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Are FMs equipped for increased automation?

25 July 2019

Technology has always played a big role in shaping the workplace and facilities management profession and is likely to be one of the most significant influences on the profession in the future. But how well placed is the profession to cope with changes in technology and, as a consequence, what we might need to do differently? asks Stephen Roots, past chair of The Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management (IWFM)

Emerging digital technologies are already beginning to have a direct impact on the workplace and facilities profession because they will influence not only how workplace and facilities managers go about their work, but the very nature of work and how this impacts upon the space we support.

Is there a risk of the profession over-estimating the role of existing technologies, because they are familiar, and underestimating the role of less familiar technologies, despite their obvious applications? Such an approach may mean that the profession fails to recognise the significance of disruptive technologies until it’s too late.

Enhance not replace

In the short-to-medium term, technology is more likely to augment, rather than replace, the role of people in facilities management. There are some activities where the role of people will be diminished, but this may mean that FMs can focus on activities that are more important and rewarding. Emerging digital technologies will also have an indirect impact on the FM profession by influencing the facilities services industry and the broader world of work that the profession supports and enables. The increased automation of front-line services will clearly have implications for facilities managers, who may find they are spending less time managing people and more time overseeing automated systems, both physical and virtual.

The increased automation of facilities service delivery could also increase the risk of FMs being cut out of the supply chain – if clients and customers can manage automated services directly.

Exploring the indirect impact of technology on FM via the wider world of work is more complex because the nature of work varies so greatly and the FM profession is often one step removed from the technological developments in the businesses they support. However, evidence from other research points to an increased use of emerging digital technologies in all types of workplace and a growing divergence in the demands that will be placed on FM in the future. 

Where the ‘human touch’ is less important, work is likely to be automated and involve fewer people. FM’s role in such working environments is likely to be less about enabling people and more about supporting automated business critical processes.

In other work settings, automation will be focused on augmenting the work people do and/or improving the customer experience by creating a more seamless  environment.  In these settings FM’s focus will be more about ‘front of house’, customer experience and hospitality. This divergence may amplify the traditional differences between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ FM, for better or worse.

So what can the profession do about digitalisation and how can it benefit?  

Emerging digital technologies could enable FMs to carry out tasks and processes more efficiently and effectively, freeing up time to spend on value-adding or strategic activities.

The opportunity for emerging digital technologies as a means to make better decisions, understand customers better; improve reporting; and focus on predicting problems, rather than reacting to them has to be promoted and acted upon.  

There is a risk that the profession will use technology to improve the work they already do, rather than examine how it could be used to fundamentally change the scope or remit of the FM profession.

The opportunities presented by emerging digital technologies will only be realised if FMs have the right skills and knowledge. This is a significant challenge for the profession and may dictate the rate at which new technologies are adopted.

As FM and property systems become more digitised, interconnected and business critical, workplace and facilities managers will need to be mindful of the ethical challenges and unintended consequences arising from technological change. 

You can find out more on how digitalisation is impacting upon the workplace at www.iwfm.org.uk