This week, the government unveiled plans to end England’s lockdown by June. The news moves the country one step closer to normality after more than a year of restrictions that have forced offices to shut and millions of people to work from home.
It can often feel like the world has been put on pause. But nothing could be further from the truth. Since March 2020, an army of key workers have put risked their health to keep the country running, from healthcare professionals and emergency services staff, employees in critical utilities and telecommunications sites, foodservice workers to field engineers. Integral’s teams of engineers, cleaners, builders and technicians have worked on the frontline, providing essential services to customers in almost every sector and in every corner of the UK.
The pandemic has highlighted the crucial role that facilities and engineering services play in building and maintaining business resilience. Customers have leant on the skills and specialisms within these services to navigate a uniquely disruptive period. In many cases, they’ve had to make lightning-quick decisions to stay afloat – whether that’s sending everyone home to work, embracing digital technologies, developing new products and services, restructuring relationships with suppliers, or finding alternative ways to engage with stakeholders and customers.
This particular challenge has only just begun. Organisations will also need their suppliers to help them prepare for a post-pandemic world. The Bank of England recently warned that the UK economy’s future is “unusually uncertain” despite the successful development of multiple Covid-19 vaccines. What most businesses are certain of is that nothing will be quite like it was before the pandemic.
Recent research by JLL revealed that three-quarters of office workers expect their employers to adopt a permanent hybrid model that allows them to work from home some of the time. Meanwhile, CEOs say they will prioritise hybrid business models in the future, increasing “the share of remote workers… and expanding employee health, safety and wellness programmes”. As Mark Caskey, JLL’s CEO of corporate solutions, EMEA, says, there is a “seismic shift towards a workforce-centric model and a renewed focus on what is important to employees, such as quality of life and wellbeing”. These changes are also likely to have enormous consequences for their real estate strategy, what employees need from their workplaces, and how they use their suppliers.
These transformations are happening at warp speed. Last year, McKinsey claimed that companies had experienced a decade of innovation in a matter of months – the heroic development of multiple vaccines is proof of that. The pace of change is unlikely to slow after the pandemic and organisations will be looking to their suppliers for solutions that help them not only to adapt but also thrive in the new world.
When lockdown began last March, facilities and engineering teams became frontline workers in a public health crisis that threatened to bring the UK to its knees. According to Mark Kirby, head of private sector contracts for Integral, the organisation’s work in the healthcare sector has ensured critical infrastructure, such as pharmacies and GP surgeries, goes on uninterrupted. “All of our engineers and backroom teams are still working through this pandemic,” he says. “Without them, we would have seen truly essential services in this country come to a grinding halt.”
Those teams helped customers in different sectors adapt quickly to the extreme new health & safety standards. “We developed products that would help them stay open, including glass screens, sensor technology, cleaning hygiene services and signage,” Kirby adds.
That speed is no better exemplified than by the work Integral did with the NHS and Kier Construction last summer to turn a Bristol convention centre into a temporary Nightingale hospital in just 20 days.
For thousands of other companies, the only solution was to close the office. In these cases, it’s the engineers and facilities teams’ job to keep the buildings in good condition and ready for re-entry at any moment.
Shane Betts, head of corporate business at JLL, says that the customer sites have rarely risen above 30-40% occupancy during lockdown, but this hasn’t changed his teams’ objectives. He explains: “All through the pandemic, we’ve had our full engineering teams in buildings, putting in place social distancing measures and split shifts to ensure that if one shift pattern goes down with Covid-19 we can still maintain the building.
“So, there has been no point during the pandemic when if someone wanted to reoccupy their building fully, they couldn’t,” Betts adds. “That has always been our ambition and our aim.”
Tenants who cannot occupy their office and landlords who haven’t been able to recover rents are also demanding what Betts calls a “cost-conscious” service. In response, Integral has either switched off non-essential services or dialled up statutory compliance services but with the ability to turn the building back on at any given moment.
A prime example is water management. With buildings unoccupied, stagnant water can lead to the build of potentially deadly Legionella. So, Betts’s teams are carrying out regular flushing and extra testing to ensure that the water is safe upon reoccupation.
Nonetheless, customer expectations can vary significantly between contracts. Betts says that the crisis has strengthened Integral’s relationship with some clients, allowing the company to work more closely with stakeholders to find solutions as a trusted advisor. But other customers have the attitude that nothing should affect the service levels they receive despite the immense pressure on staffing throughout the pandemic.
It’s a similar story for Andy Demetriou, head of projects at Integral, a division that provides build services, M&E contracting and small works. After seeing a spike in opportunities toward the end of last summer, Demetriou admits that the increase of Covid-19 cases in recent months has stretched his teams, as well as the manufacturers and suppliers that Integral depends on. And not all customers are so understanding.
However, there are examples of partnerships that have yielded positive talks. Demetriou thinks back to a recent conversation with a customer in one contract that had been hit hard by the crisis. Some weeks ago, he was expecting a difficult Monday morning video call, but the meeting ended with both sides discussing ways they could help each other over the coming months.
True resilience is as much about preparing for the future as it is about surviving the present. As Betts explains: “Already, we are seeing clients invest in their buildings, making changes, and thinking about what the office space will look like after the pandemic because they recognise that operating practices will change.”
Some organisations will reconsider their property portfolios, while others will redesign their buildings to support more flexible and collaborative working. Kirby explains that it will fall on businesses like Integral to then help these clients with dilapidations, disposals, or acquisition projects. “It has pushed us to develop products, services and new ways of working that would normally take the business three to five years in days, weeks and months,” he adds.
Betts says that his division has seen a growing number of fabric requests, as businesses in sectors such as financial services, which traditionally occupy high-density, desk-based office space, consider new flexible or activity-based work models. Meanwhile, landlords are exploring the prospect of shorter leases and the opportunity from the increase in demand this could create for more club-lounge-style flex space.
A change of approach
All these changes will mean that Integral has to transform its approach to engineering and build services. “Traditional M&E engineering focuses on assets and how you maintain them,” Betts explains. “Now we have to help our engineers understand the impact of their actions on end users.”
In fact, Betts sees wellness and the user experience as core business drivers in the post-pandemic world. Covid-19 has made people acutely aware of the role that air-conditioning systems play in circulating air and the impact this has on the transmissibility of diseases. So, as organisations begin to reopen their workplaces, they will need to show employees that these spaces are safe and healthy environments. As a result, Betts says: “Air quality is becoming a key metric in assessing healthy buildings and a growing number of customers are seeking the relevant accreditations like the WELL Standard.”
Demetriou has noticed a similar shift in some of the sectors that the projects teams work in. “In the education space, for example, schools and universities are asking us to look at various space adaptations with a focus on air quality and what we can do to improve the circulation in these kind of environments,” he says.
Putting people first
The growing challenge for service providers like Integral is to get its teams to understand and empathise with the customer’s experience. “The concept of the grumpy old engineer in a boiler suit hiding in a plant room is dead,” Betts says. “But we still have work to do to change the culture within our organisation.”
That change begins with a renewed focus on the health and wellbeing of Integral’s teams, especially the environments they are given to work in. “One of our biggest objectives over the coming years is to live by the values that we sell,” Betts adds. “If you walk into many of my buildings across London, the facilities staff and engineers are in the bowels, underground, with no natural light or fresh air – and we expect these people to deliver a great service to a customer 20 floors up.”
Things are starting to change. Betts says there is a plan to rent office space on some customer sites. In one particular major London building, Integral’s engineers occupy a third-floor space with access to plenty of natural light, which allows them to work in close proximity to the customer and end users they support.
As the pandemic stretches into a second year, the concept of resilience feels more significant than ever. Organisations need the support of their partners and suppliers to help them come through the crisis. Build and engineering services will play a pivotal role in developing their ever-changing real estate and workplace strategy. In 2021, however, resilience also means putting people first, from the thousands of key workers delivering engineering services on the frontline to the millions of employees who are nervous about the future.