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The smarter cleaning vision according to FM leaders

06 January 2021

Without doubt, the pandemic will act as a powerful catalyst for workplace change and an accelerator for the transformation of real estate. According to Nils J.van der Zijl, for businesses, it’s providing a window of opportunity to reimagine the future of work to meet the needs of a future, more agile workforce. 

IT'S HARD to predict the long-term impact that COVID-19 will have on working practices in Europe and the knock-on implications for commercial real estate and workspaces. 

Dramatic reports about the demise of the traditional office are too simplistic. The longer the pandemic lasts, and with lockdown restrictions being re-imposed throughout Europe and the wider world, both employers and employees are recognising the value and benefits of the workplace.

However, as a recent JLL study observed, the drop in demand for commercial office space is to be expected as a direct result of the severe global recession, but there is still little evidence that demand won’t bounce back to somewhere near its previous level once the pandemic has passed. As the report observes, increased working from home doesn’t equate to less demand for office space.

Accelerating the shift towards smart buildings

Where there is broad consensus across all corners of the property and facilities management industries is that COVID-19 will speed up the shift towards smart and connected buildings.

Forward-thinking businesses are already looking beyond the immediate priorities of re-entry into buildings and re-thinking how they can better utilize their office and work spaces to provide safer, more engaging and aspirational experiences for their people. And they’re thinking big, re-imagining the ‘emotional, digital and physical dimensions of their spaces’.

As working patterns become more flexible, with a more even split between remote and office-based work, businesses will need to re-think the purpose of their workspaces, to emphasize and maximise the benefits of the aspects of work that cannot be replicated from home. So we’ll see offices re-designed with a greater focus on spaces which encourage face-to-face interaction rather than people working at their desks all day long. We’re also likely to see a strong focus on employee wellbeing, both physical and emotional.

But it’s worth remembering that all of these shifts were happening anyway, prior to the events of this year. Forward-thinking employers were already re-inventing their office spaces to reflect changes in employee behaviour and demands, and to meet the digital-led expectations of new generations of workers. 

And of course there are other drivers for these changes beyond employee experience. The move to smart buildings also enables organisations to drive cost efficiencies through reduced energy consumption and data-driven decision-making, allowing them to run more environmentally-friendly and sustainable operations, as well as enabling greater security and enhancing workforce productivity.

What do smart buildings mean for facilities managers?

The move towards smarter buildings undoubtedly has major implications for the cleaning and FM industry. The make-up of services and delivery models will need to evolve dramatically to cater for smart, connected buildings and the businesses and end users that occupy them. 

And whilst the shift towards smart buildings represents a real opportunity for FM professionals (both on the supply and demand side) to deliver strategic support and counsel to businesses, there are fears that they simply aren’t ready to rise to this challenge, given the immediate pressures and priorities they are juggling.

In research that we carried out at the beginning of the pandemic, 80% of European FM leaders admitted that delivering on their organisation’s smart building and smart workplace vision is a real challenge but 87% said that it needed to be a top priority over the next two years.

The characteristics of smart cleaning

FM leaders recognise the urgent need to innovate within their cleaning operations to support the shift to smart buildings and, most importantly, to meet and anticipate rapidly-evolving expectations around hygiene. Innovation within FM and cleaning has become mission-critical – 73% of senior leaders believe that the whole vision of smart buildings will be compromised without innovation in cleaning over next five years.

The question is… exactly how does cleaning need to change to stay relevant and be a catalyst for transformation?

For a start, cleaning operations will need to become more agile and resilient to cope with the pace and scale of constant change that is set to continue as part of everyday business, even after the pandemic. As a recent Accenture report argued, organisations need to prepare for the decade of the Never Normal, a new era defined by fast changing shifts in cultural norms, societal values and behaviours. For FM providers this means new operating and resourcing models, more flexibility in their servicing agreements and far greater agility in their supply chain.

Beyond this, our research amongst FM leaders pointed to a vision of smart cleaning which embraces innovative technology as a means to optimise cleaning performance and improve productivity. And this technology will be accessed on a lease model rather than through capital expenditure, to ensure service providers have full visibility and control on ongoing costs. 

There was also a widely held belief that commercial models within FM need to evolve, with performance-based contracts, KPIs focused on outcomes rather than time-based metrics and greater use of data and insight.  

Linked to this, within this vision of smart cleaning, was a marked shift towards cobotics within cleaning operations, with cobots supporting frontline staff to improve cleaning performance, ease workload and stress on stretched human resources and increase employee wellbeing. There is also a strong appetite for the data and insight that cobots produce to prove that cleaning tasks have not only been delivered, but done so to a high level of performance and consistency which makes a real difference to overall levels of hygiene.

Overall, 83% of FM leaders felt that the introduction of cobotics aligns with and moves them nearer their smart building vision. 

Cobots such as Whiz, our own cobotic vacuum sweeper, demonstrate a commitment to innovation and new ways of working that are completely in tune with the current challenges that businesses are facing during the pandemic. They free up time for staff to focus on the tasks that make a real difference to clients who are looking to improve hygiene standards and encourage re-entry into their buildings. And the adoption of such innovative technology raises the profile of cleaning and makes it more visible to staff and customers, instilling confidence around the safety of buildings. Cobotic cleaning teams just look different.

But beyond the technology itself, cobots allow contractors to differentiate in other ways. For a start, the cobotic workforce model means that FM providers can offer clients far more flexibility in when and how frequently services are delivered. Contractors also become much better able to manage staff absence and churn by scaling their use of cobots, meaning that any impact on clients is minimised and service levels are consistently maintained. And as we all know, that really is different to the current status quo.

Linked to this, the data that cobots capture allows contractors to measure performance in a consistent and robust way, and to continually optimise performance based on real-time insights. This paves the way for performance-based contracts and fees, something that has long been called for across an FM sector which is still dominated by traditional time or input-based models.

Cleaning must form a key part of FM smart building strategies

Evidently, FM service delivery needs to evolve dramatically over the next few years and FM leaders need to ensure they have the right strategies in place to drive transformation in their organisations. And this strategy has to start with and support a vision of the future workplace, with buy-in across the business.

Worryingly our research found that only 53% of FM leaders currently have a formal strategy around smart buildings, and this figure drops to 51% on the supply side. This is where FM leaders need support from their suppliers and partners to influence and win over stakeholders throughout the business. They need to collaborate to create a picture of the future workforce that their organisation will need to thrive, and the workspace that will best engage and inspire that workforce. From there, they should lean on their partners to help them to devise creative strategies to achieve that vision, embracing innovative technology and new business models to accelerate the journey.

Those FM companies that get these strategies right will be able to get ahead of the curve and demonstrate that they are ready and able to support the shift towards smart buildings and anticipate future trends in working behaviours. In doing so, they can deliver real value to businesses and establish themselves as strategic partners on this exciting journey.                   

Nils J.van der Zijl is VP sales & marketing at Softbank Robotics EMEA.

For more information visit www.softbankrobotics.com/emea/en/index