The past two years have tested the resilience of individuals and the facilities management industry as a whole, but it has all been a time of great progress and positive change. Rebecca Laurence, Founder and CEO of Laurence Recruitment, and Glen Mowbray, Deputy Director at Major University Initiatives at the University of Canberra and President of TEFMA, look back on the pandemic response, and share their predictions for the year ahead.
Facilities Perspectives | Vol 16, No 1 March – May 2022
The Pandemic Response
Mowbray explains that over the past two years, the higher education sector has seen a reduction in staff and students on campus, as well as challenges related to the increase in cost of operations.
'Supply chain issues have denied institutions the economies of scale that we have enjoyed in the past when it comes to things like bulk cleaning consumables and hand sanitiser, with rapidly evolving new requirements often increasing our cost base,' he says. 'Like most institutions, we've all felt the impact of the government mandates, isolation, and challenges with accessing resources, which has been more of a problem in remote and regional areas.'
'In the past two years, the facilities management (FM) sector has stepped out of the shadows of purely being an enabling service and stood up as leaders of the frontline response to COVID-19 - including complex demands on cleaning, mechanical needs and air quality management. I think in 2022, however, we need to reframe the focus on our frontline people and the impact this has had on them - mentally, emotionally and financially. We need to support our teams and partners to get through this next phase of the pandemic. We've had people working so hard for so long at a constant and extreme pace, with little to no downtime. I think that, as an industry, we need to prioritise engagement with them to ensure they have the support they need, and also to share the skills and knowledge they have developed over this time with new folk who join or workforce.'
Over the past two years, the employment market has faced its own challenges, but as Laurence explains, there have been a lot of positive outcomes, too.
'In the first lockdown of 2020, recruiting came to a halt. It was about holding on to what you had while we all adjusted to the pandemic. In 2021, people were reluctant to change their job and wanted to hold on to some certainty in what was still a time of many unknowns; however, the view now has shifted, and candidates are seeing 2022 as a time to pursue better career opportunities. It's the great reshuffle. We are seeing talent staying in the FM space, and they are now looking to grow their career and further develop their expertise. Looking back on the past two years, it's incredible what we've all managed to achieve. Individuals and organisations have handled it in different ways, and there have been some large gains with some sectors within FM. Overall, it has been a great achievement thus far.'
The Year Ahead
Like many of us, both Mowbray and Laurence are cautiously optimistic about what the year ahead holds.
'I think the focus for institutions this year will be about consolidation and strategic prioritisation,' Mowbray says. 'This will include a consolidation of space, looking at how much you have and what is the best use for it. We are already seeing institutions offloading student accommodation, and catering to focus on the core business of teaching and research, with others commercialising space as digital learning opportunities reduce special needs. Another area of focus will be universities looking at how to take themselves to students. That may look like offering more courses online or increasing our presence outside of Australia with international campuses and transnational partnerships.'
'Sustainability and working towards carbon neutral will be a big focus for institutions. At the University of Canberra, we have academics that are leaders in the field of sustainability, and by embracing their expertise to do what is socially demanded, we will create opportunities to make our operations more effective, and our financial ability to respond to future needs more effective. Institutions are champions for change, and, as large property owners and developers, it's time we move away from debate about carbon offset and invest in new tech and renewables to make our operations more resilient, cost-effective and efficient.'
Laurence sees the first half of 2022 as a time of business getting on with business, cautiously optimistic and investing in their growth plans. 'Assuming there are no new COVID-19 variants that change the game, I think the second half of 2022 is when we will start to see things normalise,' she says. 'The first half of this year will be about finding our way with RATs, easing restrictions, and dealing with some uncertainty. I think the next phase in 2022 will be about the recovery, reconnection and repair that needs to happen. We have successfully worked from home over the past two years, but that has come at a cost to mental health for a lot of people, and navigating lockdowns has added stress to the situation. People are social creatures; we need to be around others, and we crave that sense of community and connections. I'm optimistic that in 2022 we will have more of that social connection, which will have flow-on benefits for health, work, productivity and community'.
Lessons from 2021 That Are Relevant Today
As the focus shifts to living and working with COVID-19, it's also a good time to reflect on what has been learnt over the past two years that can help individuals and organisations to build resilience.
'Don't plan too far ahead, be prepared to pivot, and adapt quickly as needed,' Laurence says. 'We've all had to let go of the old ways of doing things, which hasn't been easy. Leaders need to learn to trust their team to do their job while working remotely.
That has been challenging for many leaders, but those who embraced it will retain their teams and attract talent that can work around flexible arrangements.'
'With many people looking to change jobs this year, there is an opportunity for the FM industry to embrace the opportunity to look for different types of people who aren't necessarily from FM backgrounds. Be open to industrial, manufacturing, problem-solving and solution sales environments. It's a tight market, be open and try a different approach from the traditional "must have experience in xyz" to attract different candidates who can bring a fresh approach. Look for a great attitude with transferable skills and a keen desire to learn. I'd also suggest engaging a specialist search firm that can save you time and budget with targeted search to introduce the right person with the right attitude and cultural fit for your organisation.'
The pandemic response has given many people in the FM industry an opportunity to demonstrate the skills and value of facilities managers in a range of settings. 'We've all gone through the unknown of the pandemic, and I do think we are getting closer to coming out of it,' Mowbray says. 'I do hope there is an upside to all of this in that we have better collaboration, and the FM industry has an enduring stronger voice with the C suite and government. The pandemic response has highlighted the value of the FM industry as both an enabler and an active leader in providing healthy and safe built environments, and we need to leverage these gains and opportunities for the benefit of all the industries we work within, and for.'