Office spaces with communal areas and shared facilities will be in the frontline when the next stage of lockdown is lifted, and staff return to the workplace. And managing the return and preparing the building for what is being called the ‘new normal’ will demand collaboration and co-operation between landlords and tenants, staff and visitors.
Andrew Verlander, a Senior Associate in our Litigation team, examines what it means, particularly for landlords:
Some of the immediate concerns are around managing the flow of people in common areas, as well as within their defined workplaces, while keeping up with continually changing guidance. Action will also need to focus on how to manage risk through the building environment itself, such as cleaning processes.
The shift in recent years towards communal, shared working spaces, where open plan offices are shared by multiple organisations using group desk arrangements, brings added pressures for co-existence. Different micro businesses may have wildly differing attitudes towards sharing their immediate space while Covid-19 remains a threat, and here landlords will need to have a clear strategy.
Considering traffic flows and identifying the spaces likely to provide the highest risk of contamination is the starting point for a ‘new normal’ building management strategy. This should identify ways in which staff and visitors can best be protected, and how to reduce surface transmission through increased cleaning alongside these new behaviour protocols.
Discussions between landlords and tenants can help towards creating a staggered timetable for workers to arrive and leave a building to avoid over-busy common areas and also to consider how to meet social distancing standards when moving around or working in the building, which could include one-way systems and categorising how and when lifts or stairs may be used, as well as protective screens where appropriate.
For tenants, preparing for the re-opening of offices is likely to demand intensive planning around which staff are going to be returning, if the necessary social distancing is to be achieved within existing office space. It is likely to lead to requests for continued homeworking for many staff.
Equally, where landlords employ staff for common areas, they will need to consider how they fulfil their obligations to keep these employees safe as they will be on the front line in the number of physical interactions they have each day and it is likely to include some form of PPE - personal protective equipment - for reception and security staff.
Where buildings have been closed during the lockdown, building managers will need to ensure safety checks are carried out on all equipment, and servicing undertaken where necessary, to prepare the building for use.
Throughout, it’s important to ensure that decisions are made based on the latest guidance, such as the latest information from the Government, Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive. Also, insurance should be checked as the building’s insurers may have special requirements on keeping the building safe as it is brought back to active use.
Close liaison between the landlord, building management staff and tenants is essential to address building management issues such as these, but equally important is facing up to any lease or service charge-related problems, ideally to avoid them becoming the subject for major dispute at a later date.
The Government has already provided some protection for commercial tenants, saying that anyone who cannot pay their rent because of coronavirus will be protected from eviction if they miss a rental payment in the three months from March.
But this safeguard is not an alternative to discussing the situation with the landlord. While many tenants will have agreed a payment holiday during the lockdown, it’s likely that full rent will be due, including the backlog, once offices re-open, so if a payment plan needs to be in place, this should be discussed sooner rather than later so both sides know where they stand.
Where landlords incur additional costs, such as specialist cleaning, measures to support social distancing or extra security, this may be recoverable from tenants through service charges, but leases need to be checked carefully to be sure any potential charges are in line with what is set out there, as well as being ‘reasonable’. Again, up-front discussions with tenants will help avoid arguments later.
For help and advice on these issues Andrew Verlander will be able to help.