How is the industry changing? What are the biggest challenges are on the road ahead? Facilities management was not even recognised as an industry until the early 1980s when the IFMA (International Facility Management Association) was formed. It began as a role that married the physical assets of buildings with the intangible and generally ill-defined collection of services that were performed on and in those buildings.
Over time, an increasing number of tasks have been added to the role of FM site leader, with safety, corporate policy and regulatory compliance rising to prominence above cost management, but the pool of experts with these skills is small – and shrinking. What’s more, the environmental and societal impact of the building and the services delivered within have further expanded the role of FM.
In the beginning, back in the day of the three-martini lunch and nine-to-five, managers had large offices with grand mahogany desks and private bathrooms that required heightened attention and access was limited to select staff only. Everyone had their own secretary. Computers were big and slow and took up large spaces, but real estate was generally readily available, costs were reasonable and corporate footprints regarding numbers of employees per square metre were large. Most daily work was still done by hand, logged in carbon-copy books and typed up then filed in enormous cabinets. If you were one of the few unlucky folks without your own secretary, you handed your work to a secretary pool that occupied an expansive space in the middle of the office: this was the hub of activity with a lot of noise, phones ringing, typewriters whizzing and people moving about.
Production was measured by the frequency a given task was completed, often umpteen times per day. To keep the office cool, windows were opened and loud fans were propped up haphazardly to circulate the air. Pollen, dust, dirt – and even critters – gained easy entry through the open windows. In winter, open coil electric heaters with spaghetti extension cords were twisted across desks and around the office floor. Buildings were heated with dirty coal. Coffee and sandwich carts were wheeled through the office providing goods, while other carts moved from the basement to the office in an endless cycle of collecting and distributing physical mail. You worked eight hours and took a lunch. And you worked there – at your desk, in that same building, from day one – until you retired. Safety standards were lacking. But the upside? If you did enjoy the luxury of a defined workspace, it was clean back then – no dust!
Unimaginable to some, but that was the norm even 15 years ago.
Of course, technology in the digital age has had a prof2ound impact on how we live and work. Mobile devices have ushered in an era that moved us quickly from ‘on demand’ to ‘never off’. Along with it came the expectation that each of us can be more independent, and more productive. We walk ourselves to the coffee pod brewer and vending machines, pour our own coffees, shop at the cafeteria for neatly packaged to-go food, so that we can sit at our desks or plop down on a beanbag chair in a designated ‘collaboration zone’ and work through lunch. Somewhere along the way, secretaries became administrative assistants and have since become all but extinct. Top-heavy organisations that were pyramid triangle-like have been replaced with ones that are shaped more like highways. Walls have been torn down. Offices, if they exist, are smaller or double as ‘team gathering rooms’ and are often defined by a glass boundary in keeping with the current theme of transparency. We have firewalls and corporate forensic units with ‘web police’, while our power-hungry server rooms that belch out massive amounts of heat are disappearing, as we now prefer to store our data in the cloud.
Along with that independence has come greater responsibility for both us as employees and our employers, who need to enable WFH (work from home) and manage all of the security, calendar coordination, social media and digital resources needed, to support doing so. The concept of the office is going away. The concept of the desk and corporate landlines will soon disappear too. ‘Hot desking’ has become the new standard – solutions and vendors who can accommodate flexible and agile work routines are winning business. Employees are dropping in – and out – of shared workspaces as needed or as they wish. Job definition has become fuzzy, reporting lines are matrixed, and efforts are more project-like than job-like. Outsourcing has its proponents, and opponents, but is at the heart of the new business paradigm for so many aspects of work. Change is happening faster each year than the decade before. Individuals and companies are called out for not following new societal norms around environmental sustainability and there is zero tolerance for any form of discrimination in the workplace and beyond. In this era of social media, with viral videos and being recorded on camera for several hours per day, what we do outside of work is blurring with what is known about us at work. Visibility and transparency, in every form, are the new hallmarks of business conduct at every level.
Clean energy, like solar and wind, is slowly making its way into our workplaces. Big data and analytics are the new weapons to strike down competitors: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Cross-pollination, across job functions, with external collaborators and via the vendors in your supply chain is sparking innovation and clever mash-ups that are helping to define brands, products and corporate values. By 2020, there will be an unprecedented five different generations in the workplace. Much attention has been given to how varied their respective needs and preferences are, but change is a powerful force. There seems to be an increasingly blurry division between the preferences on how the millennials work and what they want, versus the boomers. It’s becoming less about what who wants what and how they do it, and being whittled simply into a ‘this is how it’s done now’ mode. The train has left the station.
What’s the impact on FM?
Now, it’s a matter of attracting and retaining the right talent. To do so means Wi-Fi, a coffee bar, modern aesthetics (three cheers for the death of the walled cube and industrial beige paint colour), lean operations and a renewed attention to customer service. Cost pressures are forcing management to make tough decisions. Let people go to the competition or invest in their development? Centralise resources and streamline job functions, amp up flexibility with reduced investments in brick and mortar operations and embrace ‘go virtual’ or ‘go modern and update’ or what to do? In general, most clients have an age issue: buildings are ageing (and increasingly expensive to maintain) and the staff who maintain them are ageing too (and new recruits aren’t entering the field). Manufacturing and lab equipment is being replaced less frequently and ‘run to fail’ strategies are commonplace. Repair, repair and repair again.
New technology requires an advanced skill set to maintain and repair, and these skilled workers are in short supply. Mobile devices enable higher productivity and real time situation fixes with improved alerting to divert potential situations from escalating. Glass walls and wide-open expansive spaces with lots of sunlight are wonderful, but difficult to keep clean and to regulate temperatures. Everyone wants to cut costs – but nobody wants to reduce service delivery or compromise quality and compliance. FM employees frown upon the idea of joining ‘the vendor’ and resist this change, but, in truth, greater opportunities for advancement and a defined career path exist if they go to the other side. Frequency-based key performance indicators (KPIs) are unreliable metrics of quality and customer satisfaction. A new mindset is needed for outcomes-based service delivery with target costing, but this shift has barely begun.
Real estate reports show there is growing interest in newly constructed and refurbished spaces as a means of attracting top talent and remaining viable. Large metropolitan, cosmopolitan areas continue to be hotspots for business locations and rents are rising. Brazil and China are losing ground as the interest in setting up offshore operations is waning.
While much has changed over the last few decades, some things appear to be constant and will likely be part of the FM landscape in the decades ahead. For example, the questions that every FM operator asks, such as how can we reduce our footprint? Our utility costs? Our impact on the environment? What can we do more efficiently? How can we better leverage technology? How much do we spend on this operation? The only thing likely to change is how we address these questions and measure their impact.
What does the future of FM look like?
- Go techno: what’s shocking is the lack of technology in the world’s largest FM providers. To many, Excel is the gold standard. It’s time for some innovation here that blends system interoperability with transparency and compliance. On demand. Having a dashboard report on key quality metrics one month after the data has been collected is an absurd reality.
- Go local: support local enterprise that contributes to the sustainability of the local community, fosters diversity (something critically lacking in FM, which is highly dominated by white middle-aged men) and encourages growth and employee retention for the area.
- Go green: the statistics are scary. The world discards 500 billion single-use plastic bags each year. The US discards enough paper and wood each year to heat 50 million homes – for 20 years. Americans also discard 35 billion plastic water bottles each year, where fewer than five percent are actually recycled. We have generated more plastic in the past decade than in our history on the earth. We need solutions to better manage the energy used heating and cooling our buildings. We must reduce the chemicals we use for cleaning and use data-driven decisions to change filters or tubing instead of simply following a manufacturer’s recommendation. FM people are at the heart of building operations and the stewards of the environment.
- Go big or go home: innovation is cited as one of the key reasons that clients switch FM providers. Sure, a semantic debate behind the definition of ‘continuous improvement’ versus ‘innovation’ is a factor here, but the real matter is that operators on-site at the client are innovating every day, but few vehicles exist to capture and harness those innovations. And, where such infrastructure does exist, there is little incentive or appetite in the FM provider to allocate monies to invest in the ideas that the operators suggest.
- Go team: as service companies become increasingly narrow in their scope and more specialised in the niche functions they provide, there is an opportunity to aggregate those vendors and offer a service that competitively bids and vets them on behalf of the client to assess fit. Procurement-on-demand is something I have yet to see, but it could shake up every industry – not just FM – as clients chip into a centralised pool (akin to general procurement organisations today) unique to their market needs.
Loralyn Mears PhD is a life scientist, innovator and market strategist. Her previous roles were in Global Market Development for DTZ and Johnson Controls.