By Zach Rose
For operations and maintenance teams at colleges and universities across the United States, COVID-19 has presented a set of challenges with communications, safety and new protocols to follow. At my company, InterPro, we saw our higher ed clients increasingly relying on mobile tools for communications and notifications to meet new required standards and safety measures, especially while so many students and staff were off campus, working remotely. As higher ed prepares for a more “normal” 2021-2022 academic year with in-person classes resuming, here are some of the ways that facility management teams at colleges and universities are expected to continue to put these procedures and protocols in place.
1. Real-time Updates
Since the impact of the pandemic began in March 2020, facilities operations and maintenance teams have come to rely upon push notifications to mobile devices to communicate updates about the virus such as a confirmed COVID case, a larger breakout, or buildings that needed to be closed down and sterilized because of possible contamination.
While the 2021-2022 academic year will hopefully no longer require real-time alerts about COVID, its legacy is that for many campuses there is now a proven real-time communication infrastructure in place to push out notifications to mobile devices for any number of other issues. For example, it could be a notice shared among the facilities staff on building hazards, such as dangerous ice patches on the steps of a dormitory, a damaged entry door, or debris in a common area that needs to be addressed immediately.
And, as operations and maintenance teams expand their embrace of mobile to publish apps that allow members of the campus community to initiate work requests, for issues ranging from a leaky faucet in a dorm room to a noisy radiator in the Dean’s office or a request to set up an auditorium for a 200 person symposium, those same real-time notifications can be used to let the requestor know when the request has be reviewed, when the work has been scheduled, the technicians who will be performing the work, updates on work progress, and when the task in completed. This eliminates the need for e-mails, text messages, and phone calls to/from the service center team.
Or, it could evolve to be a vehicle for campus-wide real-time notifications, much like an Amber alert, for an intruder or active shooter in a building. While it is difficult to think about these scenarios again on college campuses, we expect higher ed institutions will increasingly rely on mobile technology to communicate real-time alerts on all types of health, safety, and environmental issues.
2. GIS Systems
One of the other trends we saw last year was that COVID drove many higher education institutions to make more investments in multi-layer mapping data. Mobile mapping capabilities range from basic GPS location mapping to interactive layered ESRI ArcGIS location intelligence. You can associate location data with a work order, asset, or location, allowing a field team to visualize work orders and assets in map views, as well as to get point-to-point directions to guide them to the proper location(s).
We are in fact seeing this now in use at campuses to direct staff and students to where they can get vaccinated — not just to a street address or building, but to a specific room within the building using a specific entrance.
We anticipate multi-layer mapping systems will continue to be widely used in 2021-2002, identifying the specific location of a circulation pump needing maintenance, the exact coordinates of a buried pipe that needs replacement, or the location of spare parts in a supply room.
3. Digitizing Sanitization Processes
COVID-19 forced colleges and universities to define deep cleaning requirements for each of their buildings, as dorm rooms, classrooms, dining and recreational areas all had to be constantly disinfected.
Being able to digitize the inspection and cleaning process checklists and eliminate paper forms was extremely helpful for many campuses since they now could easily share information as each building or room was sanitized and cleared for use.
While Covid-19 will hopefully not be the driver for sanitizing buildings in the future, we expect that many facility managers will want to continue to document how and when each building is getting inspected and cleaned. They will want real-time visibility so they can make this information available to the larger organization, or even to the campus community, as the situation demands.
4. Digital And Mobile First
COVID-19 certainly made everyone go from in-person to digital communication, and higher ed was no exception. Besides classroom instruction going to video, facilities operations and maintenance teams moved to digital as well. For capturing and responding to work orders; logging task details; facilitating dialogue between service requestors and service teams, between technicians, between managers and team members; and between scheduling teams and outside vendors; using mobile apps with digital messaging capabilities has become the most efficient way for operations and maintenance teams to communicate.
Further, all messages can be saved as part of the permanent work record, allowing for any situation to be re-created, and for technicians to have access to full work history when performing future repairs or inspections.
5. Financial Impact
While COVID-19 drove many institutions to invest in mobile apps for their operations and maintenance teams, what many have experienced is that the use of mobile, instead of being an added expense, significantly drove down costs. Besides the obvious elimination of paper forms and the cost of subsequent data entry, the ability to provide guided repairs, provide branching inspection forms, and arm technicians with in-depth repair history has dramatically improved first-fix rates, increased wrench time, and allowed for technicians to be scheduled more efficiently. With the move by many mobile software companies to subscription licenses, institutions were able to utilize existing Operating Expense (OpEx) budgets to implement mobile apps, since immediate operational savings far exceed subscription costs.
The move to mobile for higher ed campus operations and maintenance has been happening since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. With the extraordinary challenges brought about by COVID-19 in 2020, colleges and universities have increasingly invested in mobile tools to manage those challenges, and those that already had made the investment expanded the use of mobile to not only empower their field teams, but to also roll out mobile apps to their campus communities and outside vendors. With the responsiveness, cost savings, and service improvements realized through the use of mobile tools, higher ed operations and maintenance teams have been highlighted as a strategic partner for their institutions in charting a path for a post-COVID world.
Rose is director of technical services for InterPro, a firm that offers a suite of mobile Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) solutions designed exclusively for IBM Maximo®. At the company, his roles have included developer, sales engineer, and implementation lead. In his current position, Rose is responsible for helping prospective and new clients understand the range of InterPro’s technical services. He has led implementation efforts for Fortune 500 companies across a variety of industries. He holds a BS in Computer Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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