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Testing times

A range of FM thought leaders gave us their views on how the sector has reacted to the COVID-19 crisis and how it might respond in the weeks and months ahead. Sara Bean reports

Over the last few weeks the facilities management sector has been tested in ways it has never been tested before. Business continuity plans were ramped up to move office workers almost overnight to working from home, while essential building operations at key sites, ranging from hospitals to supermarkets were kept operational.

There was also, as Deborah Rowland, Director Public Sector Affairs, Sodexo Global Services explains: “A really positive industry-wide response to requests from the Government for support in the fight against COVID-19. From building and mobilising new ‘Nightingale’ hospitals or setting up COVID-19 testing centres; companies that are usually competitors have come together to collaborate and meet new and evolving demands.”

Many of the country’s essential workers, as Phil Bentley, Chief Executive of Mitie, points out: “Are from the FM sector, keeping us safe and keeping Britain working. Our ‘Frontline Heroes’ have been magnificent and the industry as a whole has responded well and pulled together.”

“The FM sector has responded really well to the crisis by acting responsibly, ethically and professionally during a very challenging time,” says Paul Bagust, Director, RICS Property Standards. “It’s demonstrated its worth by being agile, flexible and taking a calm professional approach in ensuring that the services it has to deliver continue to be maintained while – at the same time – looking after its own people.”

As Linda Hausmanis, CEO of IWFM says: “It’s not a scenario anybody foresaw but one to which the profession has responded and which I expect will bring into sharp focus a wider recognition of this fundamental role.

“On the one hand, FMs are focused on managing ‘empty’ buildings and grappling with knotty questions of ongoing maintenance, risk management, health and safety, and how to prepare for a sure but uncertain return; on the other, they are demonstrating value in maintaining productive working environments, wellbeing and connection during a time where everyone is working simultaneously from sofas, spare rooms and dining room tables.”

She warns however that the challenges for many in FM are only just beginning. “Most will be facing unprecedented challenges as the nation’s offices empty out – caterers and cleaners, for example, will have seen their customers disappear. Difficult conversations will be happening about the costs associated with contracts that cannot be fulfilled and the trade-offs that may be necessary as post-pandemic priorities change.”

KEY WORKER STATUS
Both the IWFM and RICS have been petitioning the Government to call for workplace and facilities management professionals and their contractors to be recognised as key workers in recognition of their contribution to tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

Says Charles Siddons, Head of Operations, NHS Property Services: “The profile of the crisis has certainly highlighted the importance that people in FM play in ensuring key infrastructure remains open at times of emergency.”

He adds: “The leaders of our profession will play a key role in ensuring that this recognition is used for positive change once the crisis has passed. Within NHS Property Services we have already introduced enhanced shift allowances and overtime rates, together with a one-off payment in recognition of the role frontline colleagues are playing. Coupled to this we are promoting our ‘NHS heroes’ across social media.”

At Sodexo, says Rowland, staff are keeping the hospitals and schools clean, secure, provided with food and keeping buildings maintained. “They continue to work as ‘unsung heroes’ but are very much part of the key worker effort in providing front line services to those that need them. We have always known our work matters. It helps that others might now recognise this too. We hope that all our front-line key service workers will be far more appreciated for all the work they have continued to do during this crisis.”

At the very least argues Hausmanis, being afforded key status: “It would be a significant step towards the recognition that our profession, and those related to our work, deserves, which is why we have continued to press the case to Government. Without workplace and facilities managers ensuring premises remain clean, safe and operational, the crucial people working on the NHS frontline could not do their jobs effectively.”

About Sarah OBeirne

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