Pandemic intensifies evolving role of FM

Cultural shifts that surfaced during COVID expected to guide hybrid revolution
Thursday, May 6, 2021
By Rebecca Melnyk

Facility managers are no longer viewed as a back-office function, but rather “a strategic instrument to attract and retain talent and create a great experience,” said Lorri Rowlandson, senior vice-president of strategy and innovation at BGIS. Rowlandson moderated the “Reimagining FM Symposium” at IFMA’s Facility Fusion in April. A panel of multifaceted FM professionals were on hand to share their perspectives on how the pandemic has intensified  industry shifts and how FMs figure prominently into a hybrid revolution.

FM at the ‘centre of execution’

A key point reverberating though the discussion was that building occupants are now driving every decision facility management is making. “FM is becoming critical at providing stewardship across many functions, such as coordinating IT, security, helping develop strategy, managing capital plans,” said Michael Gould, vice-president of project and facilities management at TD Bank, North America.

When scouting potential job candidates, he actively looks at welcoming a number of professions to the FM role. This boosts diversity, which leads to a better performing team.

Experience working in the FM industry isn’t a requirement. The main attributes are: a strategic mindset, relationship management, customer focus, coordination skills, project management, financial acumen, vendor management, and understanding basic construction. “Historically, if you didn’t notice FM, that was success,” he said. “Now, we’re at the centre of execution, strategy and planning, and I think it’s greatly elevated.”

Maximize human relationships for office-goers

Business leaders are imagining how to create a physical environment that allows for collaboration, creativity, innovation, and flexibility for hybrid work, said Enrique Rubio, founder of Hacker HR. He says it’s no longer about asking employees to come to the office as a way to measure productivity; rather, companies are understanding that nothing replaces opportunities for collaboration like “socially close, human relationships.”

The biggest challenge, he said, is bringing to life an effective hybrid workplace that makes people feel safe and maximizes their human relationships with colleagues when at the office, such as high-level meetings or creative collaboration. “If you are going to bring somebody into the office, don’t just bring them in to have a meeting that could have been done via Zoom or email or phone call,” he said. “If you are doing that, you basically lost your opportunity to change your approach to work after the pandemic.”

A place where everyone feels like they belong

At one point in her career, Melissa Fisher, cultural anthropologist and visiting scholar at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge, studied the workplace culture of Wall Street. Most recently, she has spent her time chatting with FMs around the globe to understand the organizational and cultural shifts within this “expanded ecosystem of physical and virtual work.”

“After a year spent at home, how can we ensure we have a sustained sense that we belong together, that work is meaningful and our identity is part of it— even if we are seated at our workspace at home,” she said, adding that FMs are perfectly positioned to create cohesiveness across hybrid environments, where everyone from janitorial staff to executives feel part of the corporate culture.

To inform hybrid work models, she notes other cultural shifts that have occurred over the past year. A blurring of boundaries, where people have become caretakers, calls for “a care infrastructure,” which might mean rethinking the built environment—for instance, making space for children. The pandemic also revealed inequalities in the workplace. “How do we recognize the changes at work that have happened to different people?” she said. “People of different jobs, different races, ethnicities and gender? How is that affecting how they work and where? How can we collectively create a culture that creates equity for everyone?”

Amenities like gyms and napping pods are no longer revolutionary. In the shift from personal to social wellness, now it’s about helping people feel safe together. “We know, in the wake of the pandemic, that by wearing a mask, each person is responsible for the other; it’s a collective sense,” she said. “How does that translate into the workplace? We need to think about how the interior of the physical environment sparks and enables and supports social connection, deep connection, respect for one another.”

Preparing people for innovation

In the move towards a hybrid workplace, Cheryl Duvall, regional consulting leader and senior associate at Gensler, said employees have to be really prepared for what it means to be hybrid. She had three recommendations. Take a grassroots approach and survey employees to find out what has been working for them during the pandemic. “Has work-from-home been productive? Do they want to return to the workplace, and more importantly, why?”

Second, kick-start a change management process. “We really have to prepare people for changes that are coming and then determine what technologies will be needed,” she said. Based on Gensler’s research, she predicts people who will be working from the office four to five days per week will receive an assigned seat. Those working from home three days or less will be sharing a seat. Planning for this might include writing workplace etiquette guidelines, for example. Finally, try piloting policy changes before rolling them out at large scale.

Turning change into something positive for the brand

Diversity equity and inclusion are high on the list of must-have FM skills, said Lakisha Woods, president and CEO of the National Institute of Building Sciences. “I have spent almost my entire career in the industry and everytime I walk into a room, I’m the only person who looks like me,” she said. “All the data shows, the more women, more diversity you have in your employee base, in your leadership, the better financial projection of your company and firm.”

More people are desiring to work in settings that invest in well-being and sustainability. Telling the story of your organization is not unlike selling a car, where a salesperson will discuss at great length how safe and valuable a brand is. “Why don’t we tell our own stories about the built environment,” said Woods. “I’ve not seen us, as an industry, look at changes, especially regulation changes and turn it into something positive, and look at how it will benefit society and keep us safe and healthy.”

Taking ownership of cybersecurity

“Our buildings were already becoming more and more digital, and instrumented this idea of the Internet of Things and the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” said Rick Huijbregts, vice-president of strategy and innovation at George Brown College. “The pandemic is perhaps a “wake-up call” to take advantage of all the “digital goodness” running though buildings.

The mis-mash of technologies on the market are staggering. He suggested focusing on measuring performance, having real-time insight and using tools to operate buildings and save money. “The real opportunity is when we start to connect it with the future of work, with human interaction, and think beyond the boundaries of physical space,” he said.

Of utmost priority is the need for FMs to become digitally literate and, most importantly, to take ownership of cybersecurity-related conversations, especially as connected devices help hackers to access enterprise networks or shut down building systems.







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