Crisis management planning for facilities management does not usually include planning for a global pandemic. The types of crises for which facilities managers typically plan involve loss of service, building or at worst an entire site. Facilities Management as an industry was faced with multiple clients vacating buildings overnight and employees working from home. Although Acacia had a tested crisis management plan already in place, the crisis was still a shock due to its scale and the level of uncertainty in the early phase of the pandemic.
We had planned for what we thought were the worst issues that could affect us as a company – IT, connectivity, financial systems issues, loss of a core service or a building etc. After all, a pandemic is a once a century crisis. Although crisis management planning is an important discipline and is given a high priority in FM, plans are not always tested fully, however, we tested our crisis management plan five months prior to the pandemic, which was of immense benefit to us as we had set up remote working as part of our test. Although, this was an advantage, the uncertainty and chaos that the pandemic brought was still a significant challenge for the company.
The challenges and the shock of the new
The speed at which the pandemic emerged and led to a government mandated closure of schools and businesses was a shock. Communication was one of the biggest challenges. The ever-changing nature of the crisis meant that our COVID-19 crisis management team met daily and sometimes twice daily to discuss the latest updates on the pandemic and its effects. When we received new information from our professional networks or the government, we had to make decisions about if or how best to communicate the information to employees and clients.
Additionally, the information we were gathering from a variety of sources was changing so rapidly that one of our challenges was when to communicate information, as the message would change the following day or in a matter of hours. Initially, this was one of the most demanding parts of the crisis. Combined with the uncertainty that the crisis brought meant that supporting our staff and clients was also very exacting.
Our main priority was to support our clients and staff. We needed to know what industries were going to close and which ones were going to remain open during lockdown. In prioritising our client’s needs we needed to develop a plan, that was based on the most up to date information, that would allow us to deploy our services so that we could continue to assist our clients during the lockdown.
Each client was different, some clients moved their staff to remote working almost immediately. We developed guidance documents to advise them on how to make their buildings Covid compliant with respect to access, social distancing, and other return to work protocols. During unoccupancy phases we had to continue to carry out critical maintenance and testing of building systems to ensure buildings were available and safe for employees to return to work. In addition, we had to continue to provide a 24 x 7 helpdesk service, which responded to any building related problems that arose during the lockdowns.
The pandemic forced many businesses to fast track their digital transformation when their employees had to work remotely for an extended time and not from their usual office location. As an organization, from our inception, we had embraced remote technology and were early adopters of Cloud systems, such as Microsoft Nav. Although investing in digital and cloud technology had been driven for operational efficiency reasons at the beginning, it meant that we had highly robust and flexible systems that allowed us to seamlessly provide services and manage our business throughout the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, technology had been an area of facilities management in which we wanted to expand as we could see the potential, however the pandemic has accelerated technology to the forefront of the industry. While sensor technology had been in place in a number our client locations, now, remote working means for our clients, their high value assets need to be remotely monitored over an extended period. It has created the need for using an increasing variety of sensor technologies to manage client facilities, particular critical environments, such as server rooms, as well as high value assets.
Looking to the future
The future of facilities management will have a strong technology driven focus, which has been accelerated due to the pandemic. The phrase digital transformation has become strongly associated with the reaction to the pandemic, however it will not only include increased remote working, but it will also include the technologies, mentioned above, for remote monitoring. Robotics, Augmented Reality (AR) and other developing technologies will also have a role to play in the workplace.
Although it is difficult to predict how the pandemic will affect the future of work, we will evaluate and evolve the supports we have in place for employees working from home and the services we offer our clients to meet the new ways of working for their employees. Although, there has been much written about the long-term effects of the pandemic on the way we work, it is becoming more apparent that a hybrid workplace, whereby employees can choose when to work from home or from an office, is the future. Facilities Management has always evolved to meet the changing needs of the organisations we serve. The pandemic has brought us further and faster to a workplace that is highly flexible and more focused on the needs of the employee, which is one of the biggest positives our industry can take from this crisis.