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Testing times

Aside from the dealing with the pandemic, another huge challenge for FM will be the length of time it takes the economy to recover from the lockdown restrictions that have had to be imposed to fight COVID-19, particularly in areas where business has completely stopped due to the restrictions. According to the IMF, the outlook is “dire”, with the expectation that global economic activity will decline on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.

The FM sector, which has already struggled with cost over value in FM service contracts will have to respond to a global economic crisis like no other. Says Hausmanis: “We’ve long held that when contracts are awarded on a lowest cost basis and margins are inevitably squeezed, the result is an industry built on sand.

“In bad economic weather – when the unexpected happens – there is no room for manoeuvre; the Carillion episode is a standard-bearer for the dangers. But these things take time to change. In the present situation, unprecedented levels of government support may be the difference maker, particularly for the contractors on the front line.”

Bentley agrees that low margins are one of the worst enemies for FM sustainability, which only adds to the financial strain. He warns: “Some FM companies may not survive. Those that maintain the support of their financial backers should emerge stronger; with greater appreciation from clients for the essential services we provide; and with consequently higher margins.”

On the client side, Mawson believes that those with the greatest challenge will have too many legacy costs. He reckons that for FMs as headcounts go down, revenues will go down, so companies will want to take costs out. “The challenge for FM will be how to help the organisation downsize but also enable it to upsize quite quickly afterwards.”

On a more positive note, Rowland believes that: “This pandemic is an opportunity for FM companies and strategic suppliers to government to demonstrate that they can respond and provide good, effective and innovative services – and add real value to the communities in which we operate.

“We are already responding at pace to a range of requests from across government and clients and working in collaboration with our competitors to meet the new challenges this pandemic has created.”

Looking to the longer term, facilities professionals can use this experience to make a big difference in the future by devising says Hausmanis: “A property or workplace user strategy that can integrate a number of factors, including the future demands of a (likely) smaller office footprint, the impacts of businesses rationalising and refocusing service requirements, changing expectations of the physical workplace as somewhere to bring people together differently than before, and so on.

“A major opportunity here is to use this rethinking to achieve sustainability goals, which remain despite the distraction of COVID-19. But where workplace and facilities managers manage a physical environment, they will have to understand the fundamental building systems that will allow them to realise their strategic goals.”

Events have moved so quickly we’re still processing the impact the pandemic is having on the FM sector and wider society. What is clear, however, and all the FM thought leaders we consulted for this article agree, is that the facilities management sector has and will play a key role in helping us get through the next few months.

About Sarah OBeirne


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