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IWFM on reshaping the world of work in 2021

Following a tumultuous year, Chris Moriarty, Director of Insight and Engagement at the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM) ventures a look at the trends that could shape 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought incredible disruption to all aspects of our lives this year, not least our approach to work. Never before has the future of the workplace looked so different, so quickly; in just ten short months, the way organisations across all sectors operate has been turned upside-down.

A year where many thought sustainability goals would frame the agenda was quickly overtaken by the pressing need to control infection, keep people safe and simply keep going; yet because of the pandemic we did see some major, possibly permanent, shifts in corporate mindsets, notably toward remote and agile working. Whilst this turbulent year has taught us that it is difficult to predict what will happen in the future, there are a number of trends which we believe will continue to reshape the world of work in 2021.

Technology – Collaborative tech has been around for some time but when the first national lockdown forced many desk-based professionals to work from home, organisations had to swiftly embrace technologies such as Zoom, which rapidly became a household name after its worldwide daily users exploded from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million in April 2020.

For all the talk of workplace culture being as easy to change as a tanker is to turn, the way in which so many office-based organisations rapidly adopted tech solutions has served as powerful proof of our adaptability and agency for change, whilst also opening eyes to other possibilities. COVID-19 forced the change; now it provides an opportunity to rethink how we do things and embrace further change whilst a limbo of ever-changing social distancing measures prevents workers from returning to offices – the old style business as usual – on a permanent basis.

Many facilities professionals already know there are exciting capabilities to be unlocked from utilising data and automation, such as workplace analytics, building management systems ‘BSM’, customer service apps and field service apps. To ensure the workplace remains future-proof, our profession needs a mindset which sees technology not only as helping to do a job, but redefining it, to one which helps everyone else to do theirs – wherever people are working. Some may balk at the potential upskilling or recruitment requirements, yet our profession will need to ensure it gains a good understanding of the technologies out there and their application if it is to leverage its considerable potential to impact workplace performance, and one way is through collaborative partnerships.

Our partnership with tech giant Microsoft to co-produce ‘Bridging FM’s digital divide: the power of digital partnerships’ explores what a digitally transformed profession might look like, looks at identifying and understanding the workplace needs that would benefit from digital technologies and considers issues related to the use of emerging tech including digital ethics and data security.

Agile Working – Employees and employers have swiftly discovered there is more to a workplace than just a destination with a desk. In July, as restrictions were eased, our research found that 61 per cent of employees said that they intend to do more working from home in future; of course, these attitudes differ from person to person with some people desperate to return to the office whereas others are happy with their home set up.

The result of this will be organisations scrutinising their workplace strategy; evaluating the cost-benefit analysis of their office space and balancing the collaborative and innovative values of face to face interaction against the use of costly office space. We have already seen some businesses choosing to cut down on office space, offering employees the opportunity to work flexibly between their homes and smaller shared workspaces.

There could be a tendency for businesses to rush towards the cost savings of reduced space but instead there should be a more open-minded review of how we approach the enablement of work beyond the corporate space, whilst recognising the powerful nature of bringing people together

It is likely that employees will look for contracts that involve agile working policies – and businesses must ensure they are adapting to this trend in order to attract and retain talent.

We hope that this will lead to a more scientific, value add mindset to workplace management rather than static, cost overhead based assumptions that have plagued us in the past. We anticipate some interesting developments in the value measurement area during the year.

Sustainability and the green agenda, which has come into and out of focus for some time, is set to become a global priority like never before in 2021, as the delayed COP26 and a desire to ‘build back greener’ push sustainability issues up the agenda for government, businesses and employees alike. We expect to see businesses across all sectors implement new sustainability plans, and those with them already in place push harder to reach their goals. With most facilities and office managers in the UK already taking responsibility for sustainability we expect their role and agency to be enhanced.

The crisis is far from over and as the last twelve months has shown, it’s difficult to predict where we may find ourselves in January 2022. What is clear is that the effects of the pandemic will leave a permanent mark on how we approach the notion of work and the workplace long into the future. The ‘super connector’ profession of workplace and facilities management will continue to hold the key to bringing together the space, culture and technology aspects of work into a workplace strategy that enables organisations and individuals to remain productive, whatever their setting.


About Sarah OBeirne

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