It’s hard to predict the long-term impact that Covid-19 will have on working practices in Europe and the knock-on implications for commercial real estate and workspaces.
Dramatic reports about the demise of the traditional office are too simplistic. The longer the pandemic lasts, and with lockdown restrictions being re-imposed throughout Europe and the wider world, both employers and employees are recognizing the value and benefits of the workplace.
Without doubt, the pandemic will act as a powerful catalyst for workplace change and an accelerator for the transformation of real estate. For businesses, it’s providing a window of opportunity to reimagine the future of work to meet the needs of a future, more agile workforce.
However, as a recent JLL study observed, the drop in demand for commercial office space is to be expected as a direct result of the severe global recession, but there is still little evidence that demand won’t bounce back to somewhere near its previous level once the pandemic has passed. As the report observes, increased working from home doesn’t equate to less demand for office space.
Accelerating the shift towards smart buildings
Where there is broad consensus across all corners of the property and facilities management industries is that Covid-19 will speed up the shift towards smart and connected buildings.
Forward-thinking businesses are already looking beyond the immediate priorities of re-entry into buildings and re-thinking how they can better utilize their office and work spaces to provide safer, more engaging and aspirational experiences for their people. And they’re thinking big, re-imagining the ‘emotional, digital and physical dimensions of their spaces’.
As working patterns become more flexible, with a more even split between remote and office-based work, businesses will need to re-think the purpose of their workspaces, to emphasize and maximize the benefits of the aspects of work that cannot be replicated from home. So we’ll see offices re-designed with a greater focus on spaces which encourage face-to-face interaction rather than people working at their desks all day long. We’re also likely to see a strong focus on employee wellbeing, both physical and emotional.
But it’s worth remembering that all of these shifts were happening anyway, prior to the events of this year. Forward-thinking employers were already re-inventing their office spaces to reflect changes in employee behavior and demands, and to meet the digital-led expectations of new generations of workers.
And of course there are other drivers for these changes beyond employee experience. The move to smart buildings also enables organizations to drive cost efficiencies through reduced energy consumption and data-driven decision-making, allowing them to run more environmentally-friendly and sustainable operations, as well as enabling greater security and enhancing workforce productivity.
What do smart buildings mean for FM?
The move towards smarter buildings undoubtedly has major implications for the FM industry. The make-up of services and delivery models will need to evolve dramatically to cater for smart, connected buildings and the businesses and end users that occupy them.
And whilst the shift towards smart buildings represents a real opportunity for FM professionals (both on the supply and demand side) to deliver strategic support and counsel to businesses, there are fears that they simply aren’t ready to rise to this challenge, given the immediate pressures and priorities they are juggling.
In research that we carried out at the beginning of the pandemic, 80 percent of European FM leaders admitted that delivering on their organization’s smart building and smart workplace vision is a real challenge but 87 percent said that it needed to be a top priority over the next two years.
The characteristics of smart cleaning
FM leaders recognize the urgent need to innovate within their cleaning operations to support the shift to smart buildings and, most importantly, to meet and anticipate rapidly-evolving expectations around hygiene. Innovation within FM and cleaning has become mission-critical – 73 percent of senior leaders believe that the whole vision of smart buildings will be compromised without innovation in cleaning over next five years.
The question is… exactly how does cleaning need to change to stay relevant and be a catalyst for transformation?
For a start, cleaning operations will need to become more agile and resilient to cope with the pace and scale of constant change that is set to continue as part of everyday business, even after the pandemic. As a recent Accenture report argued, organizations need to prepare for the decade of the Never Normal, a new era defined by fast changing shifts in cultural norms, societal values and behaviors. For FM providers this means new operating and resourcing models, more flexibility in their servicing agreements and far greater agility in their supply chain.
Beyond this, our research amongst FM leaders pointed to a vision of smart cleaning which embraces innovative technology as a means to optimize cleaning performance and improve productivity. And this technology will be accessed on a lease model rather than through capital expenditure, to ensure service providers have full visibility and control on ongoing costs.
There was also a widely held belief that commercial models within FM need to evolve, with performance-based contracts, KPIs focused on outcomes rather than time-based metrics and greater use of data and insight.
Linked to this, within this vision of smart cleaning, was a marked shift towards cobotics within cleaning operations, with cobots supporting frontline staff to improve cleaning performance, ease workload and stress on stretched human resources and increase employee wellbeing. There is also a strong appetite for the data and insight that cobots produce to prove that cleaning tasks have not only been delivered, but done so to a high level of performance and consistency which makes a real difference to overall levels of hygiene.
Overall, 83 percent of FM leaders felt that the introduction of cobotics aligns with and moves them nearer their smart building vision.
Cleaning must form a key part of FM smart building strategies
Evidently, FM service delivery needs to evolve dramatically over the next few years and FM leaders need to ensure they have the right strategies in place to drive transformation in their organizations. And this strategy has to start with and support a vision of the future workplace, with buy-in across the business.
Worryingly our research found that only 53 percent of FM leaders currently have a formal strategy around smart buildings, and this figure drops to 51 percent on the supply side. This is where FM leaders need support from their suppliers and partners to influence and win over stakeholders throughout the business. They need to collaborate to create a picture of the future workforce that their organization will need to thrive, and the workspace that will best engage and inspire that workforce. From there, they should lean on their partners to help them to devise creative strategies to achieve that vision, embracing innovative technology and new business models to accelerate the journey.
Those FM companies that get these strategies right will be able to get ahead of the curve and demonstrate that they are ready and able to support the shift towards smart buildings and anticipate future trends in working behaviors. In doing so, they can deliver real value to businesses and establish themselves as strategic partners on this exciting journey.
Nils J.van der Zijl, VP Sales & Marketing, Softbank Robotics EMEA