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A brave new world

Advances in technology will put pressure upon FMs, warns CEO of Cordless Group Philip Ross. He predicts the office will become “more like a hotel” and FMs must rise to the challenges ahead.

 

13 April 2010


Facilities managers are at risk of losing much of their domain because of advances in technology. That’s the message from Philip Ross, CEO of Cordless Group, in an exclusive interview with FM World in advance of his conference speech this morning.

“Going back a few years the facilities manager would be responsible for voice systems, for example. That’s largely now gone as a result of IP telephony and is in the IT director’s domain. Today FM is still responsible for audio-visual such as projectors, screens, and printers, but that is also under threat as everything becomes part of the network.” Ross believes the next threat is everything from security and CCTV to digital signage and vending.

He believes that the solution is for FM to create its own network: “There should be a secondary network in buildings that is non-core, and not run by the IT department, but by FM to manage innovation areas,” he says. “They can begin to use real-time utilisation tools, to link with room booking and resource management and to link into sustainability and carbon dashboards showing real time energy consumption. There’s much in technology that the FM could grab and the challenge is whether they will or not.”

Ross argues that there is a complete mismatch between the space provided today and what people do in an office – there is much greater demand for team-working spaces, where individuals work together on projects and pitches and a far declining demand for people to sit behind the same desk day in day out. “If you take an average snapshot of an office across the world and across industries, about 50-55 per cent of desks in offices are empty at any one time but at the same time you can’t find a free meeting room.”

“My vision is that the office will become an activity-based workplace so that when you do come into an office you go to a range of environments which are specialised, based on the activity you want to perform. They might vary by atmosphere, noise, technology or acoustics. That allows people the freedom to use more appropriate work settings.”

For the average FM with limited funds who dismisses Ross’s predictions as only being appropriate for the big-budget firms, he argues that activity-based workplaces represent a 20-30 per cent cost-saving of their property overhead. The recession has allowed people to focus on the property and FM overhead and begin to challenge how it is structured, he says. “When you look at a building which is half empty for the working week, let alone for a 24 hour working day, you begin to question what we provide. And then you start to add in things like travel and the pressures on transport networks with the patterns of commuting which we have today. There’s a much braver world, which links into agile working or distributed working, and the growing demand for new places or third spaces, in-between the corporate offices and home.”
And that’s without thinking about what the next generation is going to want from their workplace. Ross has worked with Nokia and Rio Tinto on understanding the expectations of school and college leavers on work and the workplace. “They are used to working online. They are a synchronous society. They’re used to working in networks which challenges the productivity of physical presence. I think there’s been a big assumption over the years that we have to bring people into the office to do great work and I think the next generation will prove that’s no longer true and that better work can be done with online virtual networks.”

Technology will help in this regard, he says. A new technology called Presence will show a list of colleagues and their real-time status –whether they’re available for a chat, on the phone, in a meeting, travelling, and so on. “Today’s it’s log-in to see that presence. Tomorrow it will be ubiquitous. So the presence icon will appear in spreadsheets, PowerPoint on your mobile phone, on digital signage. And what you’ll find is that it will begin to replace the supervision and the presenteeism of the past. This will then be advanced with things like geopresence, which doesn’t just show their status, but also where they are. Big Brother for some, but for others it’s a big enabler.”

The office will never disappear entirely. Ross predicts that there will be a “branded narrative” headquarters in city centres, which will contain everything from presentation and briefing facilities to team and collaboration space, and dining, mentoring and training space. But gone are the days when there are thousands and thousands of desks lined up on floorplates. “I think the buildings themselves will be there but they’ll be different and they’ll be used differently,” he says. And they may not all be clustered around the same space. The growth in community-based working means that people will work in ‘third’ spaces such as community-based work hubs. It’s already happening in the US where Regus has opened small offices in shopping centres and residential areas.

With less major workplaces in city centres, legacy stock will rise. But Ross believes that the type of building organisations want for workplaces will change. “I think the natural conclusion of the thin or empty building as cloud computing takes off will be that older stock become more attractive for many organisations. They can begin to occupy buildings which were seen as obsolete because, for example, they had no raised floors.”

The workplace, Ross concludes, will become more like a hotel. “One of my predictions is that more FMs will have hotel training, or come from the hotel industry. Because I find that offices are beginning to resemble, certainly in their management, a hotel-like concept.”