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Mission Critical: Why it’s time to rethink critical facilities

What does the word ‘critical’ mean in facilities management? In the strictest sense, a critical facility is any system, asset or site that ensures uptime in an environment where interruptions have catastrophic consequences.

We can confidently describe the chillers and refrigeration units in a food manufacturing plant as critical because these systems keep the fresh produce from rotting. The pandemic has demonstrated how critical these same systems are to the pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers responsible for storing and administering the COVID-19 vaccine.

Large technology companies, and indeed any organisations which have digitised their processes, depend on the uptime of their data centres. For banks and global financial firms, it’s critical that the trading floors of London and New York don’t go down.

Yet, the past year’s events should encourage those of us in FM to reconsider what we mean when we say critical because doing so could help transform the sector in the long run.

FM’s critical role in the pandemic

The sector has always struggled to shake off its non-core, back-office tag. How often have we heard the complaint that FM is an invisible service that others only notice “when things go wrong”?

There is a theory that the pandemic has forced organisations to condense 10 years of innovation into mere months. Without doubt, the crisis has done more to shift the perception of FM than all the events of the past decade combined.

The crucial work that facilities staff such as engineers and cleaners have done to keep the country running and the population safe has not gone unnoticed. Meanwhile, business leaders have turned to their FM teams to guide them through the crisis. From closing buildings, supporting other keyworkers, managing empty sites to planning reoccupation and designing future workplace strategy, FM has taken on a significantly more strategic role.

This shift has transformed FM from an unseen Cinderella service to one that’s quite literally front of house. When they reopen their offices, many organisations will want a visible cleaning service and / or monitor the quality of the environment to give hesitant employees and customers the confidence to return.

Happy business owner hanging an open sign at a cafe

Future lessons

FM must learn from its COVID-19 response, especially in how it has successfully identified and aligned with organisational priorities.

The definition of critical will differ from one organisation to the next. Sometimes, it can vary between departments in the same organisation.

In place likes offices, the coffee machine is a nice perk. For a high street coffee chain, it’s absolutely critical to operations and revenue. Similarly, temperature and humidity control can impact staff comfort and productivity in the workplace. However, in a museum, these factors are critical because any unusual variation in the environment may risk causing unnecessary damage to precious exhibits and archive material.

So, FM needs to understand what’s required to keep a company functioning. Often, the reflex is to identify the equipment that keeps critical environments running, such as BMS, fire detection and suppression, heating and cooling, and electrical systems. But a far more effective approach – particularly if FM wants to align with what’s truly mission-critical – is to focus on business objectives and outputs. Aligning FM with an organisation’s core purpose and broader mission will then allow that organisation to continue to do what it does best, like serving coffee or showcasing famous artwork.

Read time: 2:56 min.

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