Hybrid higher ed: what’s the impact on facilities management?

Post-pandemic, university facilities and buildings are being used differently – so your strategies and contracts must change

One thing we’ve learned from the recent and difficult times during the pandemic is that university estates and facilities teams are having to look at different ways of operating.

Many universities are now looking at a hybrid mix of both in-person and remote learning, events and conferences are slowly starting to come back but still not at the capacity they once were, international students are cautious about travelling to the UK and summer schools that usually operate were dormant during this past season. The facilities and buildings are all being used differently and, as a result, the assets and the services provided within them are also being used differently.

This means that for most estate and facilities managers their current estate and asset management strategies, as well as existing contracts with service providers, will need to be adapted in order to reflect these changing times.

Compliance is a minefield. Merely understanding the varying, and complex, regulations and legislation for buildings and equipment is a feat in itself

In some cases, the assets may no longer meet statutory compliance standards having been dormant for so long and not operating as regularly as they once did. In other cases, it may even be that the portfolio of buildings across the estate needs to be completely re-evaluated, with some buildings now no longer needed at all. This re-evaluation is not only necessary from a logistical point of view – in part, to help balance the budgets after the most turbulent 18 months the sector has ever seen – but also to future-proof the estate and facilities for the coming years.

So the questions are raised: how can universities re-evaluate their buildings’ needs, understand the usage of assets within them moving forwards, and work with their service providers to adapt current contracts and service levels they have in place, whilst maintaining a positive client/service provider relationship?

To begin, it’s a good idea to start by carrying out an assessment of the current statutory compliance status across the entire estate and facilities. With all universities virtually completely shut down for over a year due to Covid, it would be easy for compliance on various pieces of equipment and assets to have lapsed.

Compliance is a minefield. Merely understanding the varying, and complex, regulations and legislation for buildings and equipment is a feat in itself. There are digital applications available that help universities understand where their compliance is currently at and which areas need work, together with practical, easy-to-action steps to take in order to meet standards. Investing in such digital applications is worth its weight in gold. The impact of not complying can be inconvenient at best (equipment breaking down) to catastrophic (users within the facility becoming exposed to injury, or worse, through dangerous assets or equipment).

Once compliance is met, it’s about aligning the entire facilities management strategy with the overall estate strategy. This also enables smarter and better ways of working to be brought in.

For example, technology could be introduced to provide live data on the operations, so there will be actual, real-time data available 24/7, enabling better informed decisions to be made. Or a working group of stakeholders could be established to target changes through consultation, dialogue and regular feedback. In addition, to track progress as changes are made, a scoring and prioritisation matrix could be developed – making it easy to ensure that not only actions are completed on time, but it’s also easy to report to the board on progress.

It will almost be expected that a contract that was fit-for-purpose pre-Covid is very unlikely to still be fit-for-purpose post-Covid, considering the myriad of changes that have taken place.

Once the ‘new’ way forward – along with working methods – has been agreed, there will inevitably be changes that need to be made with regards to service providers and the level and scope of work required. Some of these changes will result in difficult conversations being had but it will almost be expected that a contract that was fit-for-purpose pre-Covid is very unlikely going to still be fit-for-purpose post-Covid, considering the myriad of changes that have taken place.

It will be worth considering whether to re-tender or benchmark the current contracts – both of which could provide a more bespoke and tailored service model moving forwards. However, it’s worth bearing in mind, the days when re-tendering was the only way to understand if a university was receiving good value from a service provider are long gone.

If facilities managers work with the right consultancy – which has years of experience, proven data and knowledge – then benchmarking will also identify if value for money is being achieved and delivered.

This isn’t just about cost. Yes, cost plays a significant part, but benchmarking goes much deeper than simply pennies and pounds. Detailed benchmark analysis is proving to be critical to the successful management of broader transformational change, including cost management initiatives, re-engineering of business processes and implementing quality control measures.

Covid brought untold levels of uncertainty to the higher education sector. The future of many university institutions was thrown into unbalance. For hundreds, the control was completely taken away and we simply had to ride the storm. With significant changes across the board, adaptations are necessary to ensure university facilities are running as efficiently as they can be – both operationally and financially.

Which is why now, as we all find our feet again – albeit in slightly different shoes – taking measured but important transitional steps forward will mean the future of universities will once again emerge strong.

 

Karl Cundill is a partner at facilities management consultancy LitmusFM


 

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