The introduction of a “new normal” – a wholesale change in how we navigate through our daily lives and how industries alter the way they conduct business – is just not that exceptional. In fact, the emergence of a new normal from time to time is, well, pretty normal. Sometimes, the new normal is a response to a challenge that is universal and profound. Other times, the cause and effect are more limited in scope, scale, or ubiquity.
Without question, we have entered an extraordinary new “new normal” as we adjust our professional, social, and leisure pursuits to the realities of the global COVID-19 pandemic, as broad and wide-reaching a threat to our lives and livelihoods as could only have been imagined just a few short months ago. How and where we travel, eat, shop, relax, and work has been significantly disrupted from our most recent memory of life as it was. The CRE industry, like businesses across every sector of the economy, has had to adjust to the imposition of health and safety checks, physical distancing protocols, disinfecting regimens, personal protective gear requirements, and the establishment of capacity controls in both common and leased spaces, for a start.
The thing about “new normals” is how they eventually, inevitably become part of our everyday lives. A new reality burst suddenly upon us in September 2001, when public safety and security, always a universal concern, leapt from the background to the most urgent of priorities not only at airports, but at office buildings and government facilities, and in places of public assembly like stadiums and arenas. A pattern emerged in how we coped with an unwelcome new normal during the dark, uncertain days after 9/11, one that we have seen again after other disasters, natural and manmade, and that we can already see unfolding in the COVID-19 era. It is both instructive and prescriptive to view the return of the workforce to our buildings through the lens of how we have handled the most disruptive new normals in the past.
Stage 1: Risk Aversion
Because we are naturally anxious about unusual and challenging phenomena over which we have little or no control, we respond after an interrupting disaster with an aversion to the perceived risks of engaging in our usual routines. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a record 65.4 million passengers flew on commercial flights in August 2001, the month prior to 9/11. Almost three years would pass before the airline industry sufficiently overcame the reluctance of passengers to return to the skies in similar numbers. A year later, in July 2005, airlines set new travel records.
Once the event that initiated the challenge passes into history, risk aversion begins to fade. The COVID-19 crisis will, of course, be unique in terms of its length. We are still in the midst of the pandemic with no certain date of its final resolution. In the interim, businesses have resumed operations and employees have returned to their jobs, some to our workplaces and others remotely. Those who have returned to their workplaces, at this stage, not only want to see the changes we are making to protect their health and safety, they demand it. The more we can communicate and demonstrate the measures we are putting in place, the less risk averse our tenants will become. For those who are the most reluctant to return to the office, it is even more important to overcome their fear and intimidation with assurances in writing and practice on their very first visit.
Stage 2: Assimilation
Our reluctance to return to our old routines and activities is often reinforced by the inconveniences that are so often part of the response to a norm-busting threat. When I returned to the United States from Europe after international flight restrictions were lifted a week after 9/11, my wait to check-in at the airport was more than four hours long. All of my luggage, check-in and carry-on, was thoroughly and invasively hand inspected before I could even approach the ticket counter. Returning home was not a choice, it was a necessity. I, therefore, nervously endured the enhanced security process and the anxious 9-hour flight back from Stockholm. Once on the ground, I was not only enormously relieved, but grateful for the airline’s emphasis on safety, security, and ultimately, my mental and emotional comfort on that very first post-disaster flight. Had it been any different, it would have been a much longer time before I would have wished to fly again. During this phase, I accepted the extra security screening requirements ahead of each of my flights because it gave me greater confidence that I was entering a safe environment. It may well have been the safest I have ever been on an airplane.
There is no question that the range of health-related protocols we must put in place during the pandemic are inconvenient to tenants and visitors and inefficient for our teams. For now, most tenants will expect and appreciate what we do to make them feel safe. Let them know what you are doing and why, and they will not only thank you for it, but it also will help to reduce their perception of risk.
Stage 3: Recalibration
In the immediate resumption of life under the “new normal,” people are generally resilient, understanding, and compliant with the inconveniences introduced to protect their safety. Patience, however, has an expiration date that varies with the individual. A three- or four-hour wait to be screened and board an aircraft was survivable in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Within months, it would be far from tolerable, and wait times for clearing security in airports — and in office buildings — has become reasonably brief and highly efficient, yet no less a priority. We adjust our expectations of the companies and organizations we work for, and even the government charged with protecting our well-being, as the new normal takes root. We recalibrate what level of inconvenience is acceptable to us, and over time, we expect a total or partial restoration of our conveniences. As the pandemic progresses, our buildings will need to continually find new, better, and more efficient ways to deliver a safe, secure, and healthy environment, focused on making the new pain points a whole lot less painful. Communication will be essential to introduce new procedures and manage tenant expectations, delivered using the HqO app and the building’s other messaging media.
Stage 4: Integration
Once the new normal has been incorporated into our lives, it is no longer new — it simply becomes normal. We have accepted logistical changes like enhanced security measures in our travel routines and office environment for nearly two decades since 9/11. They are a part of our routine, a given expectation of our normal day. When security seems lax or absent, we notice and actually wonder if anyone is watching.
Health and safety procedures will eventually be seamlessly incorporated into our tenant and team routines, just as TSA Pre-Clear, CLEAR, and Global Entry have been easing our secure journeys through the airport. Over time, these measures will become more efficient, more effective, and less obtrusive. At the juncture when a vaccine has been developed and the population inoculated, we may be able to relax some of the more stringent safety requirements being put in place today. But, it would not surprise me at all if temperature checks and other health measures will become as ubiquitous and as normal as using contactless technology to access an elevator. People will still get sick for a variety of reasons, and we will all be a bit more risk averse to being around coughing colleagues who might be suffering from a viral or bacterial contagion, even if it’s not COVID-19. But, being vigilant and protective of our tenants’ health may well be quite normal in the years to come.
Frank Supovitz, an award-winning experience designer, producer, event organizer, and author, has played a leading role in the success of such world-class properties as the Super Bowl, the Indy 500, and the South Street Seaport in New York City. A respected global thought-leader in sports, entertainment, and facilities management, he brings more than three decades of expertise to the HQO Team as a senior consultant for Tenant Experience. Contact HqO to put our Tenant Experience team to work for you.