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The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed (yet)

11 July 2019

What is driving the digitisation of the property industry and what impact could this have on the future of work & facilities management? Mike Gedye, executive director at CBRE, investigates

It’s work Jim, but not as we knew it

When we published our Smart Workplace 2040 report four years ago some of the predictions were deliberately provocative and designed to be challenged as being unrealistic. Today the challenge is that we weren’t brave enough with our predictions, some of which are already becoming normalised. 

We predicted a future where a chronic skills shortage and massive reform in employment law has given rise to the knowledge entrepreneur, where the career of a knowledge worker will consist of many thousands of short-term assignments working for different Enterprises. This would lead to a shift in the balance of power from the employer to the employee, where the employee would have the ability to choose what work they want to do and has complete control over the way they work. The benefit for the employer is that they would have the ability to leverage diversity and tap into niche skill sets, buying what they needed and when. 

Not far from reality, right?  There is undoubtedly a growing proportion of the workforce who are becoming contingent (i.e. freelance, project workers) and even those of us in full-time employment can broadly choose when, where and how we work, with more employers becoming comfortable in tracking employee outputs versus measuring inputs to judge your performance.

We also predicted that the nature of work would change. Face to face engagement would become a luxury with the norm being virtual engagement and going to a ‘place to work’, a place with other co-workers, would become a reward, a luxury even…something you could look forward to. Workplaces would become highly experiential environments where you can meet and network. The workforce would become workspace consumers paying for what they needed, when they needed it. Shared facilities would be the norm in the future with organisations and individuals accessing dispersed workplaces including co-working facilities, local collaboration hubs, blended with leisure and entertainment facilities, all accessible within a 20-mile radius of our homes. 

Sounds familiar doesn’t it, or at least not as out of reach as it might have just 4-5 years ago. IBM have opened a ‘collaboratory’ in Munich to collocate and collaborate with business partners in the development of the Internet of Things. The Crick Institute in London has broken down the walls of medical research, encouraging co-creation and collaborative research (even between competitors). What kind of workplace would have offered yoga classes, beer and pizza on-demand and ‘bring your dog to the office’ policies a few years back? Now, this is becoming normalised.

Futureproofing FM services in an increasingly digital world

The fourth industrial revolution continues to redefine the relationship between people, places and property, unified by hyper-connected networks and fuelled by largescale and increasingly dynamic sources of data. The availability of cheap finance and the growing recognition from investors that the property sector is ripe for digital disruption has also reduced many barriers to entry for start-ups who are able to identify a gap in the market or can find new ways of resolving old problems, through leveraging enabling technologies and digital solutions. 

The property industry has been notoriously slow in responding to the emergence of new and sometimes disruptive technologies. However, there is a growing fear of disintermediation from a new generation of competitors, the impact of automation and when coupled with increasingly demanding and influential Workplace ‘Consumers’ (who are seeking more convenience, improved service levels, a more personalised experience and greater flexibility), the need to act now is being recognised across the industry.

CBRE’s annual European Occupier Survey (2019) has highlighted some of challenges and opportunities which are likely to result from these emerging trends, not least the recognition that the property sector will also have to develop new skills in response to the growing digitisation of the assets we operate and the employees who use them. 

Tomorrow’s buildings will be digitised front and back, interconnecting people with things and throwing off zettabytes of data, in real time. This information will be both structured (size, seats, contracts, costs) and unstructured (live weather, traffic, utilisation and movement). Through complex algorithms and machine learning the role of the Facilities Manager and their supply chain will be to evaluate these insights, predict future patterns of demand and supply and proactively adjust controls and service levels to optimise the user experience and business outcomes.

Basic tasks will be automated, robotics will be integrated within building operations and the existing FM workforce will be less focused on the delivery of tasks, but will become more driven by Data Science, writing code to support the integration of Systems and Data and will become increasingly recognised as specialists in Customer Service, supporting the curation and activation of workplace Communities, delivering Wellbeing Programmes, fostering Collaboration and managing the provision of a diverse range of workplace settings to satisfy the demands of an increasingly agile workforce.

We envisage that day to day Smart Building operations will become normalised with silent running of standard operations, predictive maintenance, intelligent energy management being seen as business as usual. FM organisations must pivot their focus towards more targeted outcomes including Workforce Productivity and the User Experience (Wayfinding, Room Booking, Environmental controls, Wellbeing services and amenities). With an emerging sophistication speed and scale of predictive analytics, AI and Machine Learning we are also witnessing the creation of new diagnostic capabilities, automation and the first cognitive buildings, which can anticipate personalised requirements and automatically adjust asset environments in real time. It’s time to embrace this brave new world.

So, what is all this telling us and how can you prepare for this future and what does it mean to us today and the decisions we make in the future. For starters there are two predictions which I feel comfortable making which should underpin the strategic agendas of every FM organisations, wherever you sit in the supply chain.

  • Data is and will always be at the foundation of great solutions – especially when a product or solution is able to leverage the increasing volumes, velocity and variety of information being generated out of the built environment and the workplace.
  • The ‘Consumer is King’ and any product or solution which helps to better understand and has the capacity to address the diverse needs of the workplace consumer and is able to personalise the user experience while enhancing productivity, leveraging real time feedback, is likely to have a winning formula.

Having the ambition to embrace disruption and change is one thing, having the capacity to transform your business and to reimagine a Facilities Management service offering requires strong leadership and a willing workforce. 

There are some key steps which will maximise your chances of successfully navigating the evolution of the sector, which include:

  • Inject agility into your culture 

You must inject agility into your organisation and it needs to be part of your culture. 

We talk a lot today about an agile workplace – a mix of spaces that support different tasks. But the benefits of this are lost without and an agile culture. An agile culture allows you to respond to client demands faster, creates autonomy speeding decision making and increasing innovation and it improves employee engagement. Trust needs to be the starting point…it takes a clear vision and commitment from leadership to work towards an agile culture. 

  • Close the gap between HR, IT and CRE expertise

We need to close the gap between workplace, people and technology. In the future the lines will begin to blur as workplace becomes more about enabling work rather than just creating spaces for people to work in. Facilities Management functions as we know them today will disappear, replaced by a single non-core support services team setting strategy and overseeing implementation. 

In the meantime, you must look for ways to work more closely with HR and IT exploring new ways of measuring your contribution to the organisation using people and performance-based metrics.  

  • Prioritise employee wellness throughout the workplace

We know that our health will become increasingly more important to us in the future. We see the trend developing now with the explosion in wearable technologies and uptake in exercise. 

In our workplace we see organisations adopting wellness at work initiatives with the sit to stand movement gaining momentum. As an industry, we need to explore how we can do more to promote and operate wellness programmes in our workplaces. The benefits being clear now in terms of a healthier, more engaged and happier workforce. 

  • Move from leasing to consuming your real estate

In terms of real estate, we need to look at how we procure our real estate and associated support services. We need to explore opportunities to co-share facilities. Occupiers need to leverage the trend towards co-working. FM solutions need to embrace mobility and look at opportunities to remodel portfolios based around innovations in technology and societal change 

  • Focus on experience – think about every workplace touchpoint

We are an experience led society. Everywhere you look, we are craving new and more involving experiences in our personal lives: through sport, through retail, through our holidays…and experience is becoming a competitive advantage for retailers. We see this with Apple, Nike, Nespresso and so on.

Employees will look for this in their workplace and FM specialists need to look at their buildings more closely and better understand the experience their end-users go through. 

FM providers also need to make using our workplaces more intuitive. They need to identify and remove the things that get in the way of making people productive in the workplace. The target is a frictionless user experience.

• Embrace technology to better manage demand and performance 

It is clear we are really are on the cusp of a technological revolution. If we look at robotics, we have over 60 robots for every 10,000 manufacturing jobs in the UK, in Germany, it’s over 250 and in South Korea it’s over 450. 

How long will it really be until the majority of us have robots cleaning our buildings, meeting us at reception? We need to embrace these changes and find new ways to add value, provide better services and improve performance.

(Headline: A quotation from the American-Canadian author and essayist William Gibson)