COVID-19 puts the facilities manager in the spotlight

COVID-19 has hastened a change in the remit of the facilities manager. The traditional office is in the midst of an existential crisis, and the FM has a big part to play in its future


  • Helen Parton

26 October 2020

Facilities management used to mean working behind the scenes, maintaining buildings, security and services to keep a business operating. Cue COVID-19 and the FM’s role and responsibilities were thrust centre stage.

Even the British Council for Offices’ Thoughts on Office Design and Operation After Covid 19 mentioned everything from waste and recycling to cleaning protocols and security badges, as well as its more familiar territory of space standards. Everyone from the managing director down likely had an opinion on how and when they would feel safe returning to work, how many hand sanitiser stations there should be and how many people could and should be working in an office space at any one time.

“FMs have been astoundingly responsive and supportive of their clients and their businesses,” said Kath Fontana FRICS, president elect of RICS and managing director, public sector critical infrastructure and capital projects with Mitie, speaking at a recent World Built Environment Forum webinar. “It’s not just short-cycle processes and responding to government policy that’s important, but the higher order, strategic FM management needs to be thought about as well.” 

Allison English, deputy CEO of employee experience specialist Leesman, adds: “If they weren’t thinking about bringing FMs into the boardroom before, then the senior leadership team should be now, for any ongoing and future conversations.” Immediate issues such as occupancy and safety are where FMs can, and should be, at the top table. At a time when multiple surveys have shown how happy people are working from home, English talks about “an opportunity to create a destination instead of just a building, a place where people will want to go, a chance to show people what they’re missing”.

This “experience” element – not only enhancing the physical space but also blending it with the virtual space and taking influence from the hospitality sector and the home – sounds like a lot for FMs to take on. “It shouldn’t sit solely on FMs’ shoulders; it’s a huge opportunity for them to come together more with HR and IT,” English adds. 

“It’s not just short-cycle processes and responding to government policy that’s important, but the higher order, strategic FM management needs to be thought about as well” Kath Fontana FRICS

Rennie Dalrymple MRICS, managing director at construction consultant Concert (formerly known as Bruceshaw), agrees that it’s a case of “together stronger”, and not to mention more influential. “Activity in making offices COVID-19 compliant or evaluating being able to work remotely shouldn’t mean FM and HR working in isolation, but rather come together to win hearts and minds.”

RICS, for its part, is at the pilot stage in the creation of a new benchmarking measure, the International Buildings Operations Standard (IBOS). This will, says Paul Bagust, RICS’ global property standards director, enable “a more holistic look at real estate. Rather than just being based on cost, this is about assessing how a building, be it a shop, an office, a prison or a school, shapes the experience people have within it.” FMs, he adds, could be at the centre of the conversation as their role shifts from a purely operational one to a much more strategic position, aligned to organisational needs such as staff retention, wellbeing, environmental performance and social value. 

A recently released insight paper The Age of Unreal Estate further underlines RICS’ commitment to working with stakeholders, from FMs to occupiers and investors, to develop a data-led standard to how buildings are run. It provides a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reimagined for this new dawn of real estate, where compliance sits at the bottom and productivity and stimulation at the top. The opportunity to elevate the role of FM beyond the faulty access pass or the broken lift is definitely there for the taking.