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Resilience In Action At University of Chicago

COVID-19 has tested the school’s resilience strategies. Senior Director of Facilities Brian Cowperthwaite discusses an emphasis on people, communication and preventive maintenance

The University of Chicago
STLJB / Shutterstock.com

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged institutional and commercial facilities in nearly every possible way. Initially, facility managers had to find remedies for shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect workers, as well as plan and schedule upgrades of building entrances, restrooms and offices to create safer workspaces. Longer-term, they had to implement broader measures, such as assessing airflow in facilities and, if needed, schedule upgrades of air filtration and HVAC systems. Perhaps longest-term — and most important — of all their responsibilities, they had to help ensure the overall resilience of their organizations by setting out strategies to help buildings and organizations respond to and recover from the pandemic and return to operations as quickly as possible.

For Brian Cowperthwaite, senior director of facilities services operations and maintenance with the University of Chicago, addressing the resilience of the university and its facilities during the pandemic has been just the latest challenge in a career that has included an array of challenges and opportunities.

What is your role in the university's resilience efforts?

Our organization focuses our daily operations and long-term initiatives on increasing resilience as it pertains to redundancy, reliability and recoverability. Whether it be tailoring our preventive maintenance program to increase reliability or working with our supply chain to stock parts for our most critical assets, our facility services team as a whole has a daily focus of effort on resiliency. For leaders, the most important role we have is listening to the front-line team and putting into action the solutions to the problems they struggle against every day. I've had many incredible managers and mentors. One would famously and often say, "Don't make things into a high school science project." What he meant was, don't overthink things. Someone probably has dealt with each problem a dozen times, and we just need to listen to them.

What other departments in the organization are involved in resilience planning?

Facility services has an extremely talented senior leadership team. It's no coincidence that our teams reference resilience as a theme. New construction project managers and engineers design around redundancy, recoverability and reliability. Our planning, finance and IT departments home in on new mobile solutions or systems that add increased visibility and ease by which to ensure our campus is more resilient. They may call it by a different name, but every department has an important role in planning resilience.

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