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Where Are We Heading: Facility Managers Lead Through Technology During a Global Pandemic

By: Steven Early, CFM, FMP

At many times in history, we can point to huge advances in technology that were born out of adversity. 2020 has provided an astonishing level of adversity and loss on a scale many alive today have never known. Technology provides facility managers completely new avenues and solutions to support positive outcomes to the complex problems at the intersection of people and place - where the global pandemic is hitting hard.

Facility Managers and those industry partners providing innovative solutions to FM clients and stakeholders are on the forefront in many ways – having to protect the buildings of the world (both occupied and unoccupied) throughout the pandemic in order to safely shelter building occupants. This is no small feat as the science and guidance has been changing by the minute. Think of workers in today’s economy as the brains (creating the work), and technology as the circulatory system and muscle (doing the work); we need both of those things working in tandem to keep driving our imperiled economy forward.

Jeremy Rifkin, a world renowned economist and author, gave a keynote presentation at the 2017 IFMA World Workplace conference in Houston, TX where he discussed the ways in which facility managers will play central roles in the next industrial revolution through the rapid adoption of new connected technologies.[i] With a global pandemic in full swing, we are standing on the edge of the next industrial revolution that Rifkin spoke about, pushing technology forward in the hopes of decelerating the spread and ultimately, finding a cure for COVID-19.  We are all living and working in extraordinary times, and FMs are on the forefront of the battle to create clean, healthy spaces for everyone. Throughout 2020, the rapid development and adoption of technology and shifts in work and life paradigms have allowed humanity to grow in many ways even as we struggle with staggering loss. In a time when physical presence creates a potentially life changing risk, facility managers are in a unique position to profoundly affect positive change in the everyday lives of building occupants.

While many organizations have found an essential need to remain in-person to some degree, a large majority of the economy has shifted to a working from anywhere platform. This expansion of Working From Home policies has required decisive action, investment, rapid deployment and continual improvement with respect to adoption of the right mix of technologies. Platforms for collaboration like Microsoft Teams, Microsoft 365, Zoom and G Suite by Google have seen near-instant transformations this year as a response to the global need for collaboration while physically separated.

Pre-pandemic Work From Home policies have historically been stymied to some degree; companies looked at remote work as being just like working in the office, just from home. The thinking around remote work (WFH, WFA) has shifted to consider methodologies that need to support positive outcomes, regardless of the location.  A key aspect of this change is that the remote workforce has drastically increased. Prior to 2020, we were just managing subsets of workforce segments who were remote. Now, the majority of the workforce, as well as students, are working and learning outside of the office and the classroom. The different might seem subtle, but the sea change in business practice this year is anything but. This global experiment, forced by necessity like many wholescale transformations, has proven without a doubt that we are capable of adapting, and we have seen over the last few months that this revolution in how we live and work will be a more permanent one than previously predicted.

Many have noted that while there was a significant increase in overall productivity initially, there is also an accompanying plateau or decline in creativity. Many attribute this to the physical distance that prevents the collaborative experience or impromptu nature of running into people in the hallway or someone’s office acting as the seed for creative products or solutions. This is undoubtedly an area where the partnership between people and technology will continue to grow in order to fill in that gap. It may require us all to develop new flexibility in the ways we think, work, and connect. (See graphic)

As many of us struggle with work, personal loss, community grief and the particular brand of loneliness that virtual work has created, there is an accompanying push to adapt business models to current environments on a larger scale; many organizations are using this time away from physical office spaces to really consider how the organizational real estate portfolio needs to change. Many are opting to reduce portfolio size and explore leasing or selling unused space. Still others are keeping what they have, but having new conversations about how these portfolios will transform over the course of the next few years in order to continue reflect the needs and identities of organizations that are very different today than a year ago. Do the buildings we have today reflect the needs and identities or our stakeholders, clients, members, and employees? Do they offer a compelling intersection of people and place? These are important questions, and amidst the chaos of it all it might be a mistake not to try and find the opportunity within as well as the challenges.

Moving into another year of pandemic conditions, organizations are looking to leverage significant developments in technology that will allow an explosion of growth with respect to Customer Data Platforms (CDP). These are technology platforms engineered to allow the alignment of disparate data sources that don’t typically talk well to each other. Essentially, CDPs will help us eliminate troves of bad data to revolutionize the experiences our customers have while simultaneously increasing efficiencies on a number of levels. The importance of good data is more relevant now than it has ever been, and the ability to automate important aspects of the customer experience may help free up employees to interact more directly with clients and other stakeholders, thereby creating an opportunity for a higher grade of customer experience across the board.

Additionally, given the shift away from the physical office space as an anchor for all work activities, a majority of organizations in the next year or two will be looking at shifting more of their information technology infrastructure toward a hybrid or fully cloud environment. Advances in technology have dramatically reduced costs related to cloud infrastructure to the point that it is now an attainable solution for many that would not have been able to consider it 5-10 years ago. Many have some need for an on-premises data center housing servers for some essential functions, and using cloud services meshing the best of both worlds together in support of a more mobile workforce. Still others, particularly those looking to reduce building portfolios, may consider a transition to a full cloud solution, enabling the organization to achieve full functionality independent of a physical space. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and while the hybrid approach may remain the most popular for the near future there is a new potential for much broader adoption of full cloud implementations allowing for operations to be fully independent of physical buildings provided workers have the right connectivity and equipment to access cloud services.

Facility managers everywhere are adapting at breakneck pace, and part of this demands FMs to develop new skillsets in areas such as Information Technology, Networking, Cybersecurity, Cloud Engineering, and System Administration. These skills likely grew out of a need to fill minor knowledge gaps that have gradually become broader and deeper, and these fissures are likely to continue to grow well into 2021 and beyond. The role of facility managers everywhere will continue to grow and evolve in inspired and challenging ways, but one thing is for certain – the partnership between technology and FM is one likely to grow exponentially year over year for the foreseeable future. It is facility managers who will help to usher in entirely new economic engines through the innovative use of the built environment as we usher in Rifkin’s next industrial revolution.

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