The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 brought a new set of challenges for maintenance and engineering managers. They established protocols and procedures for building entry and instituted social distancing as the norm within their properties, significantly reducing building occupancy.
Navigating the facilities operations and maintenance landscape changed drastically when the pandemic hit, but there is hope, and there is a light at the end of what seems to be an endless dark tunnel.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitors the changing pandemic and adjusts workplace guidelines accordingly. Until the COVID-19 Delta variant outbreak, local governments were lifting restrictions on workplaces, and many remote working people were and still are preparing to return to work soon.
While the new variants of COVID-19 continue to emerge, businesses still want to maintain some level of workplace operations. As a facility manager, you have to prepare for the return to work model. And account for all the operational processes that have emerged or changed due to the pandemic.
One of the primary business drivers for FMs will be ensuring health and safety within a workplace. The needs of the facility and personnel will vary based on industry. However, COVID-19 has forced all industries to change operational processes to meet the CDC and regulatory safe workplace guidelines.
FMs will have to focus more on air quality, surface cleanliness, and mitigating the spread of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This might include improving ventilation, implementing indoor air quality controls such as portable air purifiers, limiting personnel in certain areas, enhanced cleaning and sanitization protocols, and requiring wearing protective personnel equipment (PPE) when they didn’t have to before.
To improve workplace safety, FMs should consider the following:
What cleaning products will you use? How frequently will you clean spaces? You must follow standard practices and appropriate regulations specific to your type of facility for minimum standards for cleaning and disinfection.
Whether you follow the CDC ventilation and air quality guidelines or those released by OSHA, indoor air quality should be a primary focus. Air cleaners can improve the air quality within an ample space, run through multiple air exchanges in an hour, and clean out viruses, bacteria, and toxins introduced into a room.
The HVAC will have to be assessed and determine if it meets the standards for quality air, as it will be vital to the optimal functioning of the organization. Despite introducing air purification controls, existing HVAC systems may need costly and time-consuming upgrades. Most changes to an HVAC system end up being long-term, so if you need improved air quality in the short term, then you’ll have to address the financial costs associated with this.
FMs will have to overcome new challenges, and with these challenges comes the need for an organization to have agility and flexibility. According to a Deloitte expert interview, organizations will “need to be flexible enough to respond to changes, without being solely guided by the events.”
Up until the pandemic, FMs might have been involved in organizational and strategic decision-making to some extent. As the role of the FM rapidly evolves, they make critical strategic decisions regarding facility design, creating roadmaps, and how to overcome some of the operational challenges of COVID-19.
Open space environments or activity-based working are a significant concern. The use of infrastructure will be considered, and required changes will account for the available times of the space, the collection of information, and what can or cannot be done within an area. Technology will play a significant role in changing infrastructures. Flexibility and sustainability may outweigh price in terms of continued optimized operations.
FMs may need to navigate the hybrid operating model more regularly depending on how the organizational workflows. Performance and productivity management will play a considerable role in FMs future landscape. FMs are doing the same work in an evolving landscape, both under changing circumstances and in a new environment.
The hybrid model was highly positive in that it allowed businesses the ability to continue operating. Experts believe that virtual working will enable companies to take a step forward following initial COVID worries.
Instead of the use of work from home as a bargaining tool, we may see it reversed. Organizations may offer a space in the office and alternate in-office schedules for each employee. Companies will be contributing to sustainability with 20% savings on commutes through workplace flexibility.
If employees work in the office, there will be long-term changes to how the office environment will interact. Buildings will need to be retrofitted for air quality. Whether this is in the form of improved HVAC systems and air purifiers or changes in how personnel interacts with a space, there will be long-term changes that affect air quality.
Air quality can also affect productivity. With greater flexibility in the work environment, a focus on improved air quality, a focus on slower and more sustainable products (without the speed), and more conversations around ecology and sustainability, businesses are likely to see increased productivity.
Poor air quality can lead to sick building syndrome or the impact of health factors like increased allergy symptoms and fatigue, which lead to poor productivity and more employees taking sick days.
In terms of future FM roles, there might also be a redesign of the building layout. Experts are unsure if open workspaces will stay for good, given that one large room might contribute to the spread of the COVID virus. Therefore, we might see a redesign in workspace layout and building design.
In interviews of expert FMs, Deloitte found that all agreed that there was a long-term cost-savings impact from COVID. In the short term, buildings would save on real estate and facilities expenses, including HVAC costs, water use, electricity, and fuel cards.
Companies might downsize altogether to find a new location and only offer options to work from the office (and the perks that might come with that, like fuel cards and certain expense modifications). Therefore facilities would be running on decreased schedules or 24/7 schedules with automation incorporated.
In terms of air quality, FMs will still need to seek improvements in current facilities. At present, most HVAC systems are not designed to stop the spread of COVID, and higher MERV filter ratings could restrict airflow. FMs will be strongly encouraged to implement air purification technologies through filtration, portable filtration devices, or HVAC induct, which will be cheaper than replacing the entire HVAC system.
FM might find that their reliance on technological infrastructure, hybrid models, and managing clean air is more important to daily operations than previously. This shows a distinct shift to business health as a core business driver for most facilities in post-COVID times. Consider using the Sustainability Facility (SF) cost savings tool to determine how your facility can cut costs through behavior changes or upgrades.