The COVID-19 experiment: How research facilities can manage the return to work

Three considerations for the post-COVID-19 Life Sciences lab

May 07, 2020

The life sciences industry is facing a wide-range of economic and workplace effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. The novel coronavirus has accelerated activity within therapeutics in labs around the world. Global players and small start-ups are chasing a COVID-related vaccine, while managing therapies in their existing pipeline. Life sciences companies are “all in,” fighting a short-term goal of finding more abundant diagnostics and disease identification and prevention methods.

Advancing medicine during a pandemic is a heroic lift. Many life sciences labs have continued operating at a vastly reduced density and scale, as their work involves ongoing studies, and in some cases, living organisms. Research labs have been forced to take even greater precautions, including modifying procedures to protect their workforce. And as more scientists begin to return to work, it only heightens the need for safety. With limited COVID-19 treatment options, and uncertainty around vaccine-development, long-term planning is increasingly critical in order to maintain productivity.

The CARES Act provides significant assistance for the U.S. life science industry, including the FDA’s effort to fast-track $11 billion in funding for the development, production, and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. The CARES funding will certainly enable research labs to leverage their best teams into disease combat efforts, but that initial wave may not be enough. The lion’s share of resources for research and development (R&D), capital projects, and ongoing operations capital comes from venture capital and private equity funding that is variable and uncertain.

One way life sciences can face capital constraints is to look at its commercial real estate (CRE) and facilities management to help reduce operational costs and aid continuity planning. With that in mind, there are three key considerations for the post-COVID-19 lab:

  1. Leverage data for space planning and social distancing
  2. Labs are already well-equipped to meet enhanced safety requirements, as they typically operate with strict guidelines for hygiene (handwashing) and PPE (lab coats, gloves, eyewear, etc.) Research labs also tend to be less dense than traditional office space, which is a positive for limiting contamination. Like all workplaces, social distancing within the lab environment will become a necessity. Understanding utilization rates of each component of the lab space is key to deploying resources efficiently.

    Given that many scientists typically work side by side on benches, this will require some logistical ingenuity. Rotational staffing is currently in use across many labs, but it has natural limits with respect to productivity. Strategic occupancy or space plans, prioritized based on business impact, will become essential. Also, establish criteria for projects that can be deferred to a 90- to 120-day window.

    Appropriate social distancing floorplans that reflect employee space demand will be required before a vaccine is widely available. Life sciences companies should create space plans with utilization data that balances epidemiological guidelines and employee comfort levels. On the other side of the spectrum, social distancing measures could increase space requirements for companies in a position to expand. Shorter, flexible leases may be desired in order to enable quick upsizing and downsizing as conditions change.

  3. Add new protocols for heightened quality and safety
  4. The post-COVID lab will require a dramatic increase in focus on clean and safe working environments. Each company must develop new standard operating procedures (SOPs) and policies to optimize safety, security, productivity and wellness. This will require staff training to adjust to new standards, communicate expectations and ensure adherence to new protocols. Janitorial resources will need to be efficiently and effectively deployed multiple times each day. Air quality and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) operations will need to be monitored and run to limit contagion risk. Accurate and detailed floorplan utilization rate data will be essential to maintain safety standards. Temperature checks at entry points may also be required to prevent contagion from entering the workspace, and a plan of action in case an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19 will need to be determined.

  5. Technology can be a great tool to operationalize a post-COVID-19 workplace
  6. Occupancy planning tools can be used to efficiently manage workforce deployment using real-time Wi-Fi login and security badge data, as well as data from heat and motion sensors. This data can interpret space utilization activity to assess future needs and monitor building activity to ensure adherence to post-pandemic capacity limits. Predictive analytics can produce data-driven insights for right-sizing your space footprint, which will create meaningful savings over time. Smart building technology and wireless equipment sensors can continuously monitor and manage indoor air quality to support employee health, wellbeing and productivity. Smart building systems automatically self-adjust without the need for on-site engineers, improving building efficiency and reducing energy costs, which in turn contributes to reductions in overall operating expenses.

As they consider return to work, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device companies should take a holistic view of their portfolio and consider a variety of ways to reduce CRE exposure without compromising lab functionality. In addition to more comprehensive facilities management protocols, training the life science workforce to function effectively independent of location (on vs. off-site) will define the most successful labs. Life sciences companies should investigate how to best deploy technologies, space planning measures and facilities management (FM) outsourcing in order to reduce overall spend and contractually obligate providers to deliver a defined level of service.

All signs point to an increase in the demand for space from life science companies (after a potential short-term hiatus). In these challenging times, it’s worthwhile to remember that the world leading research and industrial strengths of the life sciences sector will not only help beat the pandemic, but also provide the firm foundations on which the US economy will be rebuilt.

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