by Stuart Rich — This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of FMJ
Life is uncertain. Change is constant. These statements have always been true, but recently, the depth of uncertainty and the pace of change have been truly crushing — particularly when it comes to the way the world thinks about space management and physical proximity. It is becoming clear that the very nature of how organizations occupy facilities will need to be reimagined, and this envisioning process may take years to come to stasis.
One result of the pandemic experience is that many businesses have learned that people can work from home and still be productive. Some employees enjoy working from home and the subsequent impacts on their lifestyle. Others miss the interaction of the office environment and the structure of the workday. While some jobs have become more digitally sustainable, professions like social services, manufacturing, health care and education are more critically dependent on face-to-face interactions. Even within professions where the work can be done from home, teams may desire to get together regularly to focus on innovation and camaraderie building.
Suddenly, facility and real estate managers are drawn into regular meetings with the leadership team as they wrestle with questions such as:
- Which teams need to come back now, next and later?
- Do the buildings that house high-priority teams have safe, sufficient HVAC?
- How is social distancing impacting seating plans and employee density?
- Which buildings will require renovations to accommodate alternative seating plans?
- Should this organization consider selling buildings to reduce its overall footprint?
- Are there leases coming due in the next year that should be released to reduce overall capacity?
- Should this organization consider leasing rather than owning some facilities due to changing market conditions?
- How can a business adapt to different work schedules to support employee needs?
The answers to these questions are unlikely to be singular or straightforward. Instead, it would appear that FM professionals are embarking on an extended period of iterative scenario planning. The cycles of plan, estimate, approve, execute and evaluate must be repeated in periods of weeks rather than years, as was previously the case. In this environment, facility managers will need to be more adaptable and resilient than ever before.
It’s all about the data
The key to building adaptability and resilience into an organization lies in the ability to make data-driven decisions. To answer the questions above, the data in question is about real estate (buildings, parcels, leases, easements) and space management (augmenting the information that may come from floor plans). However, it can be challenging to aggregate this information due to the nature of the data FMs require.
Real estate information about property valuation, condition, operational costs, key lease dates, deferred maintenance issues and energy consumption is likely managed across several systems. All too often, this data is trapped in PDF files and spreadsheets somewhere on the file system — likely with permissions issues.
Space management information is often held in a collection of CAD floor plans and associated spreadsheets. The allocation of people to spaces is often managed at the local department level. It can be challenging to understand the overall space portfolio if an organization has not implemented a modern facilities information management system. Many organizations do not have a reliable set of current floor plans in place today, so starting the overall management process will require overcoming a data development bow wave.
Organizations with accessible facility data may not have the business processes in place to ensure that the data is current and accurate. Missing, incomplete, or inaccurate data can be extremely costly. As a Harvard Business Review article pointed out, “It costs 10 times as much to complete a unit of work when the data are flawed in any way as it does when they are perfect.”
The cost of bad facility data may be even more dramatic. If real estate acquisition or disposition decisions are made based on flawed data, the impacts of those decisions may be extremely costly to an organization for years to come.
Start at the beginning
Any FM challenge begins with an inventory. In this case, the inventory is not only about the resources that are available to FMs, but more importantly, about how expectations have changed in terms of the way those resources support the organization’s mission.
- Are there business functions that can and should be done remotely?
- What types of space are most valuable to remote staff when they do come into the office?
- What spacing is safe for in-office functions or teams that work more productively in person?
- Can an organization justify high-density, open-office seating plans in a post-COVID-19 world?
- If the open-office format is finally dead, what seating formats do teams prefer?
- How can field teams move to mobile workflows that eliminate paper from the process and remove the need to come back to the office for paperwork?
These cross-functional discovery conversations will happen with team leads, the human resources department, and environmental health and safety groups. As this discussion may be the first time FMs have a “seat at the table,” it is a perfect opportunity to showcase the value of smart FM in an organization.
HR policies will likely evolve to address the changing needs of the organization for facility support. Over the coming months, a revised set of requirements will emerge that define the needs that the FM team will be expected to support. These requirements are likely to change iteratively over time as the organization adapts and learns the patterns that work best — and those that do not.
The changing facilities needs that are discovered in this requirements-gathering process are likely to be significant. Some departments may find they need significantly less space if their workforce shifts to a primarily remote mode of operations. That same department may also find that they need different types of space to support meetings when the remote workforce is in the office.
Other departments may find that they need to continue with a primarily in-office work experience. As a result, the space layouts need to shift from a high-density floor plan to a more distributed seating plan with protective barriers between workstations. The cumulative impact of these changes may be substantial. The FM team will need to employ a prioritization framework to determine which alterations should be made first, next and later. Some of the considerations in the prioritization process will include:
- Which teams have the most critical FM needs to deliver continuity of mission for the organization?
- Which buildings in the portfolio can be quickly and affordably altered to meet the new requirements?
- Suppose an organization should consider reducing its overall space footprint. Are there some buildings that are particularly expensive to operate or have a lot of deferred maintenance that should be prioritized for disposition?
- Are there upcoming lease expirations that could help achieve overall objectives?
- Given the changing commercial real estate market, do businesses have an opportunity to renegotiate leases at more attractive terms?
- For those leases in which the business is the lessor, should the FM anticipate turnover or the need to renegotiate terms?
- Are there geographic risks or priorities that should influence real estate acquisitions and dispositions? (e.g., dispose of properties in the flood plain, ensure services to target populations and customers, further the goals of the local government economic development plan)
- Are there changes in the overall regulatory environment that FMs should consider when reconfiguring portfolios? (e.g., Brexit, travel restrictions, changes in the supply chain.)
Improve and iterate
Given that expectations are likely to continue shifting and businesses will not make considerable changes to the portfolio all at once, it would be wise to take a page from the agile software development community and establish an iterative cycle of change management.
- Step 1: Define a series of small actionable projects and ensure that each has established measures of success.
- Step 2: Evaluate progress after each project to assess whether the success measures were achieved. If yes, what worked that can be repeated? If not, how can the overall approach be improved?
When evaluating success, it is crucial to understand that the goalposts may have shifted over the past year. How do FMs think about occupancy or utilization rates when the workforce is occasionally in the office? A lease rate that was a bargain a couple of years ago may be overpriced today. Depending on the local real estate market, prices may have changed significantly. What targets should an organization be setting? Are there different targets that are more appropriate to the times? It is essential to assess whether objectives were achieved and if targets should be adjusted at the end of each cycle.
Measuring what matters and ensuring that data is current, complete and accurate has never been more important. Managing a facility portfolio with flawed data is akin to flying a plane with malfunctioning instruments. It is a career-limiting approach. The more volatile the environment, the more critical it is to trust in the information to make suitable corrections.
It’s a big world after all
The world of FM is diverse. The facility needs of a financial services firm in urban London, England, and a meat processor in rural Oakland, Nebraska, USA, could hardly be more different. An approach that may work brilliantly in Sau Paulo, Brazil, may be utterly unworkable in Lyon, France. Still, some fundamental principles can be adapted to most situations:
- Keep an eye on the future. To the extent that they can, FMs must understand the near- and long-term facilities expectations of their organization.
- Chart a course to the goal. Every journey starts with a single step. It will be critical for FMs to identify short, measurable milestones to ensure their efforts remain on track.
- Take the time to reflect. After each milestone or completed project, the FM team should connect with stakeholders to ensure continued alignment. The team can adjust their approach, measures and metrics as necessary.
- Rinse and repeat. In this ever-changing environment, the work of optimizing property portfolios and space utilization is never complete. With the right data and baseline measurements in place, FM will measure progress and make continual improvements over time.
Change is not new. It has been an intrinsic part of the world since the beginning of time. The pace of that change and the consequence of missteps have increased dramatically in the past year. Good data, good systems, good processes and good people are more crucial than ever. Thoughtfully managed, these resources can help FMs navigate this era of uncertainty with confidence.
About the Author
Stu Rich is an industry lead at Cartegraph where he leverages nearly two decades of experience to help facility management professionals build higher-performing building and infrastructure operations. Previously, Rich served as the CTO of PenBay Solutions. There, he led the team that published the first Buildings Interior Spatial Data Model (BISDM) as an open-source data model project for organizations interested in modeling their buildings in GIS.