Roundtable: Keeping up with facilities management

What are the key issues, challenges and opportunities facing facilities management teams at today’s HE campuses?

The fifth in our series, Steve Wright quizzes Lee Cooper MIWFM, UK director at ABM Facilities Services. 

Q. What new challenges are being faced in facilities management (FM), and specifically within higher education?

One of the biggest challenges for FM teams in the HE sector is how to create an excellent student experience. Alongside learning environments, this commitment includes sports facilities, accommodation and social areas, plus any interactions that take place between FM team members and students. A university’s main priority is ensuring all students and staff are working in clean, fully operational and safe environments.

The first few weeks of a semester are the most challenging periods for FMs. As new students enter the campus they may be nervous or worried about their first time away from home. FM teams must be friendly and approachable in order to help students settle in. In addition, the first few weeks generate large amounts of reactive maintenance, including repairs to lighting, heating or appliances that may occur in the accommodation areas, as most preventative maintenance is completed through the summer break.

Q. Are there general rules for good, effective FM – and pitfalls to avoid?

When looking at key performance indicators and service level agreements, FMs need to understand how their teams will work best on-site, and ensure that they price accordingly. It is important to be aware that the cheapest FM contract isn’t always the best option. 

For example, when a labour load is assessed, the hours may signal that only one person is required for the site – however, the geography of the campus and the building layout may mean that more team members are required.

In addition to any geographical challenges of the site, it is usually considered best practice that there are at least two team members attending a job at universities. This is often the case with call-outs in accommodation, where safeguarding actions are put into place. This model may incur a higher price, but it better reflects the university’s expectations.

The key to any contract is good communication between the university estates team and the FM company.

Q. Is technology making FM easier and/or better?

Improvements in technology will always have a positive impact on the facilities management sector. The opportunities across a sprawling university campus could potentially be huge. These improvements could create a more streamlined service in terms of reactive maintenance and soft services like cleaning solutions. For example, monitoring of washroom use will tell the FM team that there may be no need to check or clean it as regularly as they may have scheduled, as no one may have used the washroom during that time. 

Q. How do estates management and FM overlap, and is that relationship changing over time?

Recently, estate management and FM teams have naturally become intertwined. Universities are vast spaces that constantly change building use, and require infrastructure improvements, remodelling of buildings or demolition of non-functional spaces. It is important for these teams to be in regular contact to ensure that everyone is up to speed on upcoming changes and requirements.

Good communication ensures that the university is getting value for money. If the FM team is kept informed, service offerings can be adapted where needed and additional tasks can be planned-in, such as building handover and sign-off, warranty inspections, deep cleans and increased security.

Q. Are there certain elements to good FM that are often overlooked?

One element of FM that is often overlooked is the importance of an integrated, total FM contract within a university. For example, if a university tenders for individual service streams it can mean that they aren’t receiving services as efficiently as they could be. 

By outsourcing a complete contract, be it a mechanical and electrical (M&E) contract or an integrated FM contract, they will ensure a wealth of multi-skilled individuals on site at all times, who can lend themselves to different projects where necessary. Typically, this means that more is achieved, as only one callout may be needed for an issue rather than problems being passed between different FM providers. In most cases, it results in better value for money for the university.

Q. Are today’s universities undertaking their FM in-house, or contracting it out?

Although a number of universities are reluctant to outsource FM, we are noticing that it is often the younger universities that decide to outsource, while more established universities seem to prefer their FM team to be in-house.

It’s hard to predict any trends, due to the current uncertainty while Brexit conversations continue. 

In the past, universities ran in similar fashion to the public sector: now, they more commonly trade as private entities. Any profit from fees gained by a university is reinvested into its property portfolio, to help attract new students. Potential future pressures may result in this profit reinvestment changing. With the questions over EU funding for research and development, and the potential impact on international students still unclear, we cannot predict how universities will react.

Q. Is the value of FM properly acknowledged in higher education?

A huge challenge faced by universities is keeping their student numbers up year-on-year. Universities are recognising that good FM will have a huge impact here.

Conversely, though, the FM companies themselves do need to recognise the critical areas within universities. The library tends to be one, as it often operates 24/7 and is used by a majority of the student population, especially in the run-up to exam periods and assignment deadlines. This area needs appropriate lighting, cooling and heating in order to function correctly and to allow students to focus without distractions. It is vital that FM companies understand the importance of such areas, and put their skills into keeping these critical spaces working to the best of their ability.

A good FM team will make a lasting, positive impression on staff and students, giving them the best possible campus experience. ABM UK’s brand ambassador training ensures that all team members are equipped with information about the site and local knowledge of the area in which they are based.

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