The move towards smart buildings across the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar is gathering pace. As organisations across all sectors increasingly compete on client and employee experience, smart buildings are seen as critical in providing workers with an attractive and modern working environment which promotes wellness, engagement and, critically, workforce productivity.
At the same time, smart buildings also enable organisations to drive cost efficiencies through reduced energy consumption and data-driven decision-making, allowing them to run more environmentally-friendly and sustainable operations.
The shift is being driven by huge advances in the sophistication and use of Internet of Things (IoT) technology across the enterprise space in the Middle East. Gartner forecasts that globally the enterprise and automotive Internet of Things (IoT) market will grow to 5.8 billion endpoints this year, a 21% increase from 2019. And it is building automation which will see the highest rate of growth this year, with a 42% uplift in the number of connected devices being deployed.
A once-in-a-generation opportunity for Facility Management (FM)
Anybody within the FM industry will know that the focus on smart buildings represents a huge opportunity for the FM function (whether in-house or outsourced) to assume a critical, strategic role within businesses over the coming years.
Facilities management professionals will be responsible for driving through change within most organisations, tasked with identifying, integrating and managing connected devices and services which can enhance end-user experience.
Wide Scale implementation of IoT devices (whether in newly-built smart buildings or through retro-fitting) will mean that facilities management leaders have a wealth of data and insight at their disposal, empowering them and business leaders to make more informed, strategic decisions, and to deliver quantifiable value.
Putting the user at the heart of smart buildings
Whilst today there are only a few examples of genuinely smart buildings in operation, within the next two years we’ll see a wide range of real estate opening up which is ‘connected’ in every way – where lights, sensors, windows, HVAC units, doors and CCTV are integrated into a single network.
FM and business leaders will have access to dashboards which enable them to manage and measure the performance of both property and people, and the link between them, and to drive improvements in energy usage. Indeed, according to a study by CBRE, 75% of building occupiers cite better data quality and accuracy as key to achieving their strategic real estate goals.
However, in the excitement of the new technologies being applied within the built environment and the scale and richness of the data that this will be deliver, it’s important to remember that smart buildings should ultimately be about providing people with an environment in which they feel healthy, motivated, inspired and empowered to fulfil their potential. Smart buildings should deliver the seamless, personalised experiences that people now expect across all areas of their lives (and in particular younger generations entering the workforce who have grown up in a digital-first world).
Why cleaning must not be left behind in shift to smart buildings
To this point, ensuring that spaces are clean and hygienic is absolutely critical. No matter how innovative and connected a building might be, if it is not clean and does not meet the heightened expectations of end users, then it will not be an attractive proposition to workers or customers. The ability of FM leaders to increase cleaning performance and ensure required servicing levels are met and exceeded will make or break the success of any smart building initiative.
Despite arguably being the most critical component of facilities management delivery, cleaning is so often overlooked when it comes to strategic or visionary discussions around the future of the industry and, indeed, the smart building environment. This is partly due to a severe lack of change and innovation within the cleaning industry over recent years and also down to perceptions of cleaning being a tactical, low-value service within FM.
Certainly, for the majority of FM leaders in the Gulf countries, delivering cleaning services is viewed as a severe, ongoing headache, with crippling resourcing challenges that were encountered with flight bans across countries, extremely tight margins and a high risk of poor performance which can ruin client relationships.
However, FM leaders need to re-assess their view of cleaning for two reasons. Firstly, there needs to be a recognition that smart buildings and changing usage of buildings require new and more innovative approaches to cleaning. A smart building, in use 24 hours a day and being deployed in an agile way by individuals and teams, represents a very different proposition in terms of cleaning than a traditional workspace, with rigid hours and patterns of use.
Secondly, most FM leaders will know that the ability to drive performance and efficiency within commercial cleaning is at breaking point, mostly due to severe resourcing challenges. Blue collar labour costs in most Gulf countries have risen due to the fact that most of the labour are expatriates and the costs of recruiting them has only continued to rise. Situations like what we’ve seen in COVID-19 have exposed the vulnerabilities in being able to scale up or scale down as quickly as one would like when most of the workforce are expatriates, hence making sure one is optimally staffed has only become more difficult.
Smart buildings need smart cleaning
In response to this staffing crisis, forward thinking FM companies (ISS and Sodexo to name a couple) are adopting new approaches to cleaning which directly address these resourcing and cost challenges, and which more closely align to and support their smart buildings strategies. Rather than viewing commercial cleaning as peripheral to their innovation plans, FM leaders are placing it alongside security, heating and lighting as a key component of delivering on their future vision. They are ensuring that their smart buildings have in place the smart cleaning operations they require.
A great example of smart cleaning is the implementation of cobotics within the cleaning industry. Cobots are collaborative robots which carry out repetitive or strenuous tasks which would otherwise be performed by a person, but they work alongside that individual or team, not in their place. So within FM and cleaning, we’re already seeing cobots being deployed to undertake vacuuming, freeing up cleaning teams to focus on higher value tasks which can enhance service levels and make a real difference to end users, supporting that customer-centric focus within smart buildings strategy.
The commercial benefits of cobots are hugely compelling, delivering greater efficiency and performance on specific tasks, improving margins and directly addressing many of the resourcing challenges mentioned above. Cobots empower cleaning staff to take on more varied and fulfilling work (meaning greater engagement and less churn), whilst letting machines take care of repetitive tasks where they deliver a higher and more consistent level of performance.
What’s more, cobots themselves are smart, connected devices which capture a range of cleaning data as they go, allowing FM professionals to measure cleaning performance, track improvements and continually optimise operations. Cobotics gives FM and business leaders the data and insight to demonstrate how innovation within their operating models is delivering a cleaner, more hygienic building environment, and accelerating the wider smarter buildings agenda.
Time to get smart about cleaning in the Middle East
So as FM leaders in the Middle East develop and refine their strategies to take advantage of the exciting opportunities that the smart buildings agenda will bring to the industry over the next five years, it’s essential that cleaning is at the forefront of their thinking, alongside design, networking, security and everything else. If cleaning is overlooked within the FM industry and seen as a function that is too tactical, boring and difficult to address and improve, then it is likely to restrict businesses’ abilities to drive service excellence and to derail the wider smart buildings agenda in the long run.
However, with smart cleaning, FM leaders can transform cleaning into a truly ‘connected’, innovation-driven function which enhances end user experience, drives competitive difference and accelerates the journey towards smart buildings.
About the author:
Stefano Bensi – General Manager. Former executive at IBM and President of IBM-acquired company, with expertise in start-ups, Internet of Things, cloud and now robotics. Diverse management experience in sales, marketing, product management and ops.