There can be a tendency when discussing the impact of technologies to focus on one of two extremes: either its seismic, transformational nature (“everything you thought you knew is about to end”) or the tiniest technical minutiae (“Bluetooth 5.01 has been superseded by Taggletooth 5.02, requiring DazzleSpasm g26 for successful integration….”)
Fortunately, Tuesday’s Workplace Futures conference carved out a third way, its crowded agenda covering a broad stream of technology narratives as they affect facilities management, without straying (much) into prophecies of doom or intricacies of installation.
Agents4RM International MD Lionel Prodgers has seen the scale of technology deployed within FM grow significantly over his time in the sector. The former IWFM chair started off proceedings by detailing the hockey stick curve of 21st-century technological development, contrasting it with the much slower adoption curves of previous technologies.
Consumer tech, the kind we increasingly use to control (for example) our homes’ temperature while on a train, is coming to the commercial built environment. Indeed, said Prodgers, the much-lauded Internet of Things has been developing faster for consumers faster than it has for commercial buildings. However, once people become used to instant information from a consumer perspective, they demand it for the workplace.
Turning to asset data and the growth in the use of building information models (BIM). Prodgers noted “a reluctance at the design and construction stage" to build technical data and physical assets such as plant and equipment into the BIM. “It’s beginning to happen, but it’s not universal.”
Slow progress towards FM’s integration into BIM means we are still some distance from FM taking the controlling influence over BIMs that was once envisaged. Will FM ever get to the point where everything related to FM is collated into a single place?
“We’ve yet to see it,” said Prodgers, “and I’m not sure it’s going to happen any time soon”.
Nigel Warrick, head of digital workplace at CADline followed Prodgers to the lectern with the sobering suggestion that 95.5% of all data captured about building performance currently goes unused. The pinpoint accuracy of modern built asset data, acquired through today's high-quality cameras and drones, can allow for specialised intelligence to emerge from disparate systems and from building information models. Warrick cited the RIBA Plan of Work and FM’s theoretically crucial involvement at the operation stage, something that will become all the more important as refurb and retrofit projects in pursuit of net zero objectives become more commonplace. “The closing out and in-use bit needs focusing on,” said Warrick.
The problem? It remains difficult for FM organisations to source and retain qualified, tech-savvy personnel to manage all of the necessary interaction between systems. Too often, organisations can be reliant on their sole ’Teflon man’ being exposed when that individual goes on holiday.
The challenge the sector faces is in ensuring that it isn't just obliged to deal with the operational demands imposed by others earlier in the building design chain.
“I blame the architects,” said Warrick. “We all blame the architects,” mused conference host Martin Pickard.
Next up, Graham Perry, commercial director of business intelligence software firm Datore (pronounced da-TOUR) honed in on the problem of data volume and the oceans of data that FM organisations will be increasingly asked to deal with in the years ahead.
“The amount of data we’re going to get – our resources are never going to be sufficient,” warned Perry. What’s needed, he said, is to refine raw performance data, filtering its sheer volume into a more organised form that can be then sent into analytics systems, and to which machine learning can be applied to discern actionable insights.
It’s also important to evolve your analytics activity in line with a client’s data collection capabilities as they themselves change, said Perry, using a client case study to make his point.
But should FM organisations internalise any of this work? Well, said Perry, “it is my belief that over the next few years we are going to see an outsourcing of data and outsourcing of analytics. ‘Data as a service’ is something we are going to see adopted within the sector. ‘Analytics as a service’ is going to be using the tools and tech required to deliver intelligence into an organisation without that organisation having to buy them themselves.
“We’re also going to see more machine learning. Lots of people talk about AI, but [deploying] machine learning is where our industry can take specific problems from clients and create models that automate some of these processes.”
“We are also going see the creation within organisations of intelligence-based delivery models that fall outside of the IT department. Because as long as [this kind of activity] stays within IT, we will still be talking about clouds, modelling tools, etc. But actually, you need to take ownership of the ‘so what?’ question. Why are you doing what you're doing? That’s the kind of question that IT departments cannot answer on their own."
Peter Ankerstjerne, chief strategy officer at Planon, then introduced the world of hybrid working squarely into the conversation. Office utilisation, he said, had actually been around 55 per cent prior to the pandemic, and today it’s around 30 per cent. It's a shift, for sure, but one that had been coming for some time. Today, offices are no longer primarily about productivity but instead about collaboration, the creation of deep relationships and the promotion of company culture; productivity is just a part of this mix.
“We are moving from activity-based to experience-based office,” said Ankerstjerne. “And it’s we as FMs who need to stage that experience – because the office has become optional for most people now.”
Knowledge work organisations are still struggling with what their hybrid balance should be, said Ankerstjerne, with difficult decisions ahead about office space volumes leased and service provision to match new realities.
Tech-wise, the big shift will be the embracing of the ubiquitous smartphone as the primary interface between organisation and employee.
“We need to adapt to a mobile-first mindset. Every one of us. Every relevant data for employees needs to be available via mobile.”
In all of this FMs, said Ankerstjerne, have a unique opportunity to drive the hybrid transformation.
Miquel Vidal Trilla, head of augmented reality at CBRE, extolled the virtues of AR’s application to the sector. The home of all this augmented reality? The metaverse – or, for now at least, three individual metaverses (consumer, commercial and industrial are the variants.)
“Have no doubt, this is going to be a paradigm shift,” said Trilla of the AR technology which, incidentally, by no means obliges the use of headsets (screen access is just as viable). Accessing such a metaverse through ‘mixed reality’ allows for better remote team service support and learning as users ‘walk through’ virtual versions of their buildings. Trilla spoke of CBRE’s own augmented reality projects, from which both efficiency and emissions results have already realised.
Simone Fenton-Jarvis then brought the conversation back to culture and engagement –in other words, the human dimension. Too many workers (a fifth or more) remain unengaged in their work, she noted. And in our new hybrid worlds, it’s all too possible for colleagues “to be more disconnected, despite being more connected than ever”.
There remains a gap between what workplace group leaders and senior management think workers want, and what workers say they actually need in order to succeed. The problem is around where work is conducted, and what team leaders are measuring. Flexible working and an agile mindset are key, said Fenton-Jarvis, with all of it supported by emerging smart tech.
“As a profession, of course we want to get people back to the office. But we need to give [workers] a reason to go back there.” People, culture, and belonging are the principal elements: The workplace offers a reason to get together with our tribe. We need to tie what it is to be human to what the office provides for us. That’s potentially quite a shift.
What's important is that the data collected to support workplace design is the data that supports the desires, intentions and behaviours of the people meant to populate it.
Fenton-Jarvis also spoke about the smart home revolution, the use of such technology and the workplace and how we will need to focus on the fundamental needs of people in the workplace – not necessarily the latest tech, but the tech that has most impact on our fundamental workplace needs.
This theme of a corporate culture being sustained and even defined by technology into the future came up in Q&A. Peter Ankerstjerne spoke of companies communicating the culture of their workplace through their brand – something once the exclusive purview of marketing, but which the FM sector is ideally placed to lead on.
Founder and CEO of Leesman, Tim Oldman, took on the event’s graveyard slot with gusto, talking of the sector digging its own graveyard should it fail to react to what his organisation’s data is saying about office occupancy in the years ahead – which, incidentally is that 40% of office space is going to no longer be needed.
What remains of this space will, as others had already noted, need to be of the highest possible quality and fit for purpose. But unfortunately: ”The product you are delivering is not fit for purpose,” said Oldman. “It’s time to face up to the challenges ahead.”
It wasn’t difficult to sense a note of frustration in Oldman’s voice as he showed workplace user statistics from a full 10 years ago detailing how noise in the office was seen as detrimental to performance, something routinely mentioned today in discussions about post-pandemic offices.
“I told you that in 2013,” said Oldman, “and you didn’t change anything!
“I’m surprised that no one here today has faced up to how different tomorrow will be."
“The supply chain to the supply chain in your industry is on a cliff edge. The genie is out of the box and the cat is out of the bag.”
Mark Davenport, smart buildings director for Equans UK & Ireland, followed Oldman’s apocalyptic intervention with a presentation on the various stages of smart building development, his view being that FM needs to be front and centre in any discussion about such a building’s design, with smart buildings “a major disruption to the construction model”.
CBRE’s definition of a smart building is one “where you integrate [existing] disparate systems”. Essentially, using IoT infrastructure to integrate existing systems. Surely all of these are designed around open systems? In fact, open protocols are a fallacy, said Davenport: “No open protocol can speak to another open protocol, so it’s not actually open. I don’t know how they have got away with it.”
Developers, he continued, can be reluctant around smart buildings. (“They didn’t understand BMS so they certainly don’t understand what a smart building is.”) The issue is that designing smart buildings in 2023 requires a ‘five-star’ client who understands the qualitative improvements that interconnected smart buildings can bring. But at an uncertain time for CRE, “we need to go after the developer and investor to get buy-in”. Smart buildings can underpin a developer, investor or client’s offering of a ‘premium brand’ building, said Davenport, referencing how student accommodation has managed to become such a brand in recent times.
And by the way, IoT infrastructure will, suggested Davenport, lead to the death of the traditional BMS, the new architecture allowing more flexible, modular connections between devices that does what the BMS used to.
Shane Betts, head of corporate accounts at Integral, then interviewed his colleague Alan Epps (IOC operations director EMEA) and David Bownass (head of UK Net Zero assets consulting), Integral, about the ‘data-driven’ retrofitting of buildings.
The trio confirmed the emerging theme of a ‘flight for quality’ and its effect on retrofit projects. The net zero building standard, due this year, will incorporate retrofit and help boost the amount of environmental retrofit work that is, they argued, in need of a boost. (“We’re already behind the curve with millions of buildings requiring attention.”)
Epps also confirmed what Davenport had mentioned – no longer do organisations need to rely on a BMS to get the necessary data outputs; sensors, and how they report, give FMs a wider canvas, with ‘geeky’ building engineers keen to assess the wider data pool most IoT devices output.
Peter Reigo, founder of workforce software developer Flowscape teamed up with Claire Callan, smart places associate director at WSP, to discuss the use of workplace tech as a way of empowering hybrid office workers while addressing climate change goals.
The pair considered of the asynchronous nature of post-pandemic office occupancy, presenting a case study on the use of occupancy data to develop a ‘heat map’ of actual space usage in order to model future use, combining room booking information as well as multiple types of zonal sensors.
Marcus Sontheimer, chief information and digital officer with ISS, spoke of his company’s tech journey, with his role now at ISS board level and the company moving all of its software to the cloud.
ISS is growing a range of distinct apps, each for specific requirements. You can’t solve all of an estate’s tech requirements through a single FM app, suggested Sontheimer.
ISS is also preparing for its apps to integrate with Microsoft’s Places platform, due out later this year. And ISS is also tracking close to 500 technology start-ups as it looks to find market advantage.
What’s key here is how ISS is among companies now able to communicate through apps directly to its frontline personnel, a trend this conference addressed in 2022.
”Clients don’t want data, they want actionable insights,” said Harpreet Cheema, head of workplace services with Sodexo, whose presentation focused on the empowering of its own employees as well as focusing facilities services on the emerging generation of ‘empowered consumers’. Cheema spoke of using technology to bolster “continuity” - ie. supporting today’s ‘anywhere workforce’ through continuous engagement.
Sodexo, like ISS, is monitoring tech start-ups and working with them to bring good ideas into the service delivery mainstream, in its case through its ‘Accelerator’ programme “to capture and work with the best start-ups in the world”, scaling up the application of their solutions - for example in urban farming, food waste reduction, chemical-free cleaning - for international deployment.
For SBFM’s CEO Matt Chapman and product manager Charlotte Coles-Morris, empowerment of personnel across a range of different personas, was again a major topic.
Tech deployed by FM organisations needs to make its users feel part of the employer’s community, whatever the initial interface is and whatever the role of the user is. SBFM’s solution, made available within the past year, is through the use of a single, highly configurable app, called Optimise.
Service personnel can see what shifts they’re booked on, what they’re earning, just as managers can see this detail across specific teams. ‘Meaningful insights’ are available to management and front line personnel alike.
The idea is to ‘break down barriers’ between company and service delivering employee, and also to allow employers to rate and reward particular high achievers within the workforce. One benefit, said Chapman, is that that firms working with Optimise are reporting a reduction in staff attrition.
Stefano Bensì, general manager of Softbank Robotics UK, spoke of the challenges that FM faces in recruitment, with so many alternatives - Uber cab driving, for example - being fresh competitors for staff.
The effect of new tech can be overstated, said Bensi, as users experience a ‘trough of disillusionment’ surrounding it. But it can gradually rise in importance, the pandemic a good example of robotic cleaning equipment coming into its own, perhaps for the first time for many. Once it becomes the norm, it’s accepted. Cleaners wouldn’t, for example, go back from cleaning machines to brooms.
Bensi also spoke of the positive potential impact on a catering business's variable costs of robotic devices able to deliver catering product from one place to another.