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John Butler is a property maintenance supervisor for WTC1 Inc., which manages more than 200,000 square feet of commercial space in Waterloo, Ont.

Ian Stewart

Property manager John Butler is one of many on the front lines caring for commercial buildings suddenly emptied by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It wasn’t that things slowed down for me,” says Mr. Butler, property maintenance supervisor for WTC1 Inc., which manages more than 200,000 square feet of commercial space in Waterloo, Ont. “It was that things got busier.”

As for everyone, the deadly coronavirus has upended daily routines in the commercial real estate sector over the past month. In response to an invisible enemy, property owners and managers are rewriting their playbooks to protect buildings now and prepare them for reoccupancy after an all-clear signal from governments.

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“We did have pandemic plans and business continuity plans in place pre-COVID-19,” says Neil Lacheur, executive vice-president of real estate management services in Canada for Avison Young, a global commercial real estate firm. But when building occupancy plummeted from near-100 per cent to 10 per cent in mid-March as tenants relocated to work from home, he says “we did have to adapt significantly on the fly because of the speed with which this [virus] came about.”

An immediate issue was the redeployment of cleaning staff.

Without tenants on site, janitors could clean offices faster than normal (sometimes in the day instead of at night) and redirect their efforts to disinfect high-priority common areas where visitors enter a building. Other staff, who typically respond to repair and other requests from tenants, could increase the time devoted to preventive maintenance.

“The buildings are still open, and we are still responsible for protecting the owners’ assets and the assets of tenants,” Mr. Lacheur says.

As a result, property management companies report a small drop in the number of cleaning staff – and no decline in security guards.

But public health rules on physical distancing have prompted changes in staff schedules.

At Jones Lang Lasalle Inc., whose commercial real estate activities include property management, shifts for janitorial staff and others were staggered so they were not in close contact with each other.

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“We are trying to keep the social and physical distancing rules as best we can and where they [cleaners] have to work together they are in full personal protective equipment,” says Ron Fiell, vice-president of national practice, lead property management for JLL. In his company’s coronavirus response, front-desk security staff pose health and safety questions to contractors and others before they enter a building.

One thin silver lining of the empty-building phenomenon is the enhanced opportunity for preventive maintenance.

“Now there are buildings where 85 per cent of the lights are out and we can work on making the building more efficient,” says Mr. Fiell, such as checking on the optimal operation of energy systems. “There is technology we have in place in some buildings for some of this equipment that we can tweak as we go,” he says. “Now they [property managers] have this opportunity to really dig in and find those efficiencies.”

With buildings in enforced “hibernation,” as one industry official puts it, the legal obligations of landlords and tenants are unchanged, says Yan Besner, a Montreal partner in the real estate practice of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP.

“You need to make sure you keep the property on proper life support so that when things go back to normal, whatever that new normal may be, that the lights can be proverbially turned out again without a hitch,” he says. Property owners and tenants with buildings in multiple provinces, he adds, need to fulfill their respective contractual obligations while keeping abreast of virus-related government directives.

“Hopefully, there is going to be a lot of good-faith understanding between both sides coming out of this,” he says.

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To that end, effective communication is proving to be a valuable lesson in managing the current disruption.

“We had to stay steady and consistent in our communication, so people felt that sense of comfort that everything was being taken care of and their health and well-being was covered,” says Avison Young’s Mr. Lacheur, who described his company as “in overdrive” to communicate to its tenants and investor clients.

Internal communications are no less important.

Early last month, two days before the National Basketball Association cancelled games because of the virus, Avison Young set up internal teams at its global, North American, Canadian and local levels to share information and solve problems. “We kept very clear channels throughout the organization so people did not feel like they had to develop their own solutions,” he said. “Everything flowed upstream and downstream.”

Another lesson, industry officials say, is an emergency response plan that is ready to go, not dormant on a shelf.

“What this [virus] scenario has highlighted is the importance of keeping it [the plan] operational and not just operational within an organization or building but across the neighbourhood, the community and between buildings,” says Bala Gnanam, vice-president of energy, environment and advocacy for the Building Owners and Managers Association of the Greater Toronto Area.

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Two weeks ago, in response to the swift emptying of office towers, BOMA Toronto released a six-page checklist developed by one of its industry-member advisory councils to identify issues – from security to daily digital technology inspections – triggered by “building extended closure.”

A previous version of the checklist was “completely revamped for the COVID-19 scenario,” says Mr. Gnanam, whose organization is hosting coronavirus webinars for its members.

Back in Waterloo, Mr. Butler still starts his day at 7 a.m., but much of his daily schedule has been revised by the pandemic.

Without repair requests coming from tenants, he now enters their empty offices to check on washrooms, lights and other utilities. Armed with company-supplied protective gloves and a surgical mask, he uses hospital-grade disinfectant to wipe down door handles and railings. When contract plumbers and electricians visit, sometimes in hazmat suits, he and they answer questions on their health. More than before, Mr. Butler has time for preventive maintenance.

Industry officials have nothing but praise for the current work of janitors, security officials and property managers such as Mr. Butler as the first line of defence in safeguarding vacant buildings.

“When things are going tickety-boo and everything is great, [building staff] are the first line of people who deal with the tenants,” says realtor John Whitney, a principal with WCT1, Mr. Butler’s employer. “When things don’t go well and we are in a pandemic like now, they are equally as valuable to make sure the assets are looked after.”

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