Where is Workplace Technology? Some international comparisons.

Sally Wotton, FSI marketing manager, examined with PFM magazine the current state of Workplace Technology in three, key world markets through the eyes of Paul Bullard, business strategy director for FSI, with Adrian Jarvis and Heinrich Serfontein, general managers for FSI UAE and FSI APAC respectively. In this article she reveals where the commonalities and some critical differences lie.

Three distinct marketplaces
Market maturity, culture, economic health and geography are the key influences in the current position of workplace technology around the world. The development of CAFM, combining data management capabilities with building management systems, is shaped by these influences.

IT culture is at its most mature in the UK, as will become clear. This appears to be the key influencer. The availability of workplace technology is the most established here and has penetrated business practice to the deepest level. As such, demands on this technology are the most sophisticated and advanced.

APAC follows next, less mature in its development but absorbing influence from UK/Europe (and the USA) at a rapid rate; though differentiated to a large extent by geographical factors (long distances between major centres of population and very large, disparate rural populations).

UAE represents the youngest FM market, but one that has started to rapidly embrace workplace technology. Culture, geography and economic factors are all significant. Not least is the impact of the global downturn at the end of the 2000s, at which point, developers were not able to quickly flip construction projects.

There was then a gradual realisation that technology would help differentiate one building from another, and help drive/maximise services charges and rents. At this point an economic imperative to exploit technology to manage assets effectively, rather than often simply owning technology as a tick-box exercise, began to take hold and marketing of, and interest in, workplace technology has bloomed.

Workplace technology: ownership implications
Across all three territories FM service providers of all sizes - international and local - constitute by far the main customer base for workplace technology solutions. They compete with each other and help to drive forward new developments, as they look to leverage the depth and sophistication of workplace technology to win FM business. However, in the process of doing this these businesses help to educate their clients to the value and potential of this technology in contributing data and analytics to business management, alongside FInancial and other business IT software.

Growth in end user businesses owning their own workplace technology solutions is the most mature and evolved in the UK. The UAE profile is such that most international businesses are unlikely to have a presence requiring more than multi- floor tenancy within a shared office tower, a scenario favouring FM service providers. Multi-site retail businesses have prominence in the UK and APAC, whilst in the UAE government sites, residential / mixed use towers and shopping malls prevail. Then follows an array of other sectors: commerce, healthcare, FInance, education, leisure, manufacturing, residential.

The role of workplace technology in supporting residential sites raises some interesting contrasts, particularly in the APAC and UAE regions.

Aged care is a prominent, distinct sector in Australia. Residential villages specifically for the elderly represent multiple, campus-type sites; widely dispersed and covered by the client systems of the larger aged care businesses and portfolio systems of FM service providers looking after independents and small chains. The demands made on workplace technology in this context exemplify a regional characteristic; the prominence of compliance management as a critical capability. The means to maintain validation of both the maintenance requirements of potentially harmful plant and equipment and the screening/certification of engineers and others who work in locations with vulnerable people is an important selling point for workplace technology, in what has become an increasingly litigious environment.

The residential focus in the UAE presents a different perspective. The region possesses many of the world's tallest tower buildings. Communities of hundreds and thousands of residents in these mixed use or residential buildings more and more are being managed by homeowner associations.  It is an increasingly influential, emerging sector; demanding of the estates managers/FM service providers who look after their properties. Homeowner associations represent an educated user group who want to see value-for-money and effective delivery of services that maintain the lifestyle quality and asset value of the residential environment they may have invested in. They are predisposed to smart phone app interfaces that will allow them to report maintenance issues and glean status information about matters such as fire alarms tests, out-of-service lifts, scheduled maintenance projects etc.

Core v expanded functionality
The core ability of workplace technology systems to handle reactive and planned maintenance of traditional M&E assets and deliver a helpdesk facility still remains at the heart of its perceived purpose in the APAC and UAE regions. There is clearly an awareness of the many ways it can increasingly be made to function beyond this scope, but the priority is still essentially this requirement. Though rapidly catching up, the UAE is the last zone to transition from the traditional input-based contract approach to FM services ("I have a 10 floor building and I want an operative per floor to service it") to the output model which workplace technology allows; knowledge and feedback data via an asset register to match the manpower resource more accurately to a site's assets.

Pressures following the 2007/8 downturn were key to the wake-up call here and, more globally, have led to a greater interest all-round in the application of workplace technology in commercial and retail lease/rental management environments. There is greater impetus to ensure economic efficiency for both the maintenance and functioning of the sites involved and the scheduling and compliance of the leasing tenants' commitments and responsibilities.

Beyond FM
UK expectations of a corporate system are evolving beyond the purely FM/estates management function towards more of a HR role. It is increasingly a given that the system is effective in handling reactive and planned maintenance; the added workplace technology goal is now helping to deliver a working environment that encourages employee retention, satisfaction and engagement against a background of consolidation of offce space and the increasing impact of business communications technologies and bring your own technology.

The UK exhibits the most progressive attitude towards use and control of technology. APAC is still a touch more traditional, the UAE even more so. The balance between the accepted usage of personal devices as opposed to company devices clearly reflects this. So does the perceived role of the IT department as a business enabler as opposed to being a corporate IT policy enforcer!

The extensive, dispersed rural population in Australia leads to high use of local subcontract, one- or two-person businesses to support maintenance of remote assets. As such, their use of personal devices, increasingly smart phones, clearly favours the increased development of robust, simple apps that mimic the familiarity and intuitive interfaces that smart phone users are used to. This development is also vital to the increasing engagement of none-core users (clients, employees and others who are not service providers or FMs) with workplace technology.

The availability of mobile interfaces with workplace technology has obvious, immediate remote site appeal in the APAC and UAE scenarios. Interfacing for energy management purposes, too, clearly has an economic appeal. Room booking, hot desk management and signage facilities, however, are not yet, for the most part, agenda items outside the UK.  Workplace technology linkage with building information modelling, let alone statutory obligations around construction and building management, are also far from significant outside the UK.

Internet-of-things developments are clearly understood and anticipated. Though still hovering just off the to-do list outside the UK, IoT stands more of a chance of rapid take-up, as the ability to communicate with and respond to sensors on an increasing range of devices is the natural progression of the original CAFM/ BMS interconnection from which workplace technology has grown.

And so…
The overall picture is that workplace technology continues to validate itself in all locations as a vital business management tool. The position it occupies in these different markets is partly determined by the length of time it has been available and partly by the local environment. In terms of a product supplier's ability to meet the need for technology in each locale the business adage think global - act local holds true.

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FSI Global plc is a market-leading group of companies. Since 1990, FSI has been a major influence on CAFM and workplace technology for the built environment, delivering a truly versatile business tool. With offices in the UK, Australia and Dubai, and an international partner network, FSI is a global-leader: www.fsifm.com