Social value has dominated the agenda over the past few years with Covid-19 further highlighting sustainability’s human dimension. Yet in the months immediately pre-Covid, attention was turning towards the UK’s 2050 deadline for net zero carbon emissions as the new kid on the sustainability block. Ahead of its 2020 sustainability survey report, Martin Read attended an IWFM sustainability SIG workshop to consider the topic’s shifting priorities.
Once again, sustainability is evolving. 2020 looks set to be a watershed year for the topic as it adapts to the Covid-19 pandemic and the corporate shift in attention towards the government’s environment bill as well as recent legislation to ensure net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Before we get there, what of social value? Government legislation is driving recalibration of public sector procurement to ensure local employment, local sourcing and employee wellbeing are measurable elements in contracts. During a recent IWFM sustainability SIG workshop, participants confirmed the growing importance of social value.
For some organisations, social value remains a ‘moving target’.
“It really depends on how progressed they are on this agenda; for some firms it’s mission critical, for others less so,” said Ann Beavis, head of sustaimable development at Crown Workspace. It’s in the private sector that such variety in interpretation can be rife; in the public sector, increasing use of the Social Value Portal’s TOMS framework tool is helping organisations meet their now mandated criteria.
Social value’s lack of clear definition will likely remain an ongoing challenge, as will the need for accepted measurement standards.
BAM FM’s Reid Cunningham soke of how client requirements for social value can vary from site to site, with some contractors on a framework unable to meet the client’s expectations or those of the National TOMS framework. This issue could be solved by further expansion of the TOMS framework; more sectoral plugins should mean further harmonisation across sectors.
Social value has several wrinkles that need ironing out, Demands for service firms to employ apprentices as a social value measure, for instance, can fail because of the asynchronous link between apprenticeship term and contract length.
Polly Plunket-Checkemian, senior exectuve director at MAPP, spoke of being at “a turning point on what social value means”.
“The dialogue to date has been around social mobility, skills and employability. Covid has changed that. The social value work I’ve seen occupiers participating in during the pandemic has been around survival; around food banks and helping people in dire needs. For the foreseeable future this is where we are going to see the social value debate taken.”
Yet while the recession may indeed result in themes such as the circular economy overtaken by more pressing concerns, optimism remains.
Sofie Hooper, IWFM head of policy, commented: “We understand that organisations will be very much focused on that survival mode, but we need to enable them to start thinking about what that new economic reality should look like.
“One thing we’ve seen following collapses such as Carillion is that people are aware that they need to shift away from that race to the bottom – and that’s where the social value proposition has gained a bit more traction.”
In considering a slight drop in the number of IWFM sustainability survey respondents labelling social value as very important, SIG chair Greg Davies wondered whether the net zero carbon proposition was an easier to understand baseline.
Concern was raised that there was a lack of consistency around who ‘owns’ social value within an organisation, it falling often between HR, FM and the C-suite. Hooper agreed that social value has the potential to be seen as just one of a list of competing priorities.
“Rather than defining what social value is in the strictest terms, it might be more beneficial in outlining how it relates to the wider strategic sustainability mission,” explained Hooper. “When you can link it to your wider strategic goals and, for example, the UN’s Development Goals, you can raise the level of conversation.”
What about wellbeing?
Workshop participants spoke of Covid-19 and how the extraordinary work-from-home experiment will have boosted the discussion about employee wellbeing. In any event, the last two years had seen huge corporate interest in the topic.
While mental health initiatives had grabbed the headlines, Reid Cunningham made the point that the drive around physical health was just as important. His only concern is that wellbeing initiatives tended to be driven by HR and not FM, when for the most part it is FM that should have the oversight.
Plunket-Checkemian believed Covid-19 had ‘swept away’ accepted practices such as enforced presenteeism, with worker choice set to become a key wellbeing component. “As a managing agent, I’m noticing that not only are developers thinking really hard about the amenities and facilities they’re putting in to common areas and buildings, but occupiers are also changing the narrative of their fit-out to focus on employee experience.”
This may have been a long time coming, but it was, she added, a very welcome to see.
There was agreement that wellbeing initiatives can be led by HR, albeit often in full partnership with FM, the mental and physical elements helping to draw the two departments’ activities together.
Nascent wellbeing strategies put in place before Covid will now be tested, Beavis argues, but companies are now measuring the productivity and financial savings associated with improved wellbeing strategies.
As for the elements of a building that an FM can control to effect wellbeing, there was agreement that the challenge with any attempt to alter physical space in a building that an organisation doesn’t own is problematic, with all tenants needing to be on board to see through changes that can affect such fundamentals as air quality or temperature.
In any event, Covid-19 has thrown such planning into chaos, with very different operating models being considered for owned or leased space – and major ramifications behind every organisation’s decisions.
However significantly organisations want to effect change to their workplace conditions – a ‘flight to flexibility’ – the problem is going to be the massive time lag between organisations being able to free themselves of their lease commitments, therefore carrying a millstone of occupational costs around their necks at the expense of redeploying investment on the sustainability and wellbeing challenges they want to address.
Add in the choice of workers to continue staying away from offices as the Covid crisis continues and the seeds of fresh dynamics in the office market are sown.
There was concern expressed over the potential for two distinct strata of buildings to emerge – those people want to be in, and an obsolete asset class unfit for tenants appreciative of the role of buildings in their workers’ wellbeing.
Sustainability themes emerging
- The UK’s 2050 net zero carbon target shifting corporate sustainability priorities;
- Changes in corporate leadership as firms cater for new realities in how workers are managed;
- The potential shelving of major infrastructure projects as reduced business travel and commuting begin to bite;
- A shift in the design of city centres as businesses make bold decisions on location when lease breaks allow; Seasonality of the Covid-19 pandemic affecting workplaces in the colder months;
- A keener eye on the incremental benefits of smart technology in buildings as building flexibility and employee experience become primary selling points
- A knowledge work world forever changed by a new and enduring balance between home and office working
- Social value initiatives skewing towards community interaction
- Continuing issues surrounding the lack of a fixed definition or measurement structure for social value
Covid changes the game
Amid the ongoing Covid confusion, there remained a concern that organisations without a strong and genuine sustainability culture would suffer. Against this comes the belief that if the last six months have taught us anything, it’s that organisations can indeed turn on a sixpence; can build and service a hospital from scratch or shift their entire service support model to cater for a workforce that for the most part is remotely based. What’s more, workers have experienced the benefits of fresher air or fewer cars. In this new reality, sustainability initiatives, so often bracketed as high-cost with all the associated major behavioural change, seem more likely to bear fruit. As one IWFM sustainability SIG participant said: “I think there’s a recognition that businesses can do more; it sits well with their staff, and it sits well with their clients.”
That is the glass-half-full perspective. Weighed against it is the stark reality of a devastating global recession ahead, with its ramifications for every sector of industry. And then, of course, there’s the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the fresh challenges it may yet bring. Seasonal problems, for instance: sustainability SIG workshop participants expressed concern that, to date, the mass home working has been conducted during the longer days of the year. What will happen in the dark depths of winter? Mental health is an are of obvious potential concern and, just as we’ve seen reduced energy use in the summer months, mass home working in the winter will certainly see domestic energy consumption increase dramatically. In offices, where many may soon prefer to be, safety measures will mean more energy expended to ensure the introduction of enough fresh air, and the subsequent extraction of stale air, from properties.
Beavis emphasised the difference between today and the 2008 recession. “What’s different is that the investment community has made a shift. You don’t have to look far to find that the environmental, social and governance (ESG) debate is much more about enlightened altruism and the recognition that climate change needs more resilience. That gives me hope as to how we might manage sustainability coming out of Covid and how those factors might change decision-making. The money is now looking to sustainable practices and that’s a positive in driving business decision-making.”
If sustainability has a problem, it is that it incorporates such a huge spectrum of activities, each requiring different metrics and each with differing corporate drivers. The positives are in the legislation, from the amended Climate Change Act to the Public Services (Social Value) Act and the measures in the current environment bill, all of which will drive corporate pressure to engage and ensure that the sheer breadth of the topic remains to the fore in the years ahead. Sustainability in all its forms will continue to be an important focus of FMs’ activities.
The IWFM Sustainability Survey Report, produced in partnership with Inenco, is published at the end of this month and will be supported by a webinar discussing the findings. To find out more, visit iwfm.org.uk
Polly Plunket-Checkemian, senior executive director at MAPP
Reid Cunningham, strategic development director at BAM FM
Sofie Hooper, head of policy at IWFM
Ann Beavis, head of sustainability at Crown Workspace