The property market as a whole has survived Covid very well so far. However, that is not to say that some individuals have not been hit very hard by it. We dealt with a tragic case where a business had to be sold due to the death of the proprietor and I have other clients who have been very badly affected physically, emotionally and financially. The pandemic is not over yet and every business owner has a duty to protect themselves, their staff, their clients and society in general from Covid. So, how can we best do this?
A good place to start would be to think about ventilation. It has been proven beyond doubt that improving ventilation reduces the transmission of Covid dramatically. In Belgium, public buildings must by law have CO2 detectors to monitor air quality and the UK government has just announced that it will be supplying 300,000 CO2 detectors for use in schools. However, the importance of ventilation has had very little coverage in the press so far.
I recently read an excellent article about ventilation in The New Scientist. It said that very few people catch Covid outdoors where on average the CO2 concentration is 410 parts per million. Indoors, the concentration is higher and the higher it is, the greater the risk of catching Covid. Some of their test results were quite surprising. For example, the CO2 levels on a bus or train with the windows open were hardly raised at all but in a private car with one passenger and the windows closed, the CO2 levels increased by more than 400%. In view of this, it seems ironic that the trains only have one third the number of passengers that they had before Covid whilst road traffic has already returned to pre-pandemic levels.
As a business owner, you really must think about the air quality in your offices because there are some very simple and cheap things that you can do to improve it. The first thing to do is to install a CO2 detector. We are used to buying carbon monoxide detectors but we now know that carbon dioxide is dangerous too. The detectors are very cheap and will give you a continuous reading of the CO2 levels in the office so that immediate action can be taken if they increase.
The second thing to ensure is that some windows are open. A couple of small high-level open windows will make an enormous difference to the air quality. If they don’t open or have been painted shut, then they need to be repaired or adapted immediately.
If opening the windows is impossible or impractical, then the alternative is to upgrade your air conditioning system. Most air conditioning systems do not draw in fresh air from outside, they just heat or cool the stale air, then recycle it continuously. When I am driving my car, I find that if I leave the air conditioning on the recycle setting, I feel myself getting drowsy within about 30 minutes. Exactly the same thing happens in an office.
Upgrading the air conditioning system will be expensive but it will prove to be an excellent investment. If you have to shut the office for ten days due to a Covid outbreak amongst your staff, the lost revenue will outweigh the cost of a new air conditioning unit several times over. Furthermore, better air quality will improve your staff’s productivity. A recent survey found that productivity increases by around 9% in a well-ventilated office.
A second area to focus on is minimising contact with other people. There is a great deal that can be done to achieve this. For example, whilst we are allowed to do accompanied viewings again, we should still be keeping them to a minimum. Insisting that applicants to a virtual viewing before they do a real one is a very good way to achieve this. You should also try to meet the applicants at the property rather than travelling together in a car and try to get to the property five minutes early so that you can open some windows to ventilate the property before they arrive.
Another sensible precaution is to keep visitors to the office to a minimum. For example, everyone should be encouraged to sign documents electronically rather than in person. Maintenance issues should be reported by email, not in person. Finally, contractors could be asked to collect keys from an external lock box rather than coming into the office in person. You need to think about everyone who visits your office and consider whether they actually need to. Some simple changes here can reduce the number of visitors dramatically.
If you or your staff cannot avoid being in a crowded and unventilated room, then they should take every possible precaution to avoid becoming infected. The most useful thing that they can do is to wear an FFP3-grade mask which has been proven to give the wearer a significantly higher degree of protection than the surgical masks that most people wear.
There are many other things that you can probably stop doing. The evidence shows that hand sanitiser has very little impact on infection levels yet almost every single business still has a pot next to the entrance door. Perspex screens have also been shown to be pretty useless because the infectious particles can easily travel around them. In fact, by trapping stale air in one area, they may even increase infection levels. Finally, sanitising people’s desks and the office door handles ten times a day is expensive and has been shown to have very little benefit.
It is clear now that we are going to have to learn to live with Covid for a long time to come but some simple cheap and common-sense precautions can have a real effect upon what impact Covid has on you, your staff and your business.
Adam Walker is a management consultant and business transfer agent who has specialised in the property sector for more than forty years.