People are critical to both the delivery of facilities management, and also the focus of its impact. Rebecca Winward looks at the importance of the human factor in FM, and asks what the future may hold

Facilities management, that’s just building maintenance, isn’t it? And here’s the challenge facing the facilities management industry. The idea of ‘just’. Workplace environments, once designed and built, can sometimes slip from the list of business priorities, and cease to be considered important. They’re just the place in which the real magic happens; there are customers to be made happy, and profits to be made. Except, they’re not ‘just’ anything. They ARE the place where the magic happens, and are therefore an integral part of it.

Yes, if there’s a lightbulb out in a restaurant, then it might not have any perceptible impact on that night’s takings. And if the air con is unreliable in a retail outlet, it’s easy to downplay the impact on footfall and customer dwell time, especially as the UK climate isn’t known for its soaring temperatures. Perhaps an office manager might not see the problem in having one of the ladies’ toilets out of order, reasoning that there are two other cubicles within the cloakroom.

Tangible effect

Of course, sometimes it makes sense to save up small jobs to be done in one go, believing that the direct impact on operations will be minimal – or at least bearable. However, it’s easy to lose sight of the point at which FM failures (or quality compromises) have a tangibleeffect on people’s working, shopping,living and leisure environments.

Consider the distress of a palliative care patient, who discovers that their oxygen cylinder may now only be changed with a nurse in attendance, because the newly appointed provider of porter services has mandated thatits staff cannot handle medicines.

Or the company conference speaker whose sensitivity to ambient temperature means he is unable to focus optimally on leading his important session, because the event venue’s air conditioning isn’t working and ventilation is minimal. Or the gym-goer who’s getting fed up with the lack of hot water post-workout, is eyeing the black mould on the shower ceiling with concern, and wondering if she shouldswitch to the shiny new fitness studiothat has opened up across the street.

These three aren’t made-up examples either, but real-life situations that have been shared with me by friends within the last few months. FM matters so much to real people – in every aspect of their lives, on a daily basis and at critical moments – that we would be remiss to focus only on the direct impact that well-planned, efficiently organised FM operations can make on a company’s bottom line.

Productivity impact

Of course, a few personal anecdotes hardly constitutes a persuasive case for more focus on the end user – but there’s plenty of research to show that environment can significantly impact on people’s actions (including their purchasing activities), wellbeing, and productivity. From The Stoddart Review (which revealed that an effectiveworkplace can improve productivity by as much as 3.5%) to various reports issued by organisations such as Sodexo and Condeco, the importance of place to people is clear. What’s also clear is that there’s room for improvement. Hatch Analytics – a consultancy which

applies social science principles
to obtain actionable data, so that
client companies can make informed decisions about workplace and culture – runs an online workplace survey, which includes a module on ‘facilities’. It’s quite revealing that the survey results state 20% of the 40,000 respondents
to date don’t feel they have sufficient light to be effective, while 80% feel theylack fresh air quality, and only 49% aresatisfied with their acoustic privacy.

Perhaps one of the most famouscompanies to place significant store byworking environment is Google, whose new London HQ – which was green-lit
for construction last year – is breaking
the mould for British workplace design.It’s not just an exercise in difference for difference’s sake, either. There’s solid,strategic reasoning behind the design of the Google work environment, which is why the company has chosen to build their own building, rather than leasing.
At the launch of the new building, Joe Borrett, the company’s Director of Real Estate & Construction highlighted the “purpose-built” nature of the building, andhow “offices and facilities play a key partin shaping the Google culture.” He also credited this focus as “one of the reasons [Google is] known for being amongst the best places to work in the industry.”

Naturally, not all businesses wouldbenefit from the quirky Google style
of workplace design, but the same connection between workplace environment and culture applies no matter what the industry or building type. A testament to that is the diverse group of companies working with Spacelab, an interior design and architecture practice specialising in people-oriented spaces. In a recent article Director Rosie Haslem argued powerfully for the capacity for good workplace design to “bring people together to interact, collaborate and share knowledge – and potentially spark innovative ideas.” It’s an attitude to workspaces that is informing strategy across a wider and wider range of organisations worldwide.

But good design is not enough on its own. To preserve its positive impact, it must be maintained to a high level. It’s no use devising a clever lighting scheme which provides the optimal level of light for office worker comfort if faulty lamps are not replaced promptly. A stylish restaurant interior will cease to attract its clientele if it’s not spotlessly clean. Similarly, a luxury goods retail outlet could find customers turning their noses up at the offering if the walls and fittings aren’t perfectly finished and presented to the highest possible standard.

So the positive impact on people should at least be an equal purpose of FM – alongside the more obviously business- focused objective of improving the balance sheet. Indeed, putting thewants and needs of customers and staff first is not only the right thing to do, butit will also impact on the success of any organisation, which in turn feeds into the balance sheet objective anyway.

People power

It’s pretty clear how significant animpact FM has on people – but what about the impact that people can have on FM? Don’t let the glut of pro-tech voices have you believing that the latest devices and software are a panacea. Yes, technology is a critical element of the FM industry’s drive to become more efficient and sustainable, but not without the dovetailing of the right human resource in the right areas (which perhaps hasn’t always been optimal in the past).

Cognitive technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities are developing apace. But they cannot – and will not, for the foreseeable future, at least – replace the decision-making ability of a skilled member of staff when it comes to complex situations.

Certain aspects of scientific thinkingsupport this assertion. For example, leading neuroscientists including Antonio Damasio (David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience and Professor of Psychology, Philosophy and Neurology at the University of Southern California) and the late Oliver Sacks (Professor of Neurology at the NYU School of Medicine) have published case studies which demonstrate emotion is essential to complex decision making. Academic voices within the sphere of information systems outline the limitations of tech more specifically. For example, Dr Sam Ransbotham, Associate Professor at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, writing in the MIT Sloan Management Review, cited the limitations of data-driven algorithms in unstructured problem solving. He also referred to the superior ability of human beings to make decisions by extrapolating from similar (but essentially different) situations, and bearing in mind new information such as coming regulatory changes. Neither of these abilities would be within the reach of a machine, relying solely on existing data.

Even some of those at the cutting edge of the AI industry are measured (and indeed cautious) about the future. Just a few months ago, at South
by Southwest®, Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk cautioned against (under-regulated) development. He explained that so-called ‘narrow’ AI
“is not a species-level risk. It will result in dislocation, in lost jobs, and better weaponry and that kind of thing, but it is not a fundamental species level risk, whereas digital super intelligence is.”

But Skynet-type worries aside, clever tech is certainly a part of the future, combined optimally with human resource – indeed, the future is arguably already here. Correctly applied, technology already has the scope to revolutionizeFM operations to the mutual benefit ofproviders, clients and end users alike. But the emphasis must be on strategic, intelligent solutions which facilitateoptimal workforce effectiveness. “If

the methods and processes within aCAFM system are flawed – especiallyin its integration with human actions – then it will simply enable poor practice to happen more quickly, rather than address the fundamental issues ofefficiency and quality,” explains JeffDewing, CEO of Cloudfm. “It’s not the technology that matters most, it’s what you do with it that counts.”

Of course, it’s critical that the workforceis confident in using the devices andsoftware that enables this optimumefficiency. It’s also key that they understand the process in greater depth than just how to achieve their day-to-day interactions with the system – it’s not just about the ‘how’, but also the ‘why’.

In the right sort of professional environment, with an understanding ofthe company’s purpose, staff have the knowledge and confidence to make the correct choices proactively and independently, within the framework of the company’s processes. And if this also takes place in the right commercialenvironment, doing so will fulfil theirrole, their customer’s objectives, and their employer’s purpose in one fell swoop, as all three of these things will have synergy. But having the knowledge is down to training, and having theconfidence is down to culture.

A report published earlier this year by web-based HR software specialist breatheHR – entitled The Culture Economy – estimates that poor company culture is costing the UK economy £23.6bn per year; a positive company culture is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have, and it directly relates to productivity, which directly relates to the bottom line.

Winning move

It follows that companies which have a definite focus on a positive culture, supported by a comprehensive, employee-focused training programme, will find themselves in a win-win situation. They will not only optimisethe productivity of their existing staff –especially if their recruitment policies for senior roles seek to retain and elevate the valuable experience
held by front-line operatives – but automatically attract the cream of the crop when it comes to external applicants for vacancies.

Slowly but surely, the sector can increase the professionalism of its workforce, and as a result attract more of the type of candidate that will contribute most effectively. It’s at this point that the FM industry can tip the balance and reach the next level. It can go forward to engage in greater levels of continuous improvement, and be perceived in a more accurate manner, as an important business support service; one that’s integral to the experiences of staff and customers.

So this is what the future could look like; FM will indeed become more tech-orientated and data-driven, but it should not be to the detriment of the human factor – which still remains both the focus of the work and the means by which it is optimally delivered. The solution to quality andefficiency in FM is to be effected by the people, for thepeople, and certainly shouldn’t be downplayed as ‘just’ building maintenance.