Facilities management: It’s a compliance thing

A closer look at the challenge of compliance in facilities management

Facility management within universities is, to put it mildly, a tough job. University campuses can be the size of small villages, but require central management to organise their complex and multifaceted facilities.

The possibility of risk is everywhere, with facilities teams responsible not just for looking after the welfare of students and staff alike, but also the reputation of the institution they work for. Compliance is essential – and a major challenge.

For starters, compliance is not one monolithic set of guidelines, but rather encompasses a broad range of rules and best practices that must be followed.

“You’ve got a health and safety law; you’ve got building regulations; you’ve got sector-specific guidance; things like gas safety regulations, which are embedded in health and safety law,” says Justin Ridgment, director of estates and facilities services at the University of Winchester.

“Compliance is central to everything, because that’s the core in terms of what you have to deliver,” he tells University Business. “Of course you have service standards you want to deliver, but compliance is key. It’s embedded in everything you do.”

The risks of non-compliance are potentially severe. “You’ve got the physical costs in terms of someone potentially having an accident, which would be terrible,” Ridgment explains. “You’ve also got, potentially, the legal ramifications of that in terms of damages. Then there’s the reputational impact, as well as fines related to legislation.”

Covid complications

As with just about every other facet of life, the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic added considerable complications to facilities management. While health and safety has always been a central branch of facilities management, Covid represented a new threat that had to be quickly adapted to. Hygiene measures were particularly crucial, whether this was guidance on handwashing or mandated ventilation and social distancing. There was guidance in the form of information from departments like the Office for Students (OfS), although, especially early on, this changed on a regular basis and required universities to make important decisions themselves.

“[The advice was] for any university to order in a surface sanitiser, and then clean with that,” Alison Minter, group sales director at Innuscience, which provides cleaning products for many universities in the UK, tells University Business.

“Until more scientific research was able to be done, universities were doing the best they could. We were trying to help them to do that.”

“Things dramatically changed with Covid,” agrees Ridgment. “There were all these different things that were changing and evolving almost on a daily basis as we rolled through the first phase of the pandemic into the start of the last academic year, 2020/2021.”

The early mixed messaging about Covid emphasises an important part of the compliance puzzle: that it’s not always just about sticking to the letter of the law, but rather doing the utmost to ensure safety on campus. This means exceeding compliance standards in many cases.

“We always tend to strive for best practices [rather than simply meeting baseline compliance regulations],” says Ridgment. “A classic example of that would be in a position where, say, building regulations for a particular type of building might allow the use of a certain type of fire alarm system, we will always use what’s called an L1 fire alarm, which provides the highest standard for protection of life. We always seek to go above and beyond.”

“You’re never going to get to the position where you just press a button and everything works wonderfully… It’s a constantly evolving thing” Justin Ridgment, director of estates and facilities, University of Winchester

Evolution is a mystery

There’s a joke in the movie Annie Hall about how relationships are like sharks because they need to keep moving forward all the time. The same is true of compliance. “It’s a constantly evolving thing,” says Ridgment. “The more you look at it, the more you see constant change across everything we do. It’s a very, very active market and we have to respond to that. It means constantly bringing onboard new technologies, new software, new bits of hardware and new ways of doing things. It’s the nature of the beast. You don’t just have to cope with it – you’ve got to embrace change.”

The idea of having to constantly upskill – not just in terms of staying on top of new regulations and compliance advice, but also learning new technologies – sounds challenging. But, fortunately, some of these innovations promise to make life easier. Alongside innovations at the level of cleaning products, there are broader, transformational shifts when it comes to tools like cutting-edge facilities management software. These have come a long way from the unintuitive tools of yesteryear, which served as little more than manual entry database systems for logging information.

Planon Software is a leading global provider of facility management software, much of which is aimed at the HE market. “The biggest difference with the higher education market when it comes to facility management is the audience,” Vincent Henricks, solution director for Planon, tells University Business. “You’re not dealing with employees in quite the same way that you might be with another business: you’ve got ‘personas’ such as staff members and students. Students, in particular, have to be treated very differently to employees in a company.”

With its facilities management software, the challenge was to develop tools that could provide the right information to each of these different personas; catering to everyone from top-level facilities managers to cleaning staff to maintenance departments to students. Planon’s software, one of myriad solutions available for facilities management within universities, is designed to offer the ability to control the various aspects of campus from a facilities perspective. Unsurprisingly, this includes compliance.

Automating compliance?

For example, health and safety considerations are all-important in the university environment, and need to be deeply integrated with facilities management processes. Software used for assisting this therefore needs to be able to prompt staff and assist them with complying with environmental regulations like waste and pollution control, hazardous materials-handling and energy-saving measures. This doesn’t negate the need for competent health and safety expertise on campus, or proper risk assessments, but it does mean that technology can be leveraged to make the job of compliance – and reporting and responding to compliance issues – easier.

Henricks points to the example of utilising smart sensors on campus, which integrate with solutions like Planon’s, to carry out a variety of compliance tasks. For instance, it’s possible to monitor the number of people in different buildings at any one time.

Another illustration involves the example of smart sensors (note: not cameras) in a bathroom.

“You can have sensors in the soap dispensers and toilet roll holders that detect usage of the soap or of the toilet paper,” he says. “That means that, based on the data, you can have an automated trigger that tells the software that the soap has reached a minimum level of 20% and needs to be refilled. Automatically a work order is then created for the cleaner so that they see, on their tablet, that the soap dispenser needs to be refilled for that particular area. That, in turn, means that they don’t have to waste time checking every single soap dispenser or toilet roll holder. They can have the right information delivered when they need it.”

It’s essential that stakeholders view this as an area that’s all about yielding positive outcomes for all involved rather than handing out punishments

Shifting solutions

As to whether facilities management in general is getting easier (with new technologies) or more complex (with new challenges), Justin Ridgment has the following to say: “It’s difficult to judge. You’re never going to get to the position where you just press a button and everything works wonderfully. That’s just not the way it works. Universities typically have different ages of building and different pieces of technology and you have to mesh it together. There are definitely challenges as expectations increase and the complexity of the organisation increases. However, often mature technologies are easier to work with. It’s a constantly evolving thing.”

The same could be said about compliance. With the worst of the global pandemic hopefully beginning to recede, universities and other HE institutions are beginning to return to some semblance of normality. However, the importance of protecting staff and students alike has never been more important. Universities must ensure that everyone – not just facility managers – are playing their part in ensuring a coherent strategy to ensure that standards are maintained. That includes both contractors and those doing the contracting. Measures that can be implemented should include regular training and communication to all stakeholders.

Compliance rules will continue to develop as universities adjust to the ‘new normal’. As Ridgment notes, compliance is an ongoing process, with rules and available solutions developing over time. Those who have the responsibility of ensuring compliance must both do everything they can to ensure that standards are kept up, while also being prepared to learn on a continuous basis.

One essential aspect of compliance is for organisations to take a risk-based approach, based on looking at the worst-case scenario – whether that might be sanctions, damage to reputation, or any other potential risk. Universities must prioritise in a world of finite resources, both in terms of time and staff. Risk load has to be managed: for instance, taking care of significant risks, like potential fire hazards in student residences, ahead of minor imperfections elsewhere that may pose low risks.

An area of great importance

Compliance and risk management within facilities management is an area that will remain of paramount importance. However, it’s essential to note that everyone – whether a regulator or a university – is ultimately on the same page: seeking to make facilities as compliant and safe as possible for students, staff and visitors to campus.

It’s essential that stakeholders make note of this, viewing this as an area that’s about yielding positive outcomes for all involved rather than handing out punishments.

Even in a time of increased competition between universities, Justin Ridgment says that inter-institutional cooperation has never been higher.

“From a recruitment perspective, everyone wants to ensure that their campus is the best so that they can attract students,” he said. “But in my experience there’s a lot of cooperation around this area. We welcome other universities to engage with us because, while we’re in competition, there is an importance to cooperation as well in certain areas.

“In my experience, dedicated colleagues are always willing to show new facilities and talk about challenges and pitfalls of developing provision in this area.”

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