Man in medical mask looking over buildings.

5 Steps to Prepare Psychologically for Building Reopening

  May 21, 2020

By Naomi Millán

As the workforce starts filtering back into facilities over the next weeks and months, facility managers will have prepared by making the spaces cleaner than perhaps ever before, modifying spaces to help maintain optimal spacing, and other steps impacting the physical layout and operation of the space. But one area facility managers should be sure not to overlook is the psychological challenge people, both on their staff and in the larger organization, may face coming back to work in the space.

To help facility managers prepare, Arthur Evans, chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association, offered five areas of focus during a recent National Institute of Building Sciences webinar. 

1. Communication. There is a lot of difference in the perceptions of people who will be coming back into the workspace. Some will be running back in, desperate to get out of their homes. Others will have a significant amount of concern for their safety. And others will be somewhere in between. Because of this, facility managers should not have a "one size fits all" message, but will rather have to communicate in a variety of ways to address the different groups within the population they serve and work with.

Facility managers will also need to be mindful of the content and tone of their messaging. Evans says the messaging needs to be credible, consistent, and trustworthy. Messaging, such as around what is being done to prepare the space for occupant return, should be given with loads of lead time. And facility managers should start all messaging with reassurance that all decisions and actions taken are rooted in science and with occupant's best interest in mind, says Evans. "You want to give people that frame,"he says.

2. Certainty. The only thing worse than bad news is no news in times like these, says Evans. People want to know what there is to know. Knowing will give them the time and information needed to be able to make plans for themselves, which will reduce their anxiety, he says. As an example, when his office made the decision to switch to remote work as a response to COVID-19 in March, they announced the earliest return to the office would be the end of June. This certainty allows people to make plans, arrange for childcare, and on.

3. Control. Facility managers already know that providing personal control over their environment leads to occupants who are more satisfied with their space. Adjustable workstations and crowd-sourcing temperature control are some examples. "The more choice you can give, the better," says Evans. Returning to a work environment that is more constrained in terms of how people interact, where they can go, and what they can do will amp up the benefit of providing psychological control where possible. For example, letting people choose where they're comfortable to sit will give them a sense of control.

4. Tune in. Evans recommends facility managers keep a pulse on their team. As much as possible, try to understand what their needs are. "Know how people are experiencing the work environment," he says. 

5. Social connection. Lastly, Evans says facility managers should reframe the conversation away from "social distancing" to "physical distancing." Mental health is negatively impacted by social isolation. Instead facility managers should focus on ways to maintain physical distance while improving ways to connect socially.

Naomi Millán is senior editor of Building Operating Management. 



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