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Facilities Management at the Crossroads: 3 Top Takeaways from Chicago Build 2022

At the 2022 Chicago Build event, facility management (FM) and construction professionals gathered to discuss where the future of work is heading and how they can better equip themselves to meet the demands of tomorrow’s workplace. Many of the larger workplace discussions around creating flexible, sustainable, and safe workplace environments were some of this event's hot topics.
I finished my day at the event with a sense that the FM industry and its professionals are in a moment of reflection – looking back on the changes COVID spurred, taking on a larger workplace responsibility than they had in the past, and dealing with many of the issues other industries faces like attracting young and diverse talent. Below I share three top takeaways from the event that touches on these dynamics and others:
1. FM is ever more crucial to today’s work environment: When it comes to ensuring that enterprises are creating workplaces that respond to the needs of their employees, FM professionals often are on the “front lines” of making it happen, Jeannette Lenear Peruchini, managing principal of director of interiors at the construction engineering company AECOM, shared in a panel on the disruptions facing FM. “From a facilities perspective, they're the ones that are really there day in and day out to make sure that those spaces are ready and set up to welcome everybody,” Peruchini said.
While enterprises have a variety of ways to check how employees are feeling about their current work environment through HR surveys and other employee experience tools, FM often hear about issues first-hand from the employees themselves and can move that concern up the chain quicker, Peruchini said. Peruchini recounted how FM brought to her an issue on the health and hygiene concerns associated with outdated ice machines and having employees reaching their hands in to scoop out ice. After hearing about it from FM, Peruchini was able to work on updating those machines within the space.
And while the ice machine example might appear trivial, Morgan Murphy, senior design specialist at HOK, commented how if FM has a seat at the office planning table that they can convey these concerns, saving people time and money. "Our interior designer can see a brand new ice machine that's beautiful and sleek, and they want to install it in the space, but we'll have a facility manager tell us 'absolutely not. This is the specific use for that machine in this space,’” Murphy added.
Obviously, this logic can be expanded to the larger issues of creating hybrid work environments. Not only can FM professionals provide insight into what amenities might need to be added to ensure an enjoyable in-office experience, but they can also find ways to maximize their space utilization.
2. FM is doing more with less resources (and people): Like many other professions, FM is evolving, and with it, many are asked to take on new responsibilities – often with fewer resources.
“One thing that COVID really taught us is that facilities management connects to everything. Now, it connects more to hospitality,” Clarence Carson, president of facilities and construction consulting firm CCRS Group, said in the same session. “Your facility manager … is now tied to breakfast, and how cereal choices are made, and also lunch and also security.”
To that point, Peruchini shared how even for small events like Shake Shack days, it now often requires FM cooperation to ensure that spaces are prepped ahead of the event. Even for a small event like this, spaces need to be prepared ahead of time to ensure, which often requires FM support.
Alongside these added responsibilities and the shift to a “connoisseur type of mentality,” Carson noted that FM job titles themselves are changing to “workplace manager” or “workplace operations.” On top of that, the face of the FM industry is also changing. Not only are organizations having a hard time recruiting new employees, but seasoned FM professionals – who often have an acute knowledge of how buildings operate – are retiring. Over the last several years, “all the institutional knowledge was starting to go away,” Carson added.
To combat this labor discrepancy, Carson said the industry needs to tackle the talent shortage from a long- and short-term perspective. In the long term, he suggested people with FM experience educate students at the high school or trade school level about careers in the field. To combat it in the near term, Carson shared how one of his clients was rethinking their application requirements by creating a “returning citizen” program that provides career opportunities for those who’ve been incarcerated. Even if an individual only had a misdemeanor charge, they are often excluded from applying for many jobs, Carson explained.
3. FM is key to a healthy, safe employee experience: In addition to the above responsibilities, FM professionals are still doing the important work of ensuring that the office is a safe and healthy place to work, which can include educating employees who haven’t been in the office in a while. As Dominic Petruzzeli, director of operations of antipoverty nonprofit organization Heartland Alliance shared in a separate session on FM industry disruptions, FM often has to come up with ways to address the concerns of employees while moving forward with hybrid work.
When it came to executing a return-to-office strategy that made employees feel comfortable, Petruzzeli and his organization did two things: They followed CDC guidelines on returning to the office and managed the expectations for those employees returning to the office. While many of the CDC recommendations on things like social distancing and masking have rolled back, some employees still expected a level of cleaning and sanitization, which was not sustainable from a cost perspective, he explained.
To address this, Heartland Alliance created a large education campaign, including flyers and messages, that laid out what employees could expect when they headed back into the office. As part of that education, they shared what they did in terms of cleaning and how employees could access their own cleaning supplies on-site, including sanitizers and hand wipes. Additionally, some of the investments made to the organizations during the pandemic like fixing HVAC systems, adding extra air purifiers and space dividers, etc. were "not completely diminished" and are still being used to support a safe environment for employees, Petruzzeli said.
As the FM industry evolves and continues to have a larger role in building out the workplaces of the future — and boosting workplace culture alongside HR, IT, and other workplace leaders — that this is only the beginning of the changes that we might see. Between buying the right breakfast cereal to ensuring employees are working in safe, healthy environments to enabling a hybrid work environment, FM is ever present in today’s changing workplace.