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Emergency Preparedness and the Corporate Real Estate Professional

The scope of potential workplace emergencies in corporate America has grown in recent years and so has the complexity of the employer’s role in ensuring that its workforce is prepared and ready to respond to an emergency. Corporate real estate professionals also are playing a bigger role than they have in the past in ensuring a safe and secure physical workplace. Earlier this month, a group of corporate real estate professionals representing a range for companies including Fannie Mae, GDIT, Volkswagen, Hilton, JLL, CBRE, fhi360, and Maximus gathered to discuss some of the challenges of emergency preparedness. Four out of the 10 participants noted that responsibility for physical safety now resides in their departments, and the others say that they partner with the safety team on these issues.

Joining the group was Jackie Seth, Emergency Preparedness and Life Safety Manager at Fannie Mae, who offered insights based on her more than two-decade career as a safety professional that includes stints at the Pentagon and a defense contractor. The group identified a number of issues and challenges for corporate real estate professionals to consider.

1. The Challenge of Openness vs. Security
Everyone in the company has a role to play in workplace safety. Employees need to understand the importance of badging in and preventing “piggy backing,” randomly letting folks in to offices without first checking their badges. One participant noted that workplace theft often carried out by people who look like they belong. They wear suits and might say they forgot their badges or have their hands full, and employees swipe them in because they want to be polite. The challenge that companies face is making things as safe and secure as possible without creating a fortress. This is particularly complex for hospitality companies whose facilities draw registered guests and the general public. In those cases, passive security that is not obvious is in place.

2. The Challenge of Individual Privacy and The Company’s Need for Vigilance
The last few years have seen the growth of workplace apps designed to give employees more agency and benefits as they move their day. These apps allow workers to book conference rooms, regulate the heat in their workspace, order food, and find colleagues in their building or on their campus. To be effective, these apps have geo location which provides the company with a great deal of information about employee movements throughout their day and preferences. Employees need to understand what information is being collected and have the opportunity to opt-in or opt-out of these services.

3. Technology Plays a Role in Security
Participants talked about the value of safety apps like Everbridge, which provide efficient means to communicate with employees and visitors, first responders and anticipate and prevent disruptions to operations. They also noted that security apps are often separated from other workplace apps for liability reasons.

4. Safety and Security is the Responsibility of Every Employee Not Just HR, Facilities or the Chief Safety Officer
A common theme throughout the discussion was the need for employees to be aware and accountable for their safety and security. They need to speak up when they see or feel something isn’t quite right. And they need to have their own personal plans: What will they do if they need to shelter in place and can’t get home to take care of children? Do they know what to do if there is a fire, an active shooter or other unexpected issue? Do they know how and when to flee, hide or fight?

5. Prepare without the Scare
Companies need to make safety training a top priority not just a box to check. Employees need to understand when to evacuate, how to evacuate, what shelter in place means. Drills or scenarios where employees have to think about what to do and how to act is critical because emergencies don’t follow the textbook or the training manual. The best training gives employees the skills to evaluate their risk and have a set of actions that they can take. Responding to one participant’s suggestion to do surprise drills, participants noted that care must be taken not to overly alarm people and avoid doing more harm than good. Property managers can be a resource in providing security and safety training.

6. Mental Health is Becoming an Important Part of the Safety and Security Equation
Many workplace violence incidents stem from domestic violence. Participants discussed the need to pay attention to the mental health needs of employees to prevent these incidents. Employers must also look at helping workers, who may be experiencing PTSD, cope in the aftermath of an unexpected event. While active shooters and terrorism are often cited as threats, more often than not emergency events come in the form of natural disasters such as earthquakes, like the Washington region experienced several years ago, or weather events—extreme flooding or snow and ice.

7. Create a Culture Where Safety Matters
Participants agree that safety must be a top priority and establishing that priority has to come from the top leadership. Corporate real estate professionals play a vital role in communicating the value proposition for safety measures. It is natural that folks don’t want to think about disasters or emergencies, believing, “That could never happen here.” But as one participant noted, many building codes and standards, “emerged from blood.” Before we have blood, let’s do what we can to prevent problems and if they emerge, make sure that everyone knows how best to respond to mitigate risk, and protect the workforce.