Our Obligation to Safe Workplaces

Photo by Erin Doering on Unsplash

The government is beginning to formulate plans to “re-open” the U.S. economy. There are criteria around declines in cases and vague recommendations around phasing employees back into the office. Landlords too are eager to have their tenants “back to normal” — putting contractual debates behind, and the spaces businesses are paying for back to use again.

These groups and several other interests are looking to return quickly — understandable as we see the severe economic impact of being closed. But as a CEO, my priority is with my team. Will they be safe when they return to work? What will be done to ensure their safety? Will I be able to provide them with a safe workplace?

While the current pandemic is unlike anything we’ve been through before, the closest comparison I can draw on from personal experience is 9/11. I remember being on one of the first cross-country flights on the first day that we “re-opened” U.S. airspace following the attacks. It was a nerve-wracking experience, and I recall thinking that I could put to use a Phillips head screwdriver I’d left amongst my random assortment of pens and pencils if we hit any terrorist-induced turbulence.

It was also the first day that anyone had experienced TSA, including TSA. The lines were long, the pat-downs were rampant, and the screening was new and very clunky. I did, nonetheless, feel more secure. There were also noticeable changes including re-enforced cockpit doors, lingering rules for the bathroom, and a closed cockpit during the flight. These changes made it very clear that safety and security were the priority.

Covid-19 presents an entirely different scale and threat, but our obligation to ensure people are secure in the office — and that they feel reassured by our security measures — is the same. My concern is that landlords and property managers have so far been too slow to recognize the significance of the current situation.

When I first heard that someone in one of our office buildings had come in direct contact with CV-19, it was by word of mouth. I trusted but verified, and made the call to have our entire team begin working from home immediately. For me this situation was not different than having an active shooter in the building — the danger was clear and present and required an immediate response.

Landlords and building management companies should be on the front lines of discussions like this. Not only should they have an understanding of health and safety issues that may be directly aggravated by the shared spaces they provide, but they should have open lines of communication on these issues with and between all the tenants of those spaces, 24/7.

Just as building security desks became a standard feature of office buildings in the post-9/11 world, our discussions today should be around what we’ll change to ensure safety as offices re-open — even if it means reduced landlord margins. Beyond just focusing on lease obligations and payments, landlords should be turning attention to their social obligation and responsibility to tenants’ safety and whether or not their practices will be risking people’s lives upon our return to public spaces.

Will building visitors be screened for CV-19 symptoms? Are elevators going to be social distanced? Will tenants be informed of any health threats and held accountable to their obligations to disclose? Are hotlines going to be put in place so that if information flows inconveniently outside of 9 to 5 p.m., it is shared? How often will the lobby be cleaned, elevator buttons, bathrooms and door handles? And are tenants going to create their own cleaning protocols or is a standard cleaning protocol going to be put into place and adhered to?

It’s clear that the risk associated with the pandemic are not going to go away on May 1st, 15th or whatever arbitrary deadline we set in place for “re-opening” our economy. We all now clearly understand that CV-19 is a matter of life and death, and that it is communal. As a result, those that monetize from communal spaces have an obligation to ensure communal safety, or should be held accountable for the associated liabilities of not doing so.

The tenant/landlord discussion needs to move from one of cash flow and lease obligations and instead move to one of investment and changes associated with securing the safety of those individuals from which landlords monetize. In the meantime, our team continues to be very safe, secure and productive from their homes. We will continue to prioritize their safety and will continue to work from home until we are convinced that their workspaces are safe.

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