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The meaning of Brexit: FM Insights from Elliott Chase

Has FM factored into business strategy sufficient consideration of the Brexit process, or is there a bit of a shock still to come?

One of the most interesting commercially (and challenging, politically and socially) aspects of the whole Brexit story right from the early days of the referendum campaigns has been the number of ‘unknowns’ involved and the difficulty of defining them at any given time (let alone understanding them).  As former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously explained in a very different context, when it comes to decision-making about a complex issue there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. He was mocked for that bit of insight – but, in fact, there’s a lot of sense in it: there are things we know, there are things we know that we don’t know, and there may well be things that we don’t know that we don’t yet know about. That aptly describes the evolution of Brexit – and there are still plenty of unknowns and no doubt plenty of unknown unknowns, too.

This year’s Facilities Management Business Confidence Index research turned up some interesting information in this context. When asked about their expectations around the impact of the UK leaving the EU, over half (52%) of our respondent group said they expected Brexit to have no impact on their company’s turnover. Even more (57.5%) expect to see no impact on their capital investment. The only area in which concern was expressed was in hiring, where just over half (52%) expect a negative impact – while nearly two-fifths (39%) expect no impact.

Yet when we asked for views about the impact Brexit will have on the wider UK economy, 62% of respondents said ‘negative’ and almost 16% said ‘very negative’. That feels like a somewhat harsher judgement about prospects for the UK than for the FM sector. Though we like to repeat the (largely justifiable) principle that facilities management has an important role to play in the good times and the bad, it is undeniable that pressures in client sectors ripple into FM, too – there’s ample evidence from the last decade’s recession and the subsequent years of public and private sector austerity, with service providers regularly reporting performance problems attributed at the time to ‘challenging market conditions’, ‘difficult headwinds’, ‘slow decision-making’, ‘project postponement’ and the like.

To some extent, planning for the future in a situation like this involves guesswork – even if educated guesswork. What else can you do with the unknowns confronting the business, and even more so the unknown unknowns?

The trick is to take stock of what you know and don’t know, and then assess the likely implications – positive or negative – on your business, coupled with everything else that goes into business planning including contingency options in case you got something wrong.

Interestingly, the opinions and comments from senior executives around the industry which  feature in the BCI report are by and large quite positive about the current state of FM and, in particular, its prospects for the future. How individuals, management teams and companies as a whole assess current conditions and what they mean for the short to mid-term is, of course, down to their judgement and the context set by their own company operations and strategies.  The past couple of years have been a period of ‘interesting times’ in FM, with some businesses doing well, others a bit iffy and still others struggling for stability. We certainly hope that UK facilities management is appropriately prepared for whatever the Brexit process may bring; but in the face of so many unknowns, it’s hard not to feel some concern.

 

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