How is our now ubiquitous smartphone affecting the way teams in the FM sector communicate between themselves, their superiors and their end-user clients? Jamie Harris investigates.
3 August 2017 | Jamie Harris
We've come a long way since smoke signals, the telegram and the can and string. It's 2017 and the snowballing nature of technological innovation has resulted in a plethora of communication technologies available to streamline work processes - something the facilities management sector is exploiting to great effect.
But how are FMs communicating with each other and their teams? Is the sector fully embracing the technology, or is there still resistance? Are face-to-face meetings dead? Does the CAFM system fully meet the evolving requirements of a dynamic FM team? Or should FMs just tweet their teams from now on?
Communication platforms were previously restricted to in trays, emails and intranet systems designed for practical use rather than aesthetics. For FMs and their ability to manage work orders or to connect with their teams - a number of whom could be working across a large site, or even at a different location within an organisation's portfolio - a more instant and portable form of communication is required.
The explosion in use of personal mobile devices over the past 15 years and the tumbling cost of data transfer has meant that even the once ubiquitous two-way radio has been usurped. Instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Yammer now have an almost universal appeal, allowing the smartphone user - and that's now most of us - to send messages, images and other files to a person or a group anywhere in the world immediately. Traditional CAFM systems have also evolved, with data capture devices being merged into a single smartphone device through the advent of individual apps.
Andrew Hulbert, managing director of service provider Pareto Facilities Management, is an enthusiastic adopter of these technologies. "Say there's an issue that you need to deal with in the evening. You can do it through WhatsApp, where it doesn't disturb your family, it doesn't disturb anything else, it's all in real time, and it's all documented. It's a great way to actually communicate with your team."
Graham Davenport, director at Platinum Facilities, also extols these particular virtues. "We have been using Yammer as our preferred communication platform for quite some time," says Davenport, "and with great success. It replaced the need for our internal newsletter, providing updates to our teams who work on customer sites."
Adrian Powell, director at Active, believes that instant messaging apps are fast becoming the go-to communication tool across a range of industries.
"While individual employees are using it to communicate with one another, teams are also embracing WhatsApp groups to get instant responses through the use of text, audio and video. Not only do these tools offer FMs flexibility and quick responses, but they are also free or inexpensive, and can be used anywhere - as long as you have an internet signal."
'Bring Your Own Device' (BYOD) has been an ongoing issue for facilities and IT teams. FM World was reporting on this topic in 2012, since when the ease of use and relative cost of personal devices is what has made them so popular in the work environment. Powell admits that this has resulted in security risks, with IT departments struggling to cope with the crossover between personal IT infrastructure and that owned by the organisation.
He explains: "Group messaging apps can pose serious problems for business leaders, ranging from security risks to issues around compliance and corporate reputation. Although offering the feature of end-to-end encryption, meaning messages cannot be intercepted, it is all too easy for confidential information to stray into personal group conversations and vice versa.
"To combat this, facilities management teams should really be using their own group messaging technology that can be easily monitored and controlled, completely separate from any personal messaging apps."
Keeping up app-earances
Technology is infiltrating more than just how FM teams communicate internally and with respective clients - it's now providing a gateway into communication with the end user of the FM service.
CAFM systems and helpdesk systems are developing at a similar pace; with integration into apps on smartphones, CAFM systems enable everyone involved in an asset or building to communicate in real-time and have access to the same information, says Jesse Klebba, CEO at Urgent Technology.
"For example, the client-side facilities director, the site FM, the procurement expert, and the maintenance engineer can share information from pictures, job status updates, to documentation relating to the assets and facilities with one another avoiding the need for any paperwork.
"All communication about a particular asset, including its maintenance and performance history, is recorded in one place. While it must become part of the engineer and FM teams' etiquette to constantly record material on the CAFM system, the ability of CAFM tools to be used on smartphones and iPads means this is becoming increasingly easy and improves usability and communication."
Paul Bullard, business strategy director at FSI, says the development of apps for the end user to report problems, book rooms or order food, and the integration of these apps with the CAFM system could speed up communication between provider and end user.
He says: "The democratising of access to facilities services at app level can encourage entire workplace communities to contribute to the success of the facilities they occupy. There's an immediacy to the connection, and a more personal one; those who experience the service will benefit from a direct connection to those providing it."
Perhaps one area that is reaping the greatest rewards in embracing new communications methodologies is the management of lone and remote workers. Service providers within the FM industry often have individuals or small teams working across a number of client sites, roving engineers on the move from one job to the next. Outside the capital in particular, these sites may be a significant distance apart.
In an extreme example of remote FM in action, Richard Petrie is an area facilities manager for the Scottish Highlands and Islands at BT Facilities Services. He has a team of five staff working across some of the more remote parts of the British Isles. Understandably, keeping in contact with his team is more of an art form. When he spoke to FM World in 2014 (On the edge, FM World, 24 September 2014), he explained that with such a small team and so much ground to cover, keeping abreast of remote and lone working is a big part of the job.
"I will be in touch with each individual most days, and I insist on holding a conference call once a fortnight. For times when the weather could pose problems, that escalates to daily," said Petrie.
He manages the team remotely. "With the geography putting so much distance between us there has to be a great deal of trust. We all manage own daily workload."
For teams working across the same site, in particular in security or outdoor maintenance work, two-way radios remain simple, practical and reliable.
Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent, part of Land Securities' portfolio, makes use of radio systems to connect its operations team across 1.8 million square feet of retail space. Land Securities explains that the radios' long battery life - easily outlasting a shift with a single charge - is a major point when comparing radio systems with the alternative of a network of personal smartphones, making radios more beneficial to high-profile or high-security sites, and helping keep uninterrupted crisis communications maintained between all parties should wireless or mobile networks be compromised during a major incident.
While radio systems are still effective, FM teams are increasingly saying that they - and their clients - continue to lean towards the use of phones over radios.
Davenport explains: "The ability to send photos over smartphones improves communication, especially when staff are off site but on emergency standby. Also, with a smartphone you have the added benefit of apps like Skype, for video calls, which is useful for when an asset or system needs to be reviewed remotely. Our engineers regularly record videos of assets and send to a member of our technical team for review."
Hulbert points to the growth of cloud-based technology, with organisations beginning to take advantage of shared file storage and collaborative working platforms.
He says: "We use social and cloud tools for ground level management; we use WhatsApp groups as a way of communicating between teams and also Skype calls, DropBox and OneDrive for immediate access to documents, contracts and HR material."
Hulbert warns, however, that this can only work effectively once the relationship between manager and team has been nurtured sufficiently; and this is where the value of face-to-face communication remains key.
"This cloud-based technology is not something that's new, it's just a case of implementing it. But to be able to do that, you need great managers who can implement this style. Those managers initially need to spend lots of time - and continue to spend time - with their staff, so that these forms of communication can be effective afterwards. You have to have that level of engagement first. WhatsApp is not the first and foremost way to engage, but it's a good back-up after you've built up a great relationship."
The principle of face-to-face communications in building team relationships is still key in this digital age of messaging apps. But there is a collective interest in maximising the team productivity and reporting capabilities that these new technologies introduce.