by Elena Bondareva — This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of FMJ
Unprecedented times tend to result in structural change; change that forever alters the environment in which we operate. World War II resulted in the Universal Declaration of Human rights and 9/11 redefined security. While there is no doubt we’re living and working in unprecedented times, most of us struggle to envision what this means to the property industry, let alone for FM as one of its youngest professions.
“The person managing your building has a greater impact on your health than your doctor.” – Dr. Joseph G. Allen, Harvard University.
Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel “Brave New World” examined a dystopian future governed by science and efficiency; a class-segregated society in which emotions and individuality are conditioned out of people starting in utero. Eighty-eight years later, half of it has come to be: both science and technology drive our lives. However, shared humanity is permeating even those applications. Technology underpins the built environment, but it is also increasingly inseparable from sustainability, equity, change management and user experience. And now, Dr. Joseph Allen (Harvard University, School of Public Health) claims that the FM has a greater impact on an individual’s health than their physician. What does this mean for the future of the FM profession – and how do FMs prepare both for the power and the responsibility?
Mega trends transforming the FM profession
Structural change follows shifts in what is deemed possible, acceptable or both. Once it was possible for people to ascend building levels effortlessly in lifts, skyscrapers came to define city skylines. Once U.S. ADA, EU AA or the U.K. EA made it no longer acceptable to lock people out of public spaces based on their physical mobility, design and operations followed suit. High-performance buildings transformed the FM profession, and bricks-and-mortar is now the least of it. What seismic shifts are silently redefining the built environment, thus redefining both baseline and the possibilities for the FM profession?
1. Desire for autonomy
The pandemic and other compounding crises, combined with growing distrust of government, are driving a demand for autonomy. Even as the world increasingly experiences just how interdependent it is – and we’ve formed villages since forever precisely because people can only do a fraction of what it takes to protect, feed, teach, clothe and heal a community – individuals today seek to control how they live their lives.
The term, used extensively in tech, describes the tendency for technologies that were originally unrelated to become more closely integrated and even unified as they develop and advance. As we accept that our operating environment is a complex system of behaviors, guardrails, incentives and institutions, specialization can feel inadequate. It seems that every professional must understand the entire system – the building, the tech, the science, the change management and more – just to do their job.
3. Buildings re-empowered
If nine months ago, we still had to explain why buildings matter to health, that is now a moot point. Curiously, this public awareness rekindles a deep relationship: until the 1950s, the story of the built environment was inseparable from that of public health. Plumbing, sidewalks, parks, underground trains and more recently, the profound design changes due to the codification of fire safety – all these are testament to the built environment’s ability to meet public health demand.
4. Involuntary transparency
Run-away “digital footprints” have marked the end of privacy. While transparency is no longer a choice, it is not just about managing the associated risk but about harnessing the benefits. There is a growing public demand for accountability for one’s impact as well as for authenticity: people accept imperfection in other people and organizations as long as they are doing the best they can.
5. Social responsibility
The “moral compass” may be the most powerful force transforming the FM profession. We know too much to act unaware. There is a groundswell of demand from investors, occupants and employees for astute social awareness and corporate responsibility. How could one install asbestos once it is proven to cause cancer? Today, there is no doubt that the spaces we occupy have a profound impact on our health, well-being and ability to fulfill our potential – and more and more FMs are pushing to do what is right even if it means redefining their scope.
“Healthy buildings represent, without exaggeration, one of the greatest health – and business – opportunities ever.” Healthy Buildings, Joseph G. Allen and John D. Macomber. Harvard University Press. 2020.
On the front line of the built environment, the FM profession is uniquely positioned to ensure that buildings enhance occupant health, well-being and performance – in turn making the FM work more interesting and the profession more compelling. How does an FM leverage rapidly emerging best practice and science to optimize how a building performs for its occupants, for its owners and from the standpoint of environmental impact?
Know thy building
When planning a lasagna dinner, the shopping list would reflect what is missing from the fridge, pantry and spice cabinet. However, asset and facility managers are often “COVID-proofing” with a generic “shopping list” because they don’t know what their buildings are – and aren’t – doing for infection control. If CO2 levels in a space regularly exceed 500 percent of norm, sanitizing stations aren’t going to cut it any more than mozzarella gets you a lasagna without an oven-safe dish. There is an opportunity for FMs to know their buildings the way a doctor would know a patient: what are an asset’s “vitals” at low versus maximum utilization? Do you discover an anomaly immediately, diagnose it quickly and determine the best course of action? How do you bring the building back under acceptable tolerances?
Buildings have mostly become forever inseparable from technology, and the FM profession must lead the charge. Soon, BIM will not only guide design but inform operations, with sensor systems providing real-time monitoring that triggers controls to activate pre-planned protocols. FMs need to grasp the opportunity to command the power of data.
The “head office” is commonly disconnected from occupants of the building. It is the FMs who receive real-time feedback and can best understand the occupant experience. Furthermore, nobody is better positioned to control for unintended consequences: it is FMs who raised alarm when prolific hand sanitizer and chlorine disinfectant led to flare-ups in asthma and allergies, or who hold the key for keeping carbon emissions at bay even with increased ventilation. Whether it is about change management or healthy building certifications like WELL of Fitwel, FMs can assert the role of occupant advocates, empowered to act as liaison between strategy and on-the-ground action.
Aiming to (re)inhabit spaces even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, we are heading into the most complex change experiment of our lifetimes – and that’s not the first or the last of it. Re-emerging will mean creating new and better habits and occupying spaces more consciously, demanding and enjoying their positive impact on health, well-being and cognitive ability. In a world changing faster than anybody can keep up, who is better positioned than the FM to implement the change initiatives required for retention, productivity, Corporate Social Responsibility and more? As buildings become measurably more vital to any organization’s performance and resilience, FMs have an opportunity to become expert change agents at the interface of organizational strategy, building systems and behavior change.
Stripped of its “ivory tower” jargon, the scientific method is exactly how a good FM thinks: observing an issue, developing a hunch and testing it until a solution works. As such, the scientific method can supercharge our buildings’ ability to learn, focusing on gaps and shortening the feedback loops until a solution works. Especially when uncertain times leave no room for error, FMs have an opportunity to leverage science to help their buildings learn well and quickly while honoring the asset owner’s risk appetite.
“Busy” never quite meant “productive,” but there just is no patience for it now, driving the demand for measurable impact. People want to know what any measure of effort achieves: did we merely patch a problem, or did we break the cycle of inefficiency? The business case for doing something is increasingly assessed against the risk of doing nothing; becoming fluent in both risk and impact assessment puts FMs at the decision-making table. There is an opportunity for an FM to help buildings and organizations measure, drive and report on environmental, social or other impact.
The challenges ahead
- Embracing complexity. The FM community prides itself on its pragmatism and practical experience. It has been a phenomenal career track for so many, precisely because it has not demanded university education. While it is still not required for mastering communications, technology or change management, will enough FMs embrace these knowledge domains? If so, not only will the FM profession become ever more invaluable, but those disciplines will benefit from its practical approach.
- Embracing change. Scientific breakthroughs change the world overnight, and technology evolves exponentially. This means that a person who has just learned something may be more of an expert than a person with decades of experience. This makes many FMs defensive, and yet accepting this idea is a gateway the FM profession must walk through. The industry must differentiate between content and application expertise. It must also consciously foster a learning culture, especially if it wishes to play a bigger role in change management.
- Delegation and collaboration. The increasing complexity of the FM role does not mean that FMs have to do it all. In addition to versatility and practicality, accepting personal limitations is probably the greatest skill of an FM. Perhaps rather than becoming an expert in everything, the FM becomes an “expert client” able to identify, inspire and manage a much greater range of sub-contractors than before.
What FM can do as an industry
- Own the impact
A basic management principle dictates that authority must be aligned with responsibility. The property industry didn’t influence carbon policy until it claimed responsibility for more than 40 percent of total carbon emissions. Similarly, can we quantify the FM contribution to business continuity, organizational productivity, environmental impact or public health? What percentage of the coronavirus transmission was due to the management of indoor and outdoor spaces? If the FM industry owns its impact, it can claim more power in the form of influence over corporate and government policy, regulations, budgets and more.
- Embrace health impact
How many designers are required to take a public health course? How many doctors a building maintenance course? If FMs are to operate buildings to their potential, they must be required to – and rewarded for – understanding the social dimensions of the spaces they manage to include public health, occupational hygiene, equitable access, etc.
- Proactively stratify
When looking at health care as a service, the end user can differentiate the role of an orderly from that of a nurse, nurse practitioner, physician’s assistant, primary care doctor or cardiac surgeon. There must be such strategic fragmentation for the “facility manager,” with both the vernacular and career pathways clear to job seekers as well as the public.
- Decide what kind of FM you want to be. You can probably do exactly what you love but the clearer you are, the better your chances.
- Become your own natural experiment. Observe your own reactions to stress, new technology and challenging situations to cultivate empathy and ground your skills.
- Claim a seat at the table. If your asset is going through upgrades, don’t wait for an invitation from the design team. Your contribution is invaluable already, and only more so if you are skilling up in ways introduced above.
- Align accountability with authority. Demand more say whenever more is required of you, even if it means building those impact and risk arguments discussed above.
About the author
Elena Bondareva (MA, BS; WELL AP) has a solid track record of transformative innovation through her varied international career. Bondareva has held public, private, teaching and board roles in Australia, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, India, and the U.S.; delivered CPD training to thousands of professionals; contributed to globally significant events such as COP17 and G20; published in peer-reviewed and public journals; and presented at countless conferences. She helped establish four Green Building Councils and the Living Future Institute of Australia and serves on the Advisory Board for the Global Health & Wellness Summit (Greenbuild), the COVID-19 Taskforce of the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), and the Board of Pollinate Group, an award-winning social enterprise.