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With FMs and service providers reporting ever higher occupation numbers for facilities, we look at whether hybrid working initiatives will continue to evolve

Looking back to March 2020 and the first UK lockdown in reaction to the rising infection rates of the Covid-19 virus, it was an understandably worrying time for many on both personal and business levels.

The situation was unprecedented in peacetime UK society and comparable only to the conditions seen during the Second World War in the 1940s.

Predictions of the death of the commercial real estate sector can fortunately now be seen to be premature, although the market is continuing to recover and adapt to the many changes resulting from the pandemic and other issues.

Initial statements by some business owners that they were considering closing their office facilities, following the rapid and effective way that staff members had adapted to using online calling to replace live meetings, frequently resulted in questions over the lost benefit of collaborating with colleagues. There have, of course, been many examples of companies moving to smaller offices and enjoying reduced costs as a result, while others have invested in their existing workplaces to reduce desk space and increase both formal and informal meeting place provision.

In both cases, a key measure has been the introduction of hybrid working programmes, which have proved popular with many staff members and especially those with young children to care for. Others have been able to work from home and avoid lengthy commuting times and the resulting expense.

With Mondays and Fridays the most popular days for home working, there have been a number of concerns expressed on the issue of ensuring that offices do not appear to be deserted on these days.

Perhaps one of the best solutions to this has been the creation of teams of colleagues that are scheduled to attend their offices at different times of the week, with these days rotated on a logical basis to ensure that an acceptable balance is achieved between employers and their workers.
FM Director asked our industry contacts for their thoughts on the best methods of hybrid working, with a view to sharing best practice developments with our readers. As the FM industry continues to refine its support for these measures, it seems highly likely that this method will continue to be adapted for many years ahead.

First to respond is Pareto FM founder and managing director Andrew Hulbert, who states that “much is said about encouraging people back to the office and as we enter a new era of work patterns, no one has the answer. We are all learning as we go along”.

“That’s what makes it so exciting but also gives us all the opportunity to be innovative and create competitive advantage in the workspace arena,” he continues.

He explains his company is fortunate to work in some of the most high profile and progressive workspaces that have much of the best talent in the world.

“So, it’s an interesting challenge when these spaces are only achieving an average of sub 30% utilisation. Even more interesting that Mondays and Fridays are extremely quiet and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are now the core ‘office’ days of the week. Thursday has become the new Friday, with many end of the week drinks and treats often occurring as everyone is working from home again by Friday.

“As we enter a new era of work patterns, no one has the answer. We are all learning as we go along”

A reason to attend

One emerging trend is the rise of the ‘destination office’, resulting from organisations giving people a reason to attend. This includes more town hall meetings, special talks (often from celebrities), group activities, street food days, doggy therapy and other innovative ideas.

“When these sessions are run, we see a proportionate rise in people coming to the office. Even more so as a service provider, we are seeing a greater focus than ever before on workplace experience, resulting in us adding events coordinators to some of our operational teams across Europe.

“The base line psychology being played on here is presenteeism. We are trying to balance people’s want to work from home versus the fear of missing out.

“If lots of people are in the office and they are not, what opportunities, initiatives and chance conversations are they missing out on? This will remain the challenge as we all continue to drive forward with new ideas and try to create the new working patterns and workspaces of the future,” says Mr Hulbert.

His comments are added to by Business Moves Group managing director Rachel Houghton, who says the much hyped ‘return to the workplace’ is not a one-off event, but an ongoing process.

“You could even argue that it’s a misnomer considering the number of people that continue to work remotely for at least part of the week.

“Which leads us to the best methods of hybrid working,” she continues. “If there is one thing we have learned from the last few years, it’s that no two workplaces are the same.

“What works for a major law firm probably won’t work for a tech company. Rather than thinking about the end goal, leaders should think about the steps to reach it. The process determines the success of the final method.

“We’ve supported businesses from numerous sectors and the ones with the most successful hybrid work schemes have had a robust process throughout.”

Two key factors stand out as the most important, the first being employee communication. Ms Houghton provides the example of businesses embarking on workplace change projects without engaging employees at any stage, then being surprised when they do not attend the office.

“The workplace is primarily for your staff, so talk to them, survey them, listen to them and do what you can to implement their feedback. Of course, you can’t please everyone but if you have shown you are listening, and that you care, they will more likely feel valued and part of the journey.

“Secondly, ensure your hybrid working model is adaptable. Things can change, from employee sentiment to business priorities. After a hybrid model has been implemented, monitor occupancy and room use and continue to survey employees.

“The benefits of a hybrid strategy are well-documented, and include improved talent attraction and retention, increased productivity and enhanced employee well-being. So, it pays to put the work in to getting it right. Make hybrid working, whatever that looks like, work for your most important asset – your people,” says Ms Houghton.

Finding the right solution

Additional thoughts on this subject are provided by Louis Vuitton FM Darren Steer, who believes the task of determining the best method of hybrid working is a metaphorical Rubix cube-type challenge.

“Two twists to the right, and the implementation of a ‘remote-first working’ hybrid model solves an immediate challenge, only to be faced with other challenges, such as employee experience, ongoing operating costs and other methods of hybrid models that weren’t adopted.

“Two twists to the left and you’re back at the beginning. I believe we need to clearly define two things: What is the workplace for, now the pandemic is over? What should does individual experience in the workplace look like?”

The infrastructure of the workplace has been disrupted and technology has reduced time and space, making the physical workplace less indispensable. As a result, the once common office activities have been either been reduced, reimagined or removed, changing the experience for the individual to a more ambiguous and highly fluid journey.

In short, the answer to the best method of hybrid working is highly dependent on the organisation and its people.

“However, my take on nailing down the variables of the two points above is that the workplace is a location where the individual affirms, discovers and shares identity and meaning. The experience of the individual must therefore tie into a tapestry of all other individuals, centred around common events, collaborative spaces and the desire to be part of that inclusive community.

“From my experience of working in the retail sector, I watched the luxury retail store model go through the same disruption. The model changed from a store-focused approach (all business to be conducted on the premises) to a customer centric one (positive customer experience in and outside of store location). In essence, the store infrastructure was transformed by click and collect, VIP events and customer rewards.

“The transformation in retail seems very similar to what the workplace is going through. Part of the fun and the challenge of discovering what the best method of hybrid working is, is that we will all continue to adapt, reconfigure and twist that Rubix cube until we get the maximum benefit of services, products and recognition from all key stakeholders and colleagues,” Mr Steer concludes.

New challenges

PPSPower group managing director Stephen Peal agrees that the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly created one of the biggest challenges for the workplace in a generation.

“Due to some forward-thinking in embracing technologies (as well as some good fortune) our group has recently established cloud-based systems for all CRM, parts, planning and field software – in addition to cloud-based telephony. This meant that at the height of the lockdown, our specialists were all able to work freely from home without any effect on customer service and departmental communication,” he continues.

“As a result, we were able to grow rather than diminish, as many competitors did. The last 18 months have seen eight new people taken on in a variety of roles including inside sales, coordination, field engineers – plus an apprentice.

“We know that the Covid-19 virus affects people in different ways and that, for some, the risk of infection means that returning to a communal environment remains too risky. That’s why we continue to support our team and now that we have the technology in place, that presents no obstacles for us.

“As managing director, I know that the well-being of my workforce is all-important. Two years ago I attended a course to become a mental health first aider (MHFA) and this enables me to approach the well-being of my staff in their return to the workplace, with measures such as: planning to visit before they actually return; keeping in touch with colleagues regularly; returning to work gradually; re-adjusting to workplace working hours; creating a schedule with their manager; making use of peer support services,” says Mr Peal.

Further comment is provided by Bennett Hay.

business development director Zoe Watts, who explains how her company is well-positioned to meet the new organisational values that companies are upholding in this fresh era for the workplace.

“Representing and cultivating company culture is more important than ever, and our expert teams are adept at providing a genuine warmth whilst anticipating workplace clients’ needs with seamless service,” she continues.

The emergence of pandemic lockdowns and remote working proved productivity does not rely on simply showing up. Rather, the offices and company cultures that appeal to workers have now placed flexibility at their core, with corporate flexibility emerging as the new way to encourage productivity, employee retention and the all-important employee experience.

Ms Watts adds: “We are seeing that the traditional desk-filled floors have become open plan, utilising their square footage for meetings, training and the gathering of minds. Green space and open air have overtaken the ping-pong tables and bean bags of the past as an office design ‘must have’”.

Software solutions are also having higher levels of implementation and these can cover every step from visitor management to space booking to enable a right-size-service tailored to the office space.

“With employee mental health and well-being now firmly on the corporate agenda organisations are creating quiet, meditative spaces for their employees along with a curated programme of activities that promote mindfulness and self-care. Rising fuel costs may well lead to a growth in cycling commutes which needs to be addressed with secure cycling facilities,” she advises.

“The workplace still is focussed on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as the popular days for attending the office, which means we are adapting our service styles and production levels. For example, quieter Mondays means cook-to-order and table service whereas a busy Thursday sees food stations and ‘grab and go’ areas in full flow.”

She further states that food is a key connector for everyone and should be at the heart of all hospitality businesses, hand-in-hand with the all-important well-being factor.

Improved catering

Using the latest high street food trends coupled with the best local suppliers has seen her company create a sustainable catering offering from barista bar to full company restaurant.

“More and more we are seeing food being used to attract and incentivise the workforce back to the office. ‘Free-issue Fridays’ are helping to encourage employees back, however, a significant impact on the office is without doubt the crushing costs associated with utility bills. A day in the office may well become more attractive as hot air gets costlier,” Ms Watts concludes.

Julius Rutherfoord & Co reports that it undertook a survey amongst its 170 London-based clients to understand the most important factors in choosing a cleaning service provider, with flexibility and sustainability overwhelmingly coming out on top.

“The 2020 pandemic has driven home the fact that the unexpected is to be expected. There are currently known risks from: rising interest rates; escalating energy prices; the risk of recession; escalation of the war in Ukraine; the effects of global warning; the constantly changing labour market; the constant threat of cyber-attacks; the return, or the mutation, of COVID and supply side disruption,” says JR&Co managing director Chris Jarvis.

These risks deliver a degree of uncertainty, which combined with the question ‘Does your office meet employees’ evolving needs?’ means that FM teams are having to respond to working practices agreed between employees and bosses.

“It would be a fair assessment that bosses, including high profile ones like Elon Musk and Tim Cook are adamant that the office working environment is best, while perhaps unsurprisingly their employees are more interested in a work life balance. While unemployment is currently very low, it is the employees who hold the balance of power, but if any of the risks outlined above escalate, the balance of power might shift.

“Property experts, Cushman & Wakefield, research indicates the hybrid work model is here to stay. Not only do employees across industries want hybrid solutions, but their reasons for going to the office have shifted to be about socialization, collaboration, connection, and to achieve work-life balance,” Mr Jarvis concludes.

The last word on this topic goes to Portico business development director Richard O’Keefe, who says: “The truth is, there is no one right answer to this question. Hybrid working is very company and sector-specific, so there needs to be an individual approach. What works for one, won’t be right for another.”

Human interaction

Many employees have experienced the value of face-to-face interaction to aid creativity, agility in decision-making, project management, and overall productivity, so it is beneficial for most people that an element of the working week includes this.

“Whichever path your company takes, we need to make offices more inviting. It’s about making the office a destination employees want to come to, and a culture they want to be part of. Organisations are enticing employees in with tangible, in-person benefits.

“Things like free lunches are a popular way to get people into the office but it is also very much about a warm welcome and a great experience with value-adds.

“In my opinion, if you force people into the office, you run the risk of losing them. The key is to create office ‘FOMO’. Engineer such a great company culture and a work environment that people want to be part of.

“Time will tell how the nature of hybrid working will evolve. I think we will still be seeing changes to methods of hybrid working in years to come,” Mr O’Keefe concludes.