by Jeffrey Saunders — This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of FMJ
The COVID-19 pandemic caught organizations and workers unprepared and altered many ingrained business practices overnight. The pandemic has yet to introduce entirely new ways of working. However, it was a catalyst that accelerated many existing trends and turned industry debates (e.g., remote working at scale) into challenges that needed to be solved immediately.
The proximate impacts wrought by the crisis have been quite profound. On average, 40 percent of all workers in high-income economies have jobs that realistically permit them to work from home. In the United States, surveys conducted by Stanford University indicated that in June 2020, 42 percent of the labor force was working from home full-time.
But what are the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on work, the workforce, and the workplace? Have the FM and corporate real estate industries just been slapped in the face with a “cold fish” and now face a situation where offices and facility managers are obsolete? As the Sept. 12, 2020 cover article from The Economist argued, “Around the world, workers, bosses, landlords and governments are trying to work out if the office is obsolete—and are coming to radically different conclusions.”
IFMA and its sponsors EPOS Audio and JLL sought to bring clarity to this debate and establish an industry-wide baseline through an experts’ assessment of the challenges and opportunities facing FM and CRE using the real-time Delphi methodology. This methodology was chosen because how work happens once societies return to normal will depend upon choices, the organizational policies developed now and how organizations and workers adapt.
Purpose of The Experts’ Assessment study
The Expert’s Assessment: The Workplace Post-COVID-19 study:
- Assesses the current challenges and future priorities to help organizations prepare for a new status quo.
- Harvests and analyzes the curated insights from the industry-leading SMEs.
- Presents SME’s perspectives on 24 key questions facing the industry. These findings are synthesized and expounded upon in six thematic sections.
The study is designed to:
- Develop organizational readiness and resilience by presenting how industry-leading SMEs are preparing their organizations or clients for the future post-COVID-19 and the reasons behind their choices.
- Present critical priorities for the industry through six thematic sections.
The findings point towards a significant shift in how organizations will operate in the future, which will require complex adaptations within organizations. For example, 81 percent of respondents expect that at least 26 percent of workers will work remotely most of the time, post-COVID-19. These adaptations will require that leadership, FM, human resources and information technology departments develop new ways to collaborate. Ultimately, many will fuse into new departments responsible for total workplace experiences.
Six thematic sections
The six thematic sections present analytical assessments of SMEs’ perspectives as they answered, debated, and refined their responses. The six thematic sections, along with their short summaries, are:
Facilities in demand
- Individual organizations’ demand for facilities will decline as companies reduce their footprints. Organizations will also divert demand for offices away from Class C to Class B, Class A, co-working and hybrid spaces. This change will have profound implications for urban and suburban markets.
- Workplace strategy is the intentional alignment of the workplace to an organization’s goals, vision and culture, requiring an integrated, multi-disciplined approach. FM, HR and other support functions will either compete or collaborate as the workplace transforms. According to the panel, HR should lead the formulation of workplace strategy, while FM could be responsible for delivering and shaping workplace experience across workplace settings.
Organization & productivity in the workplace
- Trust and management by results are essential competencies and skillsets in increasingly distributed workplaces. There is a central tension surrounding trust as organizations intensify their application of workplace- and health-monitoring technologies (aka “bossware”). The increased use of remote work could improve diversity and inclusion efforts, especially for disabled and neurodivergent workers.
Technology development & the workplace
- SMEs expect a shift toward improving employee digital experiences and technologies over physical workplace investments.
Employee well-being & benefits
- SMEs expect that organizations’ responsibility and accountability for remote workers will increase as investments in digital tools, equipment and training expand.
Sustainable development goals & the workplace
- SMEs hope rather than expect that organizations and workers will change their practices following the COVID-19 pandemic. This transition will require significant investments in efficiency improvements; it is debatable whether this change will occur.
Themes and challenges facing the industry
Analysis of SMEs’ quantitative answers and comments point towards several cross-cutting themes and challenges. Cross-cutting themes include responsibility for remote workers, budgets and FM’s new role. Challenges include worker protection and privacy, data ownership and digital divide.
Organizational responsibilities for remote workers
The explosion in the number of remote workers and the expectation that many of them will work most of the time from home or third places poses new challenges for organizations and workers. Sixty-seven percent of SME participants cite stress and mental health issues and social and professional isolation (65 percent) as the most significant health and well-being challenges facing remote workers. Who bears responsibility for providing suitable work environments for remote workers to ensure that remote workers are doing well? Who sets the policies and how do (or should) organizations ensure that workers adhere to them?
These challenges are especially pronounced when considering gig or contingent workers. As one SME commented, “I believe more in the provision of training and attestation than in the provision of equipment. I believe the global workforce will continue shifting to gig or contract workers who must’ bring their platform’ so to speak. That is, if a company frequently engages with contingent workers, with whom there is an expectation of providing their own workplace, it will be hard to justify providing so much more for full employees.”
Budgets – workplace, technology, and sustainability
Fifty-six percent of SMEs expect organization budgets will shift from the physical workplaces toward improving employees’ digital experiences, support better use of remaining space and facilitate remote work. Questions remain as to whether budgets will be sufficient for the rightsizing workplaces to new work realities. While 54 percent of SMEs believe budgets for sustainability improvements will increase post-COVID-19, establishing viable business cases for these efforts will remain a challenge as organizations shrink their real estate portfolios.
FM’s new role? Organizations’ increased reliance on remote work and hybrid work strategies will transform FM’s role, as blended physical and virtual work environments cannot be managed through traditional silos. There will be a series of debates as the industry decides on its future trajectory—becoming work experience facilitators or increasingly specializing in building management. “Facilities management is absolutely critical, but they are not necessarily responsible at this time for total work experiences,” said one SME. “I think other departments will be more responsible for the working conditions, but I’m not sure who will come out on top of managing at-home work experiences.”
To take a leading role in the work experience revolution, FM, as an industry, will have to be proactive in communicating and executing a new vision. If the industry transitions towards work experiences, it would require a shift from a facility focus to a more human-centric one.
Worker protection and privacy
Technologies for monitoring employees’ health and productivity proved controversial topics among SMEs. SMEs could not reach a consensus on monitoring for health or productivity. Concerns over ensuring worker protections and privacy were the critical points of contention. Those who supported increased monitoring believed that these issues would be resolved in the next few years.
Fragmented data ownership remains a critical challenge as FM attempts to provide integrated solutions and experiences across work settings. According to SMEs, organizational barriers and varying levels of technological maturity lead to fragmented data initiatives and ownership. The complex and numerous relationships among stakeholders in value networks makes it increasingly difficult to negotiate access to, who can claim ownership, exert control and generate revenue from it. Currently, stakeholders all create or generate data that they then “use, compile, select, structure, re-format, enrich, analyze purchase of, take a license on or add value to the data.”
As one SME commented, “We tend not to have good cross-functional integration in most organizations. Siloes protect the data their systems develop, rarely letting it be integrated and analyzed with data from other parts of the organization.”
Although digital access is improving, the digital divide remains an issue that will impact people’s ability to work remotely in many countries worldwide. For example, 6 percent (21 million people) of the US population does not have high-speed access. Thirteen percent of Australians and 22 percent of Europeans lack broadband access. Consistent broadband access also remains a challenge, as 157 million Americans do not access the internet at broadband speeds, according to Microsoft’s research. Lack of access to broadband connections typically affects minority communities, which hurts their ability to participate in a work-from-home economy.
Interested in more?
For more in-depth analysis of how SME assessed key developments in New Ways of Working Post-COVID-19, order your copy of The Experts’ Assessment: The Workplace Post-COVID-19.
The study presents statistics of 24 questions and analyses 2,500 comments from subject matter experts. Find detailed statistics, analytical insights, as to representative quotes from SMEs. Visit https://ifma.org/marketplace/bookstore.
Methodology and expert demographics
The Expert Assessment: The Workplace Post COVID-19 study used the real-time Delphi methodology. IFMA and its six communities of practice invited industry-leading SMEs worldwide to engage in a month-long consensus-seeking debate, using quantitative and qualitative questions. The survey ran from July–August 2020, and 248 SMEs participated.
The real-time Delphi method is designed to help leaders and organizations deal with complex and uncertain topics concerning the future when quantitative forecasting methods fail. Using the real-time Delphi methodology and an online digital platform to facilitate an asynchronous debate among geographically and professionally diverse SMEs, decision-makers can explore experts’ consensus views and divergent opinions.
A vital element of the real-time Delphi is the SME participant and composition of the SME panel. SMEs provided 2,494 comments and revised their answers 1,486 times based on the comments, feedback and the emerging consensus. On average, SMEs returned to the questionnaire three times per participant. IFMA and its communities of practice invited SMEs from a diverse professional, discipline, and geographical backgrounds (see figures).
About the author
Jeffrey Saunders is an expert in strategic futures studies and foresight. He is CEO of Nordic Foresight and Associated Partner, Behavioural Strategy. Jeffrey formerly served as Director, Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, Chief Consultant and Head of SIGNAL Arkitekters Workplace Analytics team, and as a former advisor at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Stability Operations. He has both strategic and practical experience in helping organizations translate strategic ambitions into workplace strategies. He has authored many studies and articles on the future of work and the workplace for organizations around the world. The latest came out in October 2020 for the International Facility Management Association, The Expert Assessment: The Workplace Post-COVID-19.
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 Benoit Van Asbroeck, Julien Debussche, Jasmien César (2019). “Big Data & Issues & Opportunities: Data Ownership” March. Bird&Bird. https://www.twobirds.com/en/news/articles/2019/global/big-data-and-issues-and-opportunities-data-ownership
 Douglas Broom (2020) ”Coronavirus has exposed the digital divide like never before” 22
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