A post-pandemic workplace opportunity

Peter Brogan, head of Research and Insight at the IWFM, provides a preview to the findings of the IWFM Market Outlook Survey, ahead of the launch of the full findings in the coming weeks

From the Covid-19 pandemic to the precarious Brexit negotiations, 2020 was a year of unprecedented challenges, converging pressures and tremendous uncertainty.

Now as we enter the second quarter of 2021, uncertainty has lost little of its vigour, although it has taken on different guises. Brexit has been delivered, replete with pain points and the promise of more to come, such as potential skills shortages and forecasts of weaker economic growth. Covid-19 remains, of course; the road to recovery and the form that normality takes for the foreseeable future once industry and society reopens remains shrouded in ifs and buts.  

One thing we can be certain of, however, is that the impacts of the past year will change how many live and work in 2021 and beyond. It is therefore key critical for our profession to learn from the insights we gained from the 2021 Market Outlook Survey, which I will preview for you here ahead of the launch of the full findings in the coming weeks.

Like previous years, the 2021 Survey sought the views of our members to help us build a comprehensive picture of how the UK workplace and facilities management market has performed over the last year; how it may perform over the next 12 months; and the factors that are affecting it.

We used data from our unpublished 2020 Market Outlook Survey as a baseline against which to analyse our 2021 data; this provided us with a unique opportunity to explore how the events of last year impacted on the workplace and facilities management market and the sentiment amongst our membership.

Engagement was excellent for both years, with the 2021 iteration attracting more respondents than ever before; however, it’s the quality of the responses that have provided the real value.

In both surveys, the majority of responses came from senior and middle managers (85 per cent in 2020 and 83 per cent in 2021). This was the ideal outcome because people in these roles are arguably best placed to comment on the health of their organisations and the market more generally.

Those in client-side roles, in both the public and private sectors, also made up the majority of respondents (60 per cent in 2020 and 63 per cent in 2021), whilst around a quarter came from individuals in FM service provider organisations. Again, this was an excellent outcome because it has garnered a broad range of perspectives from all corners of our profession.

Likewise, although respondents from larger organisations were more prevalent in both surveys, we also received responses from FM professionals working in small and medium-sized organisations, providing a further layer of rich diversity to our insights.

But what have these insights told us? A great many things, but what I will focus on here is the evident and exciting opportunity for the workplace and facilities management profession to guide and enable organisations to do things differently, starting with the imminent future of work and its consequences.

Workplace and facilities management’s opportunity
There have been a number of challenges due to the huge changes that Covid-19 brought to how many of us live and work; however, these changes have also created a paradigm shift that we expect – and hope - will change people’s lives for the better, forever. If, as IWFM and many others argue, this manifests as hybrid working or a similarly agile model that allows work to be carried out in multiple settings, untethered from corporate office buildings, it will improve the quality of life for office workers and benefit organisations’ bottom lines.

What is key now, as we look ahead to loosening social distancing restrictions and a return to a sense of normality - afforded, we hope, by the continuing successful roll-out of vaccines - is that we do not cling to old ways and instead embrace the opportunity to do better.

But work is changing too… The future proof workplace has to be designed for this new work; one which fosters skills for collaboration, interaction, learning, engaging – human work. The key is changing our profession’s mindset from one that sees technology as helping to do a job (managing the building) to redefining the job as one which helps everyone else do theirs (enabling communities). It is a shift that underpins our repositioning [from BIFM] to IWFM.’

Those words, written by IWFM Chairman Martin G Bell FIWFM, appear in our 2020 technology report ‘Bridging facilities management’s digital divide: the power of digital partnerships’, and they have proven to be highly pertinent. The promise of ever-accelerating technological advancements and their transformative powers for industry and society have long been discussed and promoted, of course; however, when we were developing the report in partnership with Microsoft, we had not consulted our crystal balls to foresee that the tide of change was rushing in quite so rapidly for workplaces around the globe. But will the changes stay or recede?

The beginning of lockdown in March 2020 saw millions of desk-based workers moved –successfully and swiftly - to remote working. Our YouGov-powered research into office workers’ experiences of and attitudes towards working from home during the pandemic showed that 70 per cent had not worked from home before, which is unsurprising given how old ways of thinking have tended towards presenteeism: placing staff in the same building where they can be seen and monitored.

Given how alien working from home has been for most people, one might expect that most were dying to escape, but when we updated the research in March this year (having originally commissioned it in April and June last year), we found that the majority of UK office workers want to work from home more often in future.

Before anyone cries ‘this is the death of the office’, most UK office workers are also looking forward to returning to offices, a figure which has grown considerably since June 2020 when only a third were eager to get back to their old desks – influenced, no doubt, by concerns over contracting Covid-19.

The message is clear: the majority of UK office workers want agile working options where they spend some time at home and some time in the office. Organisations ignore this at their peril because, as the saying goes, a happy worker is a productive worker and other findings in our home-working research – also due to be released in early April – show that many enjoy a number of the benefits associated with working from home.

Despite this, some politicians and prominent organisations have been using the media to urge people back to offices completely. However, vocal opponents aside, the 2021 Market Outlook Survey findings show that most organisations have already taken steps to prepare for a shift to a hybrid working model or at least fewer workers returning to offices full time. As a direct result of the pandemic, 84 per cent of organisations changed their flexible working strategy and 58 per cent are reducing their occupied space. At the same time, 50 per cent of workplace and facilities management professionals say that the pandemic has improved their team’s position within their organisation, which should lead to a greater influence on decision-making and therefore better, less impulsive outcomes.

Time to rethink
As tech guru and best-selling author Dave Coplin said when he appeared on our IWFM ‘Navigating turbulent times’ webinar series last year: ‘We still work like we’re Victorians, it’s just we use twenty-first century technology to make it quicker and cheaper. That’s not the gift [of technology].’

The relevance here is that, in grasping this opportunity to do better, we must avoid rehashing old ideas and instead use the lessons of the past year to rethink how we do things altogether, with technology serving as the enabler.

In 2016, the Stoddart Review revealed that an effective workplace can improve business productivity, but a workplace is not merely a corporate office: it is wherever work takes place. It is therefore crucial for organisations and the economy that, at a time when finances across the board are under enormous strain, they tap into the benefits of creating agile workforces who work in a variety of settings according to their, and their employer’s, needs. Failure to do so will harm the recovery and risk losing employees to more forward-thinking employers.

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