COVID-19 said to have emerged in China (Wuhan) in December, 2019 has been responsible for large-scale infection outbreaks and untold disruptions to global economic, social and political conditions. The coronavirus strain has been found to be the deadliest of the seven known types[i]. This is due to its much higher spread, peoples’ lack of immunity to it and its ability to cause severe illnesses and a high mortality rate. More recent studies put its infection rate per carrier to between 4.7 and 6.6 people compared to between 1.1 and 2.3 for the seasonal flu. The fact that COVID-19 spreads through droplets from coughing, sneezing, singing and even talking or breath from asymptomatic vectors who at this stage are often mobile and do not become totally incapacitated by this virus (unlike Ebola or Lassa fever) further facilitates its quick spread.
Lagos State is the focus of this post not only because of its position as the major economic hub in Nigeria and the West African sub-region, accounting for 26.7% of Nigeria’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and over 80% of her foreign trade flows in 2016[ii], but also because it is known as the epicentre of the COVID-19 disease in Nigeria, accounting for almost 40% of all cases[iii]. Hence, it is presumed that Lagos city can provide a veritable indication for Nigeria on the subject area.
Facilities Management (FM) has been defined variously by authors and international institutions such as International Facilities Management Association and British Facilities Management Institute. In my work[iv] I understand FM comprehensively as the application of management process to the planning, designing, provision, efficient upkeep, daily operation and control of organizational facilities and support services towards optimal achievement of organizations’ set objectives at minimal cost. In other words, FM broadly involves planning/designing, provision and effective management of facilities in the built environment (space/building, equipment, furniture, fittings, plant and machinery) and their support service requirements with a view to making them efficient and effective enough to add significant value to the client’s business.
In spite of the high infection rate of COVID-19, the disease has been rightly termed a lazy virus because of its ability to stay in the air only for short periods and space travel. It therefore spreads more indoors, within closed and crowded spaces with close-contact such as offices, malls, worship and events places, hospitality facilities etc. From studies emanating from countries like South Korea and the United States of America, experts found that an estimated 70% of infected patients studied did not pass the virus at all and that just 20% of cases resulted in 80% of transmissions[v] and these were during super-spreading events which typically involve gatherings in crowded, indoor areas[vi]. This underscores the unique relationship between COVID-19 and the built environment and invariably Facilities Management (FM) as the professional practice responsible for the proper upkeep of the built environment, thus making the response of this practice to the ensuing situation very germane.
In view of the foregoing, this post examines the response requirement of facilities management in the handling of this main object of their function – facilities (built environment), particularly in the light of its being identified as the forum within which COVID-19 is spread and the various nuances to this response (particularly work arrangements), using Lagos city as a case study. The rest of the post is divided into two: FM Response Discussion and Conclusion Sections.
Facilities Management Response to COVID-19
Further to the definition of facilities management, a facility can be seen as the asset of an organization (and its attendant physical components) that is built, installed or established to serve a purpose. Buildings and their support services (building, staff and business support and Information and computer technology) are all components of facilities[vii].
There is no known vaccination for COVID-19 and viruses generally are not scientifically known to have cures. Therefore, the medical and scientific response to it is to curtail the spread of the disease while managing the symptoms of the infected people. While management of symptoms with palliatives may be the responsibility of the medical personnel, the work scope of facilities managers makes them very involved in curtailing the spread of the disease within the indoors of the built environments. Leaning on preliminary research on COVID-19, two major work arrangement responses have become available to organisations (a) working from home to curtail spread and (b) adapting the built environment to respond to preventing the spread of the disease so that work can resume there.
Working from home is also referred to as teleworking, which enables employees to work from within the confines of their home and connect to other employees for collaborative work through the internet. This helps curtail the spread of COVID-19 by ensuring that people remain only in close contact with household members who do not have the virus. There are numerous nuances to this response. For effective adoption of the teleworking model, facilities managers are trained to ensure that some provisions are effectively in place at the point when employees start teleworking from home and the employer, through the facilities manager and not the employee, must be responsible for this. This includes efficient internet access, productive computer hard- and software, power and most importantly an ergonomic work setting. Ergonomics is designing the work setting to be flexible to fit the capabilities and uniqueness of every individual to the job or work condition. A United Kingdom research shows that working from home as a result of COVID-19 in most instances have been devoid of these provisions. Hence, just a couple of weeks into the lockdown, employees started experiencing worsening health conditions including musculoskeletal disorders, tendonitis, eye-strain and sight problems[viii]. Although no similar study was conducted in Lagos, anecdotal evidence suggests that the situation is as bad if not worse, particularly for employees in the non-executive hierarchy in organisations. If care is not taken, these health issues which reduce productivity could lead to permanent incapacitation of workers and diminish the health quality of our urban city dwellers.
In spite of the lockdown forcing most organisations to work at much lower capacities, power and internet access inadequacies in employees’ homes in Lagos have further reduced productivity, while many are already complaining of the added cost of data, power, etc. from working from home. Also, the speed of home internet connections is often frustratingly slow, as good quality connections are usually only affordable by organisations[ix]. In the Lagos context, there is the additional problem of a significant rise in environmental pollution in our residential neighbourhoods resulting from having to run electricity generators as a back-up power source in individual homes during power outages, for those that can afford this. As I previously wrote about[x], some of the relevant socio-economic, almost crisis-like peculiarities of the Nigerian context in this respect include low ICT integration and diffusion, poor access to public infrastructure, services and utilities, frequent power outages and poor standardization and regulation of service and product quality amongst others.
Teleworking in Lagos has also significantly increased consumption of resources because workers have had to provide additional facilities for work within their homes, while similar facilities in the dedicated offices are being run concurrently, either because the huge installed capacities of the office facilities make them non-convertible for home use or because their usage capacities cannot be scaled down beyond a certain minimum, even at times of low capacity utilization as in the lockdown. For example, anecdotal evidence shows that in Lagos, families with one or two computers have had to buy one to two additional computers or android phones so that they and their children (doing school work) can work independently on these devices from home. Other facilities that are used excessively at this period include HVAC units, lighting, electricity generators, water, etc., all of which greatly increase carbon emission and pollution in the city.
All of these nuances suggest that teleworking may only be adopted as a temporary solution to allow facilities managers and organizational executives to figure out how best to resume operating within our built environment, while still managing to curtail the spread of this pandemic or at least till a globally accepted, obtainable and affordable vaccine or perhaps cure becomes available.
For home working to become more the norm, FM and organizational executives must consider the procurement of all of these essential provisions in workers’ homes. This comes with its peculiarities, because it will involve several visits by contractors and staff of the FM unit to the homes of workers, hence creating issues of privacy, security, safety and health (contamination). There is also the financial implication of these provisions where no prior budgetary allocations have been made.
What has been examined so far relates to office facilities, but what about other indoor environments that FM is responsible for such as facilities for social events, religious activities and hospitality? It should be understood that opportunities for social interaction, mental and physical tasks, exertion activities which are very important for well-being of the citizenry in our cities are some of the greater motivations and expected outcomes of these other facilities and these are just not obtainable while remaining within the confines of our homes. This means that FM response for this set of facilities must be within the already provided spaces, which brings us to the second response format.
The second response of FM to COVID19 is for workers to return to existing purpose-built work environments for their daily routine activities or at best in combination with working from home. This will involve numerous considerations for the facilities manager to manage the office facilities, including setting up strict protocols to curtail the spread of the virus within the indoor of facilities considering that even before this pandemic, sick–building syndrome (including Legionnaires’ disease) is already a pertinent health issue in the office environment. This will require strictly regulated cleaning schedules, materials and tools. It will also involve strict monitoring and provision of deep-seated enlightenment (on how to manage this pandemic) to both service-providing and other personnel. Other provisions such as distanced temperature reading and strict wearing of masks may have to be enforced. Furthermore, there must be strict enforcement and severe consequences by organizational executives and the necessary government agencies for workers’ wrong actions or in-action. All of these issues are precursors to extra resource management challenges such as extra cleaning chemicals, (which must be environmentally friendly) to ensure health rather than just cleaning and additional hands for monitoring and control activities amongst others.
Another major consideration for returning to work in existing spaces is how FM will create physical distancing while sufficiently accommodating all hitherto activities of the workers and still optimize severely impacted costs and the bottom line. For instance, British organization Pallite, which used to manufacture packaging is already looking into introducing physical distancing by using recycled cardboard desk screenings with polythene see-through spaces[xi]. Better scoping of employees’ activities must be accomplished, in order to schedule field and office times to reduce the number of workers that are physically present in the office at any point in time. The accompanying hot-desking (desk sharing) should be expected to bring its attendant issues such as sanitizing spaces for multiple users and managing workers’ privacy and confidentiality requirements. Recent studies are also looking into the possibility for longer durability of the COVID-19 pathogens in aerosols particularly in air-conditioned environment.
This post sets out to examine the nuances in FM response to COVID-19 in the city of Lagos, particularly for work arrangements. This is in recognition of the major role that the built environment (facilities) plays in the quick spread of this disease and the unique relationship between this and the role of FM in the provision and upkeep of facilities and support services within the built environment. The study focuses on Lagos as the Nigerian economic hub and COVID-19 epicenter.
Two major work arrangement options in the city were indicated; work from home to prevent the spread of the disease or protect the work environment from the disease and make workers return to their work places. This post indicates that for the former, inadequate housing, lack of appropriate work facilities (including ergonomic ones) in workers’ home and poor public infrastructure and basic services, have impacted negatively on workers and their families in this city by way of diminished productivity and increased psycho-social and physical health problems including musculoskeletal and sight issues amongst others. The paper also links home working with increased resource consumption, carbon emission and invariably, environmental pollution.
The essay concludes that for home working to become the norm, facilities managers with significant financial support from organizational executives must quickly provide workers with appropriate and ergonomic work facilities at home. The difficulties with this in the midst of dwindling productivity, production capacity and hence bottom line may be insurmountable. Furthermore, this response will not address the accompanying problems of increased environmental pollution. Of course, the alternative which is to have the Lagos city workers return to offices and other dedicated work facilities creates numerous health and safety challenges as already identified.
On a final note, this discussion makes it clear that a lot needs to be known about this disease and how the facilities manager can adopt best practices in responding to the nuances thrown up by the numerous reforms (teleworking, physical distancing and strict sterilizing) that are required to enable workers resume normal daily operation of facilities (whether at home or in the work place) while curtailing the spread of the virus within the built environment. It has also brings to light the fact that there is currently no model that fits all and that teleworking may be at best only a temporary response.
I recommend significant multidisciplinary and collaborative (academic and practitioner) research into many of the response issues highlighted in this post, in order to unveil best practice FM response to the pandemic and to continue to protect the Lagos city workers and environment as best possible.