retain tenants, employees, shoppers, and/or students. Today, building owners and managers are in a new version of the trust-building game, one where occupants ask: “Am I safe inside?” and “Can I trust my life on what you say?”

To answer these questions, building owners and managers need more and better ideas than in the past, ones that will gain broad uptake with their indoor communities, and establish deeper relationships with their occupants.

Therefore, a blueprint for rebuilding trust in the built environment is needed. Here are two pillars on which to rebuild trust in the built environment:

  • Enlisting occupant participation

  • Reinforcing healthy new normal behaviors.

Enlisting occupant participation

Occupants must feel that everyone inside a building is complying with protective measures against COVID-19—that they’re all in it together, which they literally are when inside. They are more likely to follow those protective measures if they’re involved in their development and deployment. Building owners and managers can collaborate with occupants to:

  • Develop building rules for COVID-19 protective measures and corrective actions for non-compliance—rules based on CDC and local health professionals’ guidance—yet currently, most direction is coming unilaterally from building owners and managers.

  • Design awareness communications and remain ongoing content contributors.

  • Visibly reinforce protective measures and recognize successes.

Enlisting occupant participation is a more acceptable alternative for building owners and managers than to enforce rules with punitive measures, which is difficult when occupants are considered “customers.” So how can this be done?

Create/expand site-based collaboration teams: If building owners and managers don’t already have cross-functional site teams to address COVID-19 protective measures, they should form them. Include and/or add participants to the team from:

  • Occupant influencers (such as found on social media except these are found in the building)

  • High-profile onsite service members (e.g., the friendly security officer, building engineer, or day janitor)

  • Random occupants and on-site service team members (rotate for fresh new faces)

  • Building manager representatives (including administrative staff).

Brand teams with names and identities: Obviously, no one asked for COVID-19, and protecting against it is not fun or enjoyable. However, our response to this pandemic defines who we are. And since protective measures are our new normal, what about bringing a little joy back to indoor communities?

After forming a site-based, collaborative team, articulate its purpose and state its goals, which could include:

  • Rebuild occupant trust indoors.

  • Optimize compliance with COVID-19 protective measures.

  • Raise awareness and maintain participation in protective measures.

  • Contribute to occupant productivity and creativity above pre-pandemic levels.

  • Increase occupancy volumes via a healthy and safe indoor community.

For team cohesiveness and momentum, have a little fun. Create a team name and identity. For example, have the team name itself, such as the “Columbia Tower Healthy Hack Team,” or “Healthy Hackers” for short. Create a logo for printed and digital use so team members can identify themselves to fellow occupants, maybe even a humorous face mask for the team.

The seriousness of fun against COVID-19

There’s a long-term goal for building owners and managers here that justifies what may be considered trivial or light-hearted in #2 above. The goal is to transform “protective measures” into “normal behaviors” as COVID-19 requires modifying personal behaviors for the collective health.

Also, defining and deploying “protective measures” against COVID-19 will always bring out the rebel in some occupants, who will invariably push back against healthy behaviors that protect the larger community. And since it only takes one spreader to infect many others indoors, why not strive to bring humor and lighten up the grim business at hand?

Of course, there will/should be corrective actions for occupants who don’t follow the indoor protective measures. But rule enforcement is never as much fun as making a game out of behavior modification.

Reinforcing healthy new normal behaviors

It’s common sense to reinforce the CDC’s guidance to protect oneself and others, yet these protective measures are not universally followed. And if “protective measures” don’t become the new normal behaviors, occupants will face the inevitable surge of infections and illness, and that brings more misery and lockdowns for everyone: employees, congregants, students, sports fans, and shoppers alike. So, what needs to be done?

Over-communicate—especially about the unseen: There are noticeable efforts building owners and managers have/will/can take to allay occupants’ fears. But all the actions in the world won’t matter to occupants if they’re not aware of them. So, besides the visible mask-wearing, plexiglass sneeze barriers, one-way directional paths, and four-square elevator limits, building owners and managers must communicate more. They must over-communicate with occupants about the protection efforts that occur behind the scenes, which can include:

  • Disinfection and deep cleanings done after business hours

  • Surface bioburden (ATP) testing programs and their results

  • Indoor air quality enhancements, such as more outdoor air, humidification, bipolar ionization, UVC disinfection, etc.

There are plenty of onsite communication channels to get the message out and keep it on the forefront. These include:

  • Digital signage, posters, floor banners, decals, etc. in common areas of buildings

  • Socially distanced lobby “meet and greets” (different from pre-pandemic, but can work with a little tweaking)

  • Socially distanced site-based townhalls and/or video conferenced versions

  • Email distribution lists to key occupants

  • Site-specific website and opt-in email newsletter.

Communication and interaction with occupants have always been part of the job description for building owners and managers. That need has increased tenfold in the pandemic, so new and old communications must reinforce positive behaviors and correct negative ones. Communication cadence must be:

  • Continuous—to combat willful non-compliance and ordinary forgetfulness

  • Frequent—to vary communication channels and interactions to keep awareness

  • Regular—to fight the fatigue that wears down diligence and can easily spread more infection.

Gamification to boost engagement: Gamification is a tool/platform that applies game mechanics to non-game contexts in order to boost engagement and successful end-results.

The idea of gamification may be a heavy lift for building owners and managers because it’s new and different. It may be hard, but then again, what’s easy about this pandemic?

Building owners and managers can use gamification in their efforts to increase occupant compliance with healthy new normal behaviors and to maintain their continued participation. Whether it’s taking voluntary awareness training or contributing to communications, building owners and managers can do their best to make healthy new normal behaviors enjoyable, and maybe even fun.

The idea of collaboration teams mentioned earlier is a great place to start a plan using gamification. Teams will provide a diversity of ideas, ownership, design, and insight coming from those who have to live with the consequences.

Gamification for occupants will take a measure of creativity to flush out analog methods to add to already established digital software. Elements of gamification include:

  • Badges

  • Leaderboards

  • Points or purchase-based rewards

  • Social interactions and sharing

  • Story and choose-your-own-adventure plots.

Gamification for occupants will be the new frontier to deepen occupant connection with their building environment. Building owners and managers are first in line to tackle this evolution of indoor behaviors.

Gear up and step up

Building owners and managers are in a tight spot with trillions invested in the built environment. They need occupants occupying their buildings. But occupants are legitimately scared of returning indoors as COVID-19 and seasonal flu are likely to make this flu season deadlier than ever.

Since wide-spread vaccines are many months away, it’s time to gear up and step up for the marathon. The above two-pillar blueprint to rebuild trust in the built environment is worth trying. Novel times call for a novel approach.

Original Article written by Chris Arlen

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