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Digital Transformation

Return to the workplace: Facilities Managers face new pressures

As workplaces progressively reopen, added pressure will fall on Facilities Managers to ensure the welfare of workforces. Adoption of new technology can help, while also reducing costs associated with asset operations and maintenance.

Dr Ashwini Konanahalli and Professor Zeeshan Pervez, University of the West of Scotland
15 June 2021

As defined by ISO (41012:2017) the Facilities Management (FM) discipline plays the crucial role of: “…integrating people, place and process within the built environment with the purpose of improving the quality of life of people and the productivity of the core business”.

Despite this, the vast majority of FM organisations are predominantly assessed against budgetary performance. This completely overlooks their service quality and the vital contribution they make towards workforce attraction, retention and wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic has justified the crucial leadership role of FM organisations as creators of functional and safe built environments. Through the implementation of virus prevention strategies, that leadership role is finally being highlighted and lauded.

The COVID-19 virus is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets released during coughing, sneezing, talking etc. Though the larger droplets tend to fall on ground, the smaller infectious particles tend to linger in the air and accumulate in indoor places. A major cause for concern for FM organisations is the high rate of transmissibility when many people are gathered in poorly ventilated space.

COVID-19 has not only created an enormous challenge for FM but has completely changed how we manage and interact with buildings. With lockdown restrictions around the world progressively easing, people are returning to workplaces. During this period, health and safety in FM will play a more crucial role than ever before. Sanitised, safe workplaces are essential. This will augment focus on “soft FM”. Expect a greater emphasis on occupant safety, cleaning regimes, social distancing measures, screens and hand sanitising stations. The increased expectation that workplace risk be mitigated, compliance demonstrated and user experience managed will no doubt accelerate the pace of tech adoption across the FM domain. A range of new solutions are available in the market that provide greater visibility into building usage, monitor indoor air quality, and mitigate the risk of coronavirus spread.

The increased expectation that workplace risk be mitigated, compliance demonstrated and user experience managed will no doubt accelerate the pace of tech adoption across the FM domain.

Current trends focus on deploying environmental sensors to monitor critical indoor air quality parameters, including CO2 levels, temperature, humidity, volatile organic compounds and particulates. The installation of such sensors along with various visualisation/analytics dashboards help monitor air quality throughout the day. A key consideration for FMs is the adequacy of heating ventilation and air conditioning systems. To reduce the prospect of virus-related particles recirculating, current advice recommends that demand control ventilation (DCV) should be disabled, with spaces ventilated even when there is no demand. Though disabling the DCV application addresses health and safety concerns, it does have significant implications for energy costs and equipment performance. It could also lead to inclement workspace temperatures and unhealthy humidity conditions, reducing comfort levels for workplace-users. The Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management recommends maintaining relative humidity levels at 40-60% range, as lower levels (0-40%), would allow the virus to survive for a longer period of time. Equally important is the accuracy of the sensors and their ability to stabilise, self-calibrate and continually correct for drift, and their seamless integration with actuators to maintain indoor air quality.

The pandemic is also compelling FM organisations to re-think their real estate portfolios, space occupancy and planning. New applications using artificial intelligence and machine learning are enabling organisations to effectively manage building space in line with social distancing policies and create flexible layouts for capacity management. In this context, state-of-the-art artificial intelligence, especially deep learning, can provision predictive capabilities to proactively manage building spaces and suggest workspace layouts. They can furthermore ensure compliance with government guidelines and optimise cost effectiveness measures. Access to such a breadth of data, if it can be un-siloed, will grant FMs an unprecedented opportunity. Decisions on space re-design for “new normal” remote workforces, tenancy agreements and cost optimisation should be increasingly led by the evidence it provides. Given that real estate is one of the largest expenses for any business, a capability of this sort will have the highest impact on optimising workspace. Upkeep of the built environment can pose challenges when access to workspaces is already restricted by social distancing, maximum headcounts, separate entry and exits and other emerging factors. Artificial intelligence can significantly help by analysing data from sensors and historical performance logs, and identifying covert warnings, thus helping FMs to carryout predictive maintenance.

  • Dr Ashwini Konanahalli is a principal author of Big data: A new revolution in the UK facilities management sector. You can download the full report here.
  • The report was funded by the RICS Research Trust and published by RICS. The RICS Research Trust became fully independent of RICS in January 2021 and has been rebranded as the Property Research Trust.

Facilities Management: The business perspective

“COVID-19 has inspired many forced drivers across FM businesses. Initially this required rapid change to figure out a new model and method to support our clients and facilities across this very different profile of organisational need. This, in turn, developed into a need for a new understanding scientifically, technically, and operationally. The big areas of change have been health and safety first and technology second. The very drivers of the virus are ones that affect both our own staff and the people using our facilities. This meant Personal Protective Equipment changes, but also the whole programme required review. Any touch point or interaction now carried a different profile of risk, which needed more than an evolution but a complete reimagining. Our aim remained to have facilities and workplaces that deliver the best environment and experience to the various activity needs of our general users, which prompted digital transformation. This resulted in a number of digital touch points and services being integrated into our FM solution to allow our capability, standards and level of service to continue. As a silver lining on the whole pandemic, some of these necessary implementations in some instances have led to enhancement in service and opened new ways for us to further support our client needs as they look to reopen in a new world.”

Gordon Mitchell, Chief Information Officer – Key Facilities Management, Chair at Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management – Technology Special Interest Group