For the last decade or more, we’ve continually heard that the facility manager’s role must be elevated and come to the fore. If not now — as we slowly come out of the pandemic — then when?

When the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) launched its new rating last June, we very deliberately named it the WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management.  We did so with a very deliberate full name to cover areas of influence and a need for immediacy. And while a successful consumer awareness campaign and significant global uptake have popularized its shorter name – the WELL Health-Safety Rating – the focus on facility operations and management has never wavered.

The IWBI Task Force on COVID-19 and Other Respiratory Infections was very clear on the role that facility managers could play to ensure the health and safety in buildings and places. Air and water quality management, emergency preparedness and cleaning sanitisation procedures are all areas where a facility manager can have significant and immediate impact buildings and interior spaces, often without any sort of capital outlay. It specifically positions facility managers as being uniquely positioned to respond to the pandemic beyond simply managing a check-in system and installing hand sanitisation stations. Suddenly, facility managers have been given a well-deserved (and long overdue) seat at many executive tables as organisations struggle to understand risk, control what comes next and find answers to the many many questions:

  • “Are we safe to reopen?”
  • “If this thing is airborne, how do our HVAC systems stack up?”
  • “How do we manage people going in and out?”
  • “What do we do about the lifts?”

One of the Co-Chairs of the aforementioned Task Force, Dr. Joseph Allen from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has often been quoted as saying that your building manager has a greater impact on your health and well-being than your personal doctor. If the physical and social environment is the No. 1 determinant of an individual’s health and we spend most of our waking hours in these environments, by any logic the people and systems that manage this space will be hugely influential on our health and well-being.

However, despite this logic, we fail to recognise the importance of these individuals in health decisions and policies. Rarely have facility managers been involved in workplace health initiatives beyond dealing with occupant comfort issues (and these are largely thermal comfort issues at a facility level). Ironically, the physical environment of these facility managers are also the least desirable parts of any building (often a basement or cupboard with poor access to daylight and nature).

Not only do facility managers have a role in ensuring our buildings and places are healthy, safe, and comfortable, but they have a key role in attracting workers back into the city by restoring their confidence that our buildings and urban communities have prioritized their health and safety and are ready to welcome them back. It’s important work, but a heavy lift; In Australia occupancy rates remain low despite close to no community transmission and very few restrictions.

Building owners are no longer only competing – they are now competing with the kitchen bench, the home office, and the dining room table. Therefore, building owners and their facility managers need to provide a highly attractive proposition for workers – one that isn’t just comfortable, but one that is fundamentally  safer from disease and can improve health outcomes via a suite of operational interventions. Cleanliness, high performing indoor environment quality, disclosure of environmental data, access to excellent amenities and health programming; these are aspects of facility managers’ role where excellence will be demanded and can’t be negotiated.

Facility managers everywhere are looking for validation and verification that their role matters. Indeed, the Facilities Management Association of Australia (FMA), in a 2014 policy paper titled “The Role of Facilities Management,” contended that a barrier to the professionalism of the industry was the “…limited recognition of the role of FMs in designing and constructing cost-effective facilities.” The FMA recognises that while traditionally operational, the profession is becoming more “tactical” and “strategic.” The response to COVID-19 and the next challenge of attracting people back to offices and cities will require these higher-level tactical and strategic approaches. If the profession is successful with this endeavour, the elevation of facility managers to a seat at the “executive table” might be within grasp.

As a built environment industry, we need to do three things:

  • Raise the profile of our facility managers as key public health advocates, emphasising their inarguable role on the health, well-being, safety and comfort of all people that occupy their buildings.
  • Improve and prioritise the environments of facility managers — rather than having them in the poorest performing parts of a building. We need to replicate the “care for the caregiver” approach we are seeing in healthcare design and operations.
  • Thank our facility managers for their role in managing our buildings during a global pandemic and facilitating our safer return to work.

For more information on how the WELL Health-Safety Rating for Facility Operations and Management can help empower facility managers and provide recognition for their efforts, click here.