Both COVID-19 and the immediate policy response from governments will have far-reaching consequences. From the way we choose to live and interact, to the way we reconcile and prioritise issues of public and private interest, our short-term choices are now defining what long-term outcomes are possible across swathes of our social and economic activity.
Nowhere is this more true than in Facilities Management, where today professionals are keeping key workers safe and productive through their management of hospitals, schools and critical transport infrastructure. Tomorrow, they will be helping all of us with the practical steps of getting back to life and work together, and to feel safe and confident as we do so.
But they can only do this if we build the lessons of today into our approach to the future. So what can we say about how FM has responded so far? What kind of future does it point to? And what can FM professionals do now to deliver confidence in the space they manage?
The early response of Facilities Management professionals to the virus had a clear focus: to keep buildings open, maintained, and safe to enable productive work.
However, purposeful day-to-day service delivery is offset by disquieting, indefinite uncertainty in the experience of many Facilities Mangers. Offices stand empty, but they must still be kept secure and compliant. Public sites may be shut down, but they must still be serviced. Assets run below capacity but still experience issues that need fixing, and challenges can easily arise from neglect or stretched staffing operations.
The lifting of restrictions is already occurring across the world, but even in countries like China – which had early experience of the virus and is now beginning to ease restrictions to allow public gatherings – short-range clarity masks midrange uncertainty.
In this context, FM professionals and their skills are both over-stretched and under-utilised. One thing though is clear: FM professionals are critically valuable to delivering our immediate response and laying the foundations for a resilient long-term recovery.
Four messages for FM’s resilient future
1. Frontline Matters – FM is where the built environment delivers for people
2. Experience is everything – How a person feels is key to asset success – wellbeing is productive
3. Digital delivers – Invest in capability to help your people to succeed wherever they work
4. Tune in to FM – Leaders need the expertise of FM professionals in their decision-making
While we still know very little about the virus itself, we can generate useful insight on the way forward by focussing on the area that FM knows best: the user experience.
We know that concerns about safety are the key driver not just of lockdown policies, but of public anxiety about what comes after they are lifted. So what can Facilities Management professionals do to assure people that a safe and productive return to collective space is possible once lockdown ends?
Building trust with asset users will be critical. This applies to embedding good hygiene-practices and to assuring users of an asset’s high standards. The grocery retail sector shows how creative communications and practices can deliver confidence by facilitating hygienic activity, including onsite signage, adaptive displays, branded off-site media at significant touchpoints, and adaptations to layout and installations at known points of interaction like checkouts.
For FM professionals, this approach will mean examining bottlenecks like elevators and entrances & exits, as well as temporal pinch-points like meal-breaks and the start/end of the work-day. This will require further integration of FM into the decision-making forums of businesses, and will demand closer collaboration with commercial, communications, legal and HR colleagues in order to balance productivity requirements with the need to adapt working-patterns to allow safe movement onsite.
Fundamentals like good cleaning procedures and air filtration will of course remain important, and FM professionals can help build user assurance of hygiene by speeding the uptake of Building Information Management in these areas. This would shift us from recording and communicating traditional metrics like cleaning frequency towards user-defined signifiers of good experience, allowing interventions that blend individual preferences with substantiated methods of hygiene delivery.
The data gathered from these processes will also be useful for delivering real user choice about their experience. RICS is developing an International Building Operating Standard to capture this critical experience factor in assessing an asset’s performance, alongside Safety and Compliance, Functionality, Economy, Productivity and Responsibility. Using live market data, this holistic standard aims to deliver transparent reporting and user confidence by placing their experience at the heart of an asset’s performance management.
COVID-19 has already shown how integral FM professionals are to core functions like risk management, business continuity, and ensuring employee welfare. By adopting the methods above, FM professionals can step forward to take an even greater role in determining the future of design, layout and usage for working space. By moving higher up the value chain, FM professionals will place themselves at the heart of business decisions and gain representation at the C-suite, where they can use their expertise to help deliver confidence, wellbeing and good experiences for all asset users.
By moving higher up the value chain, FM professionals will place themselves at the heart of business decisions and gain representation at the C-suite, where they can use their expertise to help deliver confidence, wellbeing and good experiences for all asset users.
There will of course be people who cannot or may not want to return to a collective working environment, for health or other reasons in the shorter-term. We are also likely to see a structural shift in the use of offices, if businesses have been able to run effectively during the lockdown. But in practice, how far are we actually able to deliver permanent home working at scale?
Insight from an initiative run by Leesman and supported by RICS and the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) suggests caution. It reveals that the global workforce was unprepared to move away from offices to home working at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, as 52% had no experience of working from home whatsoever. It also showed that while 83% of the global workforce had worked from home at least one day per week prior to COVID-19, only 39% of them have a dedicated home workspace.
The research suggests we were not crisis-ready if home working was our chosen solution.
Hardware, skills, and working cultures are all important, and there have been clear dividends for organisations who had already invested seriously in digital capability. RICS itself was embarked on an ambitious Digital Transformation programme which COVID-19 only accelerated, and we have seen the shift to full online provision enable delivery and reach beyond what was thought possible.
More broadly though, global companies need to make significant investments in their employees’ capacity to work outside orthodox business space if this is to replace or even complement office-based work in the long-term.
Head of Property Standards
London, United Kingdom
Paul is an experienced member of the department and has delivered many high quality projects and products including the Small Business Lease and Occupier Satisfaction Survey. He has responsibility for the Facilities Management, Management Consultancy, Public Sector, Auctioneering groups and general Commercial Property matters.
Paul has specific responsibility for the development of professional guidance, pathways to membership of RICS and member engagement.