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By Maria C. Vickers, CFM, SMS
From the December 2023 Issue


Congratulations for making it through a year that required courage, resiliency, imagination, the ability to turn on a dime, and great care. Because not only are we dealing with and adapting to the fundamental changes in our operations instigated by Covid-19, we are responsible for helping others to accept and adapt to the onslaught of the unfamiliar. So, sit down, breathe, and take a moment to reflect on the past year.

Four areas of focus have been consistently dominant for facility managers in 2023:
the facility, the experience, the technology, and the weather. Sober reflection of these themes will help us to prepare for what the future may bring.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic was “officially” declared to be over early in 2023, monitoring, prevention, and control measures remain a public health concern. While perhaps no longer top-of-mind, Covid-19 has joined the panoply of seasonal health impacts that we all must be aware of and guard against. Similarly, the impacts to businesses and to the management of business facilities remain constant, relevant, and very, very fluid. This year was supposed to be the year that workers returned to the office, but caveats and contingencies, exceptions and exigencies, and the tension between new ways of working and traditional command and control practices continue to swirl and assail us at every turn.

As we look to the year ahead, now is the time for facility executives to consider what worked and what didn’t, what policies need to be updated, and what more can be done to improve the environments we’re responsible for. We also have to brace for elements out of our control, and as always, navigate a changing environment while keeping our people safe, healthy, and happy.

Four areas of focus have been consistently dominant for facility managers in 2023: the facility, the experience, the technology, and the weather. Sober reflection of these themes will help us to prepare for what the future may bring.

Facility Management Year in Review, facility managers 2023
(Source: Adobe Stock / Parradee)

The Facility

The current fluidity of the commercial real estate market has left facility managers to deal with unfamiliar and conflicting demands, from one extreme to another, with little warning or preparation, and with a whole new (and still evolving) playbook to guide our responses. We are still reeling from the effects of the rapid down-sizing that occurred over the past couple of years. As organizations quickly adapted to remote working at the height of the pandemic, they just as quickly realized that they could shrink the size of their office footprint and/or drastically reduce the expenses associated with facilities. Early lease termination, subleasing, and other such downsizing schemes have resulted in a national office vacancy rate of 17+%¹, of which 19%² is available sub-lease space. These conditions further exacerbate the situation by making landlords reluctant to reduce rental rates, even for the short term, in order to keep their buildings maintained and viable, and their cash flowing. Inside those offices, on-the-ground realities have continued to churn.

While most of us have already successfully completed our vacates and relocates, clean-outs, and shifts from assigned workstations to agile or hoteling environments, the current slow drip of return-to-office activity has handicapped the flow of feedback needed to determine what works and what doesn’t, what’s truly needed and what isn’t. At the same time, a lack of day-to-day occupancy in the office is creating a push-me-pull-you dynamic between real estate departments looking to cut even more space and save even more cash, and the business leaders who are agitating to bring their people back into the office only to find a dearth of desks, with facilities clearly stuck in the middle.

The Experience

Which segues nicely to the next dominant theme of facility management in 2023 — the Office/Colleague Experience. Extensive thought, money, and effort has gone into transforming our offices to accommodate new ways of working that became apparent, and preferred, during the pandemic. Despite this, earlier in the year, there was increasing pressure for facilities teams to provide increased amenities to attract workers back to the office: more free beverages, free snacks, a variety of food options, recreational or wellness spaces, etc. Now, how does one budget, much less procure, for an unknown quantity and fluctuating attendance? As the year progressed, and more business leaders started to press for more worker onsite presence, the onus for facilities has been to provide a high-touch, service-oriented, supportive/productive experience for all office occupants — a destination, if you will. No longer the invisible force that makes sure things magically work, facilities teams have had to enhance, expand, and showcase their customer service skills; to become generalists with shared, wider scopes of responsibility; and to evolve into an active (or even proactive) part of each co-worker’s onsite experience, advocating for and guiding their customers in how to use unfamiliar agile environments and new workspace configurations, procedures, and tools.

At the same time, it is incumbent upon facilities teams to demonstrate that, despite the reduced prominence of Covid-19, we are continuing to maintain the physical health and wellness safeguards that were adopted during the height of the pandemic. We’ve had to formalize updated janitorial standards, new operational methodologies for handling mail and telephonic communications in a hybrid world, new rules for recording or tracking attendance, new programs for occupational health and safety that extend to home offices, new practices to engage with onboarding and junior staff. All the while continuing, I might add, to make sure that things continue to magically work.

The Technology

Speaking of magic, office technology has been an ongoing and impactful focus this year. During the pandemic when people were working from home, they quickly adapted to virtual meetings and other forms of remote collaboration. Video conference tools that were just starting to catch on in 2019 were suddenly in widespread use and, just as suddenly, deemed to be very effective. As some workers returned to the office in 2023 and others stayed at home, the demand to continue the same collaborative experience remained high— table top conference telephones were no longer sufficient.

While IT/networking teams rushed to improve the office bandwidth to accommodate high volumes of video calls and to install A/V equipment, facilities teams have had to just as quickly ensure that spaces of all sizes were dedicated and equipped to facilitate such meetings, and that the infrastructure was in place to support them. And being the helpful, supportive, assistive sort that we are, we’ve increasingly become the first line of defense when the new A/V equipment doesn’t work the way it’s expected to (whether or not the expectation is realistic). We’ve had to transform ourselves into audio/visual and hybrid meeting subject matter experts because, if we don’t, our customers will simply stay home.

The Weather

Now, this dominant theme is completely different from the others. In 2023, changeable and extreme weather patterns — arctic blasts, droughts, excessive heat, firestorms, floods, tornadoes, and vog (air pollution caused by volcanic emissions) — had a devastating impact. As stewards of the office emergency response and communications procedures, facilities management teams in particular have had to adapt to unfamiliar potentialities and novel contingency planning. Wildfires in the Northwest Territories, floods in the Las Vegas desert, tornadoes in New England— local emergency response procedures have not historically covered such things. We’ve had to expand our understanding of possibilities and probabilities, and make sure we are prepared to react appropriately to keep our customers and our assets safe. And whereas in 2019 our colleagues had daily exposure to evacuation maps and actively participated in drills, in 2023 the likelihood that a coworker will forget where the emergency exit is due to infrequent office attendance is very high.

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So, not only must we be prepared to deal with and manage unfamiliar emergencies, we must also more broadly extend our outreach to keep our coworkers educated and ready.

Forging Ahead

These dominant themes outline some of the challenges FMs face in the year ahead — many will also face budget cuts, labor shortages, increasingly sophisticated security concerns, among others. To cope with it all, the same courage, resiliency, imagination that FMs have displayed over the past few years will continue to be critical. We are the problem-solvers of the built environment — and our skills will continue to be, and always will be, needed.

¹Commercial Edge National Office Report, September 2023
² CBRE Insights

Maria Vickers, Facility Management Year in ReviewVickers, CFM, SMS, is the Facilities Services Lead for New England Occupational Health & Safety North America. She is a member of the Facility Executive editorial advisory board.

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at jen@groupc.com.

Facility Executive Magazine