More questions than answers – FM insights from Elliott Chase

Predicting change is a mug’s game, especially these days when some of the old ‘rules’ seem particularly unreliable. But it does feel like the times might be ripe for some kind of tipping point in UK facilities management.

Consider these stories we’ve reported on over the past few months. Could this be a case of converging issues and trends bring about change?

  • Carillion’s collapse and the various reports and recommendations that have followed
  • Brexit uncertainties
  • Concerns around labour supply in some service areas
  • Trade union campaigns for enhanced pay and conditions for employees on outsourced contracts
  • The emergence of ISO standards for FM
  • The slow, steady growth of the Real Living Wage movement
  • A continued focus on corporate responsibility programmes and reporting
  • A new impetus behind social value in contract decisions
  • Two keen professional groups, each with its own view of the future.

As the industry continues to struggle with its own internal issues, cost pressures and competition levels chief amongst them, and as at least part of the wider world continues to debate whether outsourcing is in fact a good thing, maybe it is time for a sea-change – a shift in the paradigm that frames most FM contracts.

Perhaps the fundamental factor shaping FM’s development over the years and still today is the cost structure of the industry. This is a low-margin business by and large, partly as a result of intense competition and partly as a result of long-established customer expectation. In addition to whatever other challenges this entails, low-margin businesses operating in labour-intensive service areas tend to be low-pay businesses, too. How does that sit with the drive to professionalise the industry and highlight its strategic value? These factors seem to be at cross-purposes.

Way back in the 1960s an American airline (now long defunct, by the way) launched a landmark advertising campaign featuring a perky blond flight attendant laying out the company’s seemingly over-generous offer, culminating with the wide-eyed question “Is this any way to run an airline?”. That was capped off with – huge smile – “Of course it is!” ‘Is this any way to…’ soon took on a life of its own in the States, becoming in those primitive pre-tech days an early cultural meme. It was applied in all kinds of situations, initially with the good humour attached, then later progressing through irony to outright challenge until its meaning approached a near-universal meme of 40 years later – WTF.

As observers, we have sometimes – especially over past months – looked out across UK FM and wondered: is this any way to run a big, important industry? “You bet it is” has more than once not seemed to be the right response.

Given all that’s going on in this industry today, is the time right for real change? Will we look back in, say, five years and list those various factors that moved FM towards a more sound and sustainable base? And if we believe – or want – that to be the case, should we be actively doing things to nudge it in the preferred direction? If so, what should we be doing?

The alternative, of course, is to simply let the market go wherever the market is going. But – is that any way to run a business?

The Author

Elliott Chase
Managing Editor, i-FM
elliott@i-fm.net