Despite legislation designed to prevent inaccessible buildings, the FM function could do better at procuring disability-smart solutions for end-users. Poor communication of disability awareness planning and procurement plays its part. By Adam Leach.
5 June 2017 | Adam Leach
Usability and accessibility have risen in importance over recent times.
As the digital sphere has expanded beyond desktops to encompass mobile applications covering almost every facet of modern life the usability of everything, from an app to order pizza to a terminal to purchase a ticket, has become a critical element of daily life.
But while the term and its importance is freely bandied about and understood in the ever-expanding range of digital spheres, its value as a factor in more traditional areas such as the built environment appears to lag.
Buildings stand, provide power, light and heat, and house the operations of a business, but are not in necessarily assessed on the grounds of their usability or accessibility to the same degree as more recent elements of life.
For many, this is not an issue. As long as a door can be pushed, a light switched, and a staircase ascended, a great many can go about their business. But for those with a disability or a chronic health condition, the wrong light can lead to serial migraines and the wrong door a barrier to entry.
As the frontline managers of the building and the contractors of the third-party service providers, both the facilities management and procurement functions hold key responsibilities in ensuring access and use for all. From the opening of doors to maintaining the disabled bathrooms, issues that can restrict access or inflame a staff member's condition are within their remit.
But as the Business Disability Forum (BDF) has found, both functions are failing to deliver fully on those demands. Its recent research found a series of failings relating to the contracts and communications carried out between clients and contractors on access and disability awareness. It found that 60 per cent of outsourcing agreements feature no element of disability, that 75 per cent of contracts are not reviewed to ensure that disability requirements are being met, and that 80 per cent of businesses do not discuss disability outside of formal processes.
Despite these, the BDF also found that facilities management is the main area of the business where positive outcomes on disability can be achieved. When asked which areas of a business had third parties delivering products or services that are helping to deliver good outcomes for disabled people, 93.8 per cent identified facilities management staff, with 81.3 per cent identifying them as having helped to deliver good outcomes.
Failing to open up access to all
Taken together, the findings paint a picture of a failure to deliver to standard, yet a capability to deliver positive outcomes. In essence, it is a lack of upfront planning and process that has created a structural flaw.
With a slew of regulatory measures having been implemented, the Disability Discrimination Act [DDA] 13 years ago, then replaced by the Equality Act in 2010, and Building Regulations in place, why is it that businesses and the functions within them have failed to deliver in this area?
It would appear that such regulatory measures are insufficient to assure accessibility in the modern day.
In evidence sessions for its Building for Equality: Disability and the Built Environment report, the Women & Equalities Committee heard from several witnesses that current standards are "light and outdated".
In its submission to the select committee, The Access Association argued that Part M, the agreed building standard currently in force, failed to cover current needs. "It is possible to design and develop in accordance with the design guidance found in the Approved Document and still create a building which is not inclusive, which segregates people according to those require level access and those who do not," it said.
The impact of such insufficient standards is negative in itself, but doubly so if companies fail to go beyond them. Steve Maslin, director at Building User Design and Initiative Homes and a senior research fellow at the Schumacher Institute, has frequently encountered projects where they will simply rest on compliance with a piece of regulation, even if it can't be complied with.
"DDA-compliant is a big no-no as a term," says Maslin. "It conveys a lot of industry ignorance or lack of knowledge about the legislation. One is that it is no longer in force, it is now the Equality Act, and the other is that neither of them were design standards. So when people talk about DDA they're generally trying to refer to a designer complied with it and that wasn't a design standard, so you can't comply with it."
A lack of forward thinking on FM's role
In the case of FM, Maslin believes that one issue relates to occupational focus.
"I think within FM, there's a tendency to be focused on things like spreadsheets that relate to cost savings rather than the value that's driven by the quality of the user experience and understanding that it's just as, if not more, important."
This, in addition to FM often being sidelined processes before a building becomes operational, is something Maslin sees as a major flaw in any attempt to try and maximise a building's usability.
"The thing that separates a building from its design and construction is its occupation. Who is going to be coming and knocking on the FM door and raising an issue? It'll be the occupant. And I can picture [the facilities manager] shrugging their shoulders and saying it's the architect's fault. Now it's not just the architects, it's the whole industry's fault in understanding the whole environment."
To counter this, Maslin is adamant that FM, procurement and the overall issue of accessibility and disability needs to be factored in not when the staff first walk into the building, nor as it's being built, but right from the outset of the design process.
"The more FMs understand their pivotal role in making sure key stakeholders are involved in the design process or in the brief development stage, the better."
Raising the issue early on and involving procurement and FM providers is also something that Susan Scott-Parker, CEO and founder at Business Disability International, sees as critical.
"This stuff needs to be factored in at the beginning and procurement needs to be focused on asking the right questions of their providers and helping them to design these management plans in such a way that you're routinely monitoring how the building is working for people."
Learning the needs of all when going to marketFor Scott-Parker, it is only through a formal process where performance is tracked, that both the companies and its third-parties performance can be measured.
"Do you require your FM provider to document how many adjustments they've made, how many they've refused, how quickly they made those adjustments? If you're not monitoring it then you've no idea how much productivity and off time you're losing because these adjustments aren't being made."
In response to this need, Business Disability International, in association with a number of corporate partners, is developing a series of procurement toolkits that are designed to ensure that usability is assessed with respect to a broad range of disabilities and conditions. The first of these toolkits will cover the procurement of software, hardware and other IT purchases.
Explaining how it will work, she says: "It's a series of questions that we want every procurement director to use when procuring IT hardware and software and it's design to open a new conversation with suppliers."
In addition to the IT tender tool, which is being trialled at the moment and will be launched globally soon, work is already under way on a similar tool to cover FM procurement. That toolkit will ensure that any procurement professional asks the basic and sensible questions of a potential provider to work to a sensible standard of performance.
As for FM providers themselves, she believes that such a tool and its widespread use will create the potential for an edge for those that come up to standard or exceed it. "If they can demonstrate to clients that they know how to adapt for human beings that use the building, they're going to get a competitive advantage."
With such tools, it is hoped that underperforming functions and contractors can raise their game in terms accessibility. But that is not to say that there are not examples where companies are embracing it fully already.
Through her work on the topic, Scott-Parker has encountered a number of companies that understand the potential value in their workforce that would be lost if individual needs are not catered for.
Among these are global pharmaceutical firm GSK, which is taking action across its global operations, banking group Santander, retailer House of Fraser, and Lloyds Banking Group.
Asked what it is that has driven these companies to deliver against these demands, she identifies an appreciation of the value it will deliver not just to the individuals, but the business too.
"These organisations have started to gain the insights into the benefits to the company when they learn how to adapt for human reality, because we're just talking about what happens to human beings here," she says. "They can link learning how to act to enhancing productivity and engagement to a business objective, this isn't social work or charity, it's simply enhancing productivity."
With signs that those at the top of the business world are starting to understand the benefits that can be delivered through meeting the needs not just of the standard staff member, but the individual, and bodies like the Business Disability Forum and Business Disability International working to raise the issue and develop tools for the functions to better understand and embrace the problem, it is hoped that improvements can be made.
But as things currently stand, it is clear that both procurement and facilities management need to up their games.