Facility Management Report: The pandemic brought new layers of complications to an already complicated and expansive role - December 2022
By Darius Helm
New demands on facility managers (FMs) as a result of the pandemic have led them to lean on their already close relationships with contract dealers, and when it comes to flooring producers, FMs are focusing their expenditures on those with reliable, responsive product streams and high service levels, including reps that reach out and engage with them.
Facility managers’ responsibilities, originally centered on operating and maintaining buildings, have expanded exponentially over the last couple of decades. As commercial entities have become more sophisticated and added new and extensive processes and programs, the implementation more often than not falls to the facility manager as the enterprise’s chief effectuator. And that means involvement in technology, human resources, environmental sustainability, managing supply chains, controlling costs and property development, to name a few-shifting the FM from a transactional role to more of a C-suite set of strategic responsibilities.
And then came Covid. While all manner of commercial enterprises were at least partially shut down during the pandemic, the facilities had to keep running. In fact, operations had to run even better than before, often with low staff, notes Eileen McMorrow, whose McMorrow Reports has been covering facility management since 2004. She adds that, going on three years into the pandemic, the number one issue for facility managers is still changes wrought by Covid.
SHIFTS IN USE OF SPACE
One of the biggest challenges relates to the use of the space. As Mark Bischoff, president and CEO of Starnet Commercial Flooring, the largest U.S. flooring contractor group, points out, the surge in remote working has wreaked havoc on the workplace. Facility managers have had to grapple with a range of challenges. Initially, the most pressing problems related to logistics, like consolidating assets, managing the movement of workers and reconfiguring spaces.
However, a whole new set of issues are emerging post-pandemic. The pandemic revealed that technology had evolved to enable work that previously had to be conducted on-site to now be done remotely, which largely appeals to the sensibilities of the younger generations in the workforce. Workers in their 20s and 30s put a much higher premium on quality of life-and in particular, quality of life at work-than have previous generations.
Add to that the very low unemployment rate and employers finding themselves on the wrong side of the power equation. Head count is up, but occupancy is not. But if a business wants workers to commute into their buildings, says Bischoff, “when they arrive it has to be an engaging, positive environment.” Consequently, there is increasing pressure on businesses to make the workspace appealing, the execution of which, of course, falls to facility managers. And not only do those work environments have to be appealing, but they have to impart company culture more effectively than in the past because so many workers these days spend less time in the office and therefore have less exposure to the firm’s culture and values.
FM STAFFING ISSUES
Facility management itself has been hit with its own employment issues. During the pandemic, there was a lot of turnover. McMorrow notes that mid-career facilities personnel have been in high demand. Some moved to other organizations. Some stayed, leveraging their experience to get a raise or to pressure their business to invest in more training or more staff. And a lot of facility managers in the twilight of their careers have been pulled back from retirement with generous offers to convince them to stay on another year or two.
According to a facility management professional at a leading automotive OEM, there was a 90% turnover of its facility management staff at the 1.5 million-square-foot facility over the course of the pandemic. Some retired, and some “left for greener pastures.” The manufacturer tried to make up for lost staff with contractors, though this wasn’t possible for all positions. And, having first offered attractive early retirement packages early in the pandemic, it has now had to start offering retention bonuses to hold off retirements.
Weis Markets, a grocery chain with about 200 stores in Pennsylvania and adjacent states, has faced similar retention issues in facility management staff. After the first grueling year of the pandemic, some took early retirement, some pursued other opportunities-in many cases with government stimulus checks to serve as a temporary buffer. In the middle of the pandemic, employment issues affected lead times on projects, and even now, Weis’ facility management is not fully staffed. For instance, instead of five or six construction project managers, it is operating with three. But fortunately, with projects still spread out, the workload intensity is manageable.
A FOCUS ON RELATIONSHIPS
The success of FMs is in large part due to the strength of their relationships. More than ever, FMs these days rely on strong partnerships to help get everything done. And when it comes to flooring, those partnerships are with manufacturers’ reps and contract dealers.
Engineered Floors’ Brandon Kersey, who works in the education segment for the firm’s commercial division, notes that FMs are leaning on manufacturer reps more than ever. “Covid threw a monkey wrench in the ability to manufacture and service,” he says, adding that FMs have increasingly focused on the need to get flooring down in a specific timeframe. And he notes that EF’s emphasis on maintaining manufacturing momentum during Covid has served it well with FM partners in the education segment. Carpet tile and Kinetex, a hybrid PET tile, make up the bulk of Engineered Floors’ volume in the segment, while on the hard surface side, demand continues to grow for its gluedown flex LVT.
While the FM for the automotive firm feels that most manufacturers have responsive reps, she singles out Interface as a particularly effective partner. “It’s a big positive when a manufacturer engages with us,” she says, noting that Interface reps find the time to reach out to her and her colleagues to keep them up to date about any relevant changes. And because FMs are increasingly tasked with a lot of environmental responsibilities, Interface’s focus on sustainability is also a big plus. “Everyone is busy,” she continues, “but it makes everything run smoothly when the salespeople and support teams can provide information quickly, and even provide information they didn’t even know you needed, like net zero.” She adds that several other manufacturers have also been stepping up with sustainability guidance.
However, FMs’ closest relationships are generally with contract dealers. According to Jerry Kenney, Fuse Alliance’s new executive vice president, “They rely on us for planning and budgeting upcoming work; they count on us to solve issues with the facility (moisture, repair, renovations); and they trust us to recommend the best products for the project. They need a partner to close out the job professionally, to include recommendations and training on how to best take care of the flooring or ceramic tile investment they have made.” And he notes that when FMs find a responsive contract dealer partner, it turns into a long-term relationship.
Both Starnet and Fuse report that FMs are increasingly looking to do more with fewer contractors, and that often means asking contractors to do tasks outside of their traditional expertise. For flooring contractors, this can mean helping with sustainability options, painting walls, even doing lighting. “It’s not mainstreamed yet,” says Bischoff, “but many of our members are doing lots of different things for favored customers, where normally general contractors (GCs) or A&D would be involved.” Because contract dealers are used to working with other trades, they often have the knowledge and experience to fulfill these additional needs.
Bischoff points out that this use of contract dealers as, essentially, interior contractors, mostly happens in renovation work-new construction is more formalized with work permits and other bureaucratic hurdles that tend to keep the trades in their own lanes. And he points out that renovation is where most of the activity is right now. “There are a lot of old assets out there that need attention,” he says, adding that many companies currently would rather defer new construction in favor of renovating older spaces, though new construction is still robust at the higher end.
And Kenney adds that many Fuse dealers have found success in providing additional complementary services, like demolition work, major floor leveling, moisture remediation, final cleaning, along with non-flooring work from painting to ceiling installation. “This sole-source capability allows a facility manager to take on a project with confidence,” he says. And he cites one Fuse dealer who says he can manage an entire project (schedule, support, installation) where the FM does not have to use a GC if the scope is related to flooring or ceramic replacement. Needless to say, FMs would rather work with contract dealers than general contractors.
Bischoff and Kenney agree that, these days, FMs value both heightened service and the reliability and availability of product. And Kenney notes that the contract dealer’s value to FMs is increased when they can do repairs and small jobs that need a quick turnaround.
“There’s a need for speed,” says Bischoff, and when it comes to flooring “FMs are asking contractors to help get it done quickly.” He notes that members have more control over what goes into projects than they have had for decades. And business these days is more often negotiated than specified. “Members understand what’s happening with manufacturer service levels on a weekly basis,” Bischoff adds.
Also, if members miss a date, they pay a penalty, Bischoff points out, so with that kind of responsibility, they’re increasingly taking control of the process. Manufacturers don’t face these types of fines. So, contractors really focus on working with reliable manufacturers, and that includes large players that have created long supply chains in the last couple of years, prebuying inventory, along with smaller players that have been able to maintain outstanding service. It’s not always the domestic players that are most reliable, Bischoff notes.
Facility managers face a lot of budgetary pressures and are always looking for ways to reduce costs. According to Kenney, one strategy facility managers have been increasingly focusing on is “looking to buy on purchasing cooperatives, which many of our members have.”
Considering that facility managers run a range of enterprises, from corporate campuses to hospitals to schools and universities, as well as retail chains and manufacturing operations, they use every type of flooring. In terms of their priorities, while they support all of the aesthetic directions and fulfill all of the environmental mandates, top of mind are cost and performance.
At the automotive OEM, there’s carpet tile in the offices, gluedown flex LVT in the kitchenettes and cafeterias, poured floors (concrete or epoxy) in the manufacturing areas and R&D test halls, and to park vehicles on, ceramic tile-a pricier product, but one that performs well, has low maintenance requirements and lasts indefinitely.
By contrast, Weis Markets mostly uses VCT and polished concrete in its stores, with smaller volumes of LVT and carpet tile. Legacy stores have mostly VCT and almost everything the firm builds uses polished concrete. And in both new builds and older stores, LVT is used to accent various zones, like the pharmacy or where they sell beer, and some carpet tile is used in vestibules and back-of-house applications. And when it comes to renovating the legacy stores, particularly with larger remodels, it often makes sense to remove the VCT and simply polish the concrete underneath, even if it’s imperfect and patched up-rustic industrial is still a trendy look.
While the firm has preferred vendors, the similarities in offerings between manufacturers leaves a lot of room for alternatives. In the end, what makes the difference is cost and performance-and, more than ever, reliability.
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