The impact of the pandemic on facilities management — a two-year review
It’s been two years since the pandemic changed life for everyone, and we’ve seen some big developments to the role of Facilities Managers (FM). In this article, Derek Parker of Artic Building Services reviews the impact of the pandemic on facilities management, including new responsibilities within the role and the increased focus on health and safety.
The changing role of the workplace
The global pandemic triggered huge changes in society, resulting in the adoption of a new normal. When the first lockdown hit, FMs were instrumental in shutting down offices and other buildings, and ensuring that procedures were followed. Building occupancy fell dramatically, creating the perfect time for FMs to concentrate on building compliance.
Once a return to the workplace seemed feasible, FMs had to prepare the buildings to ensure occupants could return safely. A stringent list of checks was completed to meet UK government guidelines prior to opening the doors to the workforce. With social distancing rules still in force, many FMs had to restructure the layout of workplaces, moving desks apart and fitting screen dividers to limit close contact.
Spike in costs
The pandemic disrupted normal life for FMs and created a backlog of facilities management work which is now being worked on. We’re also seeing increased demand for FM services post-COVID, which in part is driven by the crucial role FMs played in managing the risks. The increased demand and ongoing issues affecting the UK supply chain have only increased operating costs for FMs.
Brexit, the pandemic and HGV driver shortages have all caused huge disruption to supply chains, triggering a spike in shipping costs up and reducing the volume of raw materials and essential parts coming into the UK. As a result, FM service costs have been increased across the board since 2019. As organisations try to avoid such high costs, many are now partnering with facilities management companies on a contractual basis where a monthly fee is agreed upon.
Another way the role of the FM has changed in the last two years is in regard to air quality. Following the outbreak of the airbourne virus, a huge number of studies explored the role of HVAC systems in enhancing air quality and reducing infection rates. Two years later, we know that HVAC systems can help to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by filtering fresh air, and displacing stagnant air which may hold airborne contaminants.
FMs have always been responsible for managing ventilation and HVAC systems, but the pandemic has put this area of their role under the spotlight. As a result, they are now spending more time maintaining, optimising, and deep cleaning HVAC systems to ensure they’re functioning efficiently.
FMs have had to optimise HVAC systems in order to reduce the risk of infection, and create a safer environment for building occupants. HVAC systems that normally operated via recirculation mode were adjusted to run on full fresh air to ensure that the maximum amount of stagnant air is diluted. HVAC filters were analysed and replaced with higher quality HEPA filters which are more effective against airborne viruses. FMs are at the forefront of managing air quality in buildings and reducing the spread of airborne contaminants.
Facilitating new ways of working
Two years on from the start of the pandemic, it’s clear that hybrid working is here to stay. A huge range of businesses have seen the benefits of remote working, and are continuing to allow their employees to do so. As a result, workplaces are being redesigned, calling the FM into action again.
Businesses are reducing the number of desks in their buildings and increasing the amount of space dedicated to collaborative working. FMs have a role to play in creating this new working environment, helping to create more meeting rooms and setting up hot desks that any member of staff can log into when they come into the office.
The changes that FMs are making to workplaces in 2022 are underpinned by location awareness and sensor technology. FMs are using smart sensors to monitor occupancy in different rooms, helping them to understand how various spaces are being utilised. This analysis can support decisions around restructuring parts of the building and adjusting different parameters including temperature and humidity to create a more comfortable environment for occupants.
To cement the relationship between FMs and occupants, we’re starting to see facilities management software integrated with the respective organisations’ internal systems and apps. This helps to improve efficiency and streamline certain processes, such as the reporting of faults to the relevant FM.
Integrating the FM’s software with the system occupants use to book collaborative spaces in the workplace will also be beneficial to both parties. If the FM needs to conduct minor work in a specific room, they can look for the next time it’s free and book it out, and if the work is serious, they can block out the room for the estimated amount of time needed to complete the work.
Since COVID-19 was discovered, guidance around preventing infection has been continually changing as scientists uncover new findings. Not only did they have to wear PPE and adhere to social distancing, FMs have had to stay connected with all updates from the UK government, and proactively work to ensure that their buildings are up to code.
The pandemic has resulted in the emergence of stricter governance regarding health and safety and building regulations, putting greater pressure on FMs. For example, a new safety rating was created by the International WELL Building Institute. This WELL Health-Safety Rating looks at building safety, and the operational policies, maintenance protocols, and design strategies in place to ensure occupant safety in buildings.
Overall, it’s clear that the pandemic has changed the role of FMs for the long term, leaving them with more responsibilities. The last two years have highlighted how important FMs are, and the incredible work they do behind the scenes. Today, building occupants expect FMs to create a safe working environment, through proper management of all risks, whilst also proactively managing any maintenance issues and ensuring building compliance.
Derek Parker is Head of Business development at Artic Building Services