The Future Of Facilities Is Digital

A steady increase in automated workflows and data-centric processes benefits the work of facility executives and their occupants.

By Maureen Ehrenberg
From the December 2017 Issue

The Internet of Things (IoT), robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI), smart building/smart workplace sensors and monitoring, and digitization are dramatically changing where and how people work. But that’s not all; these technological advances are also changing the way we imagine, plan, develop, use, and manage facilities. For facility executives, the digital drive can be both daunting and inspiring.

digital facility managementSensors can now detect everything from burned-out light bulbs to air turnover in a room. Employees can receive information about when they need to leave the office to arrive on time for an appointment, where to park, and how to report building issues through online systems that can instantly trigger a repair. Cloud-based management systems can collate building data across multiple facilities and equipment to flag and prioritize system responses and repairs. Ultimately, these new technologies can free you from some of the more mundane tasks and open the door to taking a more strategic role within your organization.

Facility executives have an opportunity to be critical influencers in how the workplace of the future takes shape. According to JLL research, the human experience and digital drive are two critical key dimensions of corporate real estate that organizations must address to become agile, create leverage, and stay competitive as new technologies change the future of work. Operational excellence, continuous innovation, and financial performance are other key dimensions of the future of work.

What Does That Look Like?

Imagine this scenario: A storm causes an electricity outage with the utility company. Critical equipment within your facilities must remain operational during an outage, so you have a back-up generator in place to ensure uptime. From an app on your phone, you immediately see information about all critical equipment that is operating; any equipment that was dropped because of the power outage; and any equipment dropped because of an equipment fault. The facilities team responds immediately to the business and dispatches appropriate response and materials to the sites needing immediate attention. The team is able to make some diagnostics and adjustments remotely.

Whether the facilities involved comprise a portfolio of branch banks, retail stores, sales offices, or cancer treatment or dialysis centers, immediate access to status and response tools makes a difference in the customer experience, as well as in business reliability and risk management.

Another, simpler example: The coffee maker goes on the fritz. A coffee-loving employee steps into the room, discovers the problem, and scans a barcode on the coffee maker with their mobile device to report the incident online. A pre-approved, vetted supplier is automatically dispatched to repair the machine, which might even be fixed remotely. The digital system takes care of it all, with each stage of the process clearly noted and tracked online. Not only does the repair essentially take care of itself, but the fix also happens fairly rapidly, minimizing the disappointment of office coffee enthusiasts.

What’s the big deal in this example, you ask? Something as simple as a broken coffee maker is one of the numerous little controllable factors throughout the day that can influence the employee experience and, ultimately, productivity.

Then, consider a bigger factor like uptime or air temperature. Your building automation system can maintain a consistent temperature in your workplaces and reduce energy costs—but the wrong temperature can trigger employee complaints and reduce productivity. What if you could give employees the power to personalize the temperature in their workspace?

You may already be considering these questions if your C-suite, like many these days, is focusing more attention on reliability and workplace as a recruitment and retention tool. A “happy” work environment is the new competitive differentiator in the war for talent. Not surprisingly, employees are happier in organizations and environments where they feel empowered and fulfilled.

Facility executives can be instrumental in providing the physical environment and workplace technologies that make working easier and more comfortable. To achieve this vision of an engaging, empowering, and highly productive workplace, you’ll need to work hand-in-hand with your colleagues in human resources and information technology.

Entering New Territory

Don’t be afraid to think big, although you might start small. The facility executive role now stretches well beyond providing workplaces and ensuring that building equipment and systems operate safely, smoothly, and cost-effectively. A future-focused workplace is all about using technologies that will help your organization make smarter and faster decisions about how space is used and create an environment that improves employee productivity and satisfaction.

For instance, you can analyze data from room sensors to learn how various spaces—cubicles, meeting rooms, restrooms, or even parking garages—are used and predict future needs. Access to data can help you identify underutilized spaces that can be put to better use, or even create a new revenue stream by renting underutilized space to outside users.

Data plays into the employee experience, too. You might learn, for example, that smaller conference rooms are booked non-stop, leading to employee frustrations. With this insight, you can consider reconfiguring the workplace to include more formal and informal meeting spaces for small work groups. You may learn that very busy restrooms require a different cleaning schedule than others, for example. Needs may change daily or weekly and, with access to the right data, the facilities team can respond on a real-time basis.

Many large organizations are using computer-aided facility management (CAFM) or integrated workplace management systems (IWMS) to automate workflow, solve problems quicker, and make more data-informed decisions. Not every organization needs a full-fledged IWMS—but the marketplace now offers mobile work-order management platforms that do everything from automating work orders and contacting pre-vetted vendors to generating audit trails and tracking vendor quality.

Taking The First Steps

Rewriting the facility executive role presents an exciting opportunity to excel at the forefront of your profession and improve your organization’s competitive edge. The role of facilities and the workplace is rapidly evolving and converging and so must the role of the facility manager.

The first step to affecting change is starting a discussion with the leaders of your organization: acknowledge how the workplace is changing and the impact that new workplace ideas and technologies can have in advancing organizational goals. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Establish a supportive cross-functional team to support small-scale changes that can build the business case for more substantial changes and a compelling return on investment.

By embracing new technologies and building new competencies, you and your team will be in a better position to advise your organization on corporate real estate strategies and solutions that can improve the employee experience, enable new operating models, and advance the business.

digital facility managementEhrenberg, FRICS, CRE, is President of Global Integrated Facilities Management (IFM) at JLL. She is the Immediate Past Chair of the Global Board of Directors for the International Facility Management Association (IFMA).

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  1. This article presented quite a fantastic and vivid vision for the future of digital in facilities management. It also conveyed the great opportunity facilities managers have to transform the C-Suite perception of facilities management from operating a commodity cost center to operating as a strategic business partner.

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