Employers around the world are scrambling to plan for a COVID-19 pandemic, imagining how operations might continue if their employees are suddenly stuck at home and forced to work remotely. Those employees, in turn, are stocking up on supplies — food, water and toilet paper — needed to spend weeks in relative isolation.

Property managers face the unique challenge of supporting both employees and residents preparing for the worst. What happens, in a pandemic scenario, if a self-quarantined tenant faces an emergency that threatens their safety and major property damage (think gas leaks or a broken water pipe). How do property managers respond without putting their employees in imminent danger?

Each company will need to develop emergency plans in line with their unique workforce and property portfolio, but there is some general advice (in line with CDC and OSHA guidance) that can be helpful regardless of your size and specific challenges.

      Determine how you will handle service requests for residents who have tested positive for the virus and are self quarantined at home.

      Ensure that you have the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), on hand and that your employees understand the proper protocol for reducing the chances of contracting the virus. (Be aware that for employees who feel there is an “imminent danger” of contracting the illness, per OSHA, that employee may decline to perform services.)

      Develop a plan for ensuring that common areas that may have been contaminated by the virus are appropriately cleaned.

      Encourage sick employees to stay at home and develop alternative methods of completing work-related duties, such as telecommuting when appropriate.

      Consider rescheduling events that require employees to travel or congregate with large groups of people.

With all of the information flying around about COVID-19, it is important to check the CDC website regularly for updated information and guidance.

As the COVID-19 response ramps up in the U.S., there are also important lessons we can learn for identifying and responding to emerging threats. In the property management field, we should be watching the response to the coronavirus to understand how technology can help us be resilient in the face of unpredictable times.

Reporting from the front lines

Chinese doctor Li Wenliang took to social media on Dec. 30, 2019, to warn colleagues in the Chinese city of Wuhan about seven cases of the flu similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which originated in China in 2003, infecting some 8,000 people and killing 774.

Wenliang was accused of "spreading rumors" before he also became infected and died on Feb. 6. Wenliang was right to be concerned, of course, and in the perfect position to identify the problem early and potentially prevent an outbreak.

Lesson #1: Whatever industry you are working in, ask whether your data systems are listening to information coming from the front-line interactions between staff and customers or clients.

The consequences in health care are particularly grave, however we should all ask if our organizations have the agility to recognize and respond to rapidly accelerating changes in the environments where we operate.

Are insurance companies using their claims intake process to watch for isolated trends that could become bigger problems, for example? Are wearable technology providers using the millions of streams of incoming data to identity sudden changes in population health?

In the property management space, this means using data to see not only what is happening in your properties, but where new threats are emerging in your area and among similar employee and tenant populations.

If you’re not, you should be. We need to be moving toward point-to-point systems that ingest and analyze data rapidly — balancing the privacy rights of individuals — and tell us when something isn’t right.

Developing and disseminating solutions

Chinese scientists sequenced a Coronavirus genome and made it publicly available on Jan. 10. Within two weeks, researchers had sequenced about two dozen additional genomes, creating a detailed picture of the virus that will help identify its origin and possibly control its spread.

Based on the limited variation in genomes, scientists believe the original virus appeared in humans between October 30 and November 29. That means it took physicians and scientists no more than three months to identify the virus and map its genome. That is a remarkable improvement on the response to SARS, which began in November 2002 and wasn’t mapped until the next April.

As scientists continue to map new cases of Coronavirus to detect changes to its genome, their findings will also accelerate the work of other researchers developing improved diagnostics, and testing potential vaccines and cures. Once new tests and vaccines are available, health officials across the world will face a different challenge: How to integrate these tools into health systems and promote their use.

Data will drive the global response to the Coronavirus. It will be crucial for the medical community to see exactly how the Coronavirus is spreading to effectively deploy resources to stop it. And the World Health Organization and others will need to quickly set up systems that not only aggregate local, national and global data, but make sure that medical professionals at all those levels to report what’s happening.

Lesson #2:The power of data depends on our ability to collect it. We need to make sure people on the front lines are incentivized to use the data-collection tools being developed.

There’s an obvious incentive for medical workers to use improved Coronavirus diagnostics tools: identifying a case of the virus early can help save the patient’s life and spur measures that prevent them infecting others.

But we can’t take compliance in testing and data input for granted. In property management, we need to share insight and resources with data tools that encourage companies to report incidents — whether it’s viral outbreaks or compliance problems — and in turn gives them insight into threats across the wider property management landscape.

Using this experience to inform the next one

There’s no way of knowing right now how widespread the Coronavirus will become, but however devastating the human toll becomes, it will be an opportunity to respond more effectively the next time we face a global outbreak.

How can the property management community — together with health care officials and policy-makers — disseminate information faster without sparking panic or stigmatizing infected populations? How can we work with health care systems to respond faster to emerging threats, wherever they arise?

The global conversation around these questions is just starting. We should all be listening in, and not just to prepare for the next viral outbreak. In the age of big data, lessons from how we respond to the Coronavirus will resonate far beyond public health circles to how we build resilient communities in the face the next threat, whatever it might be.