What Keeps Facilities Leaders Up at Night?


What Keeps Facilities Leaders Up at Night?

Episode 148. April 25, 2023.

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EAB’s Michael Fischer and Maya Graham discuss findings from a new survey of higher education facilities leaders. The survey explores topics such as talent retention, carbon neutrality efforts, deferred maintenance, space utilization, and computerized maintenance management systems.

Maya and Michael offer insights and advice for facilities managers on ways to prioritize and make meaningful progress on all these challenges.



0:00:12.1 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. On today's episode, we explore the findings of a new survey of higher education facilities leaders to find out what keeps them up at night. And if you think the issues that they worry about, things like deferred maintenance, making campus buildings greener, and optimizing space utilization, aren't relevant to your work, allow us to dis-abuse you of that notion. Give these folks to listen and enjoy.


0:00:46.0 Michael Fischer: Hello, and welcome to EAB's Office Hours. My name is Michael Fischer, I work in EAB's Advisory Services Group, with a focus on facilities-related issues. Facilities is at the core, hidden or discretely available for many of the pressing issues facing higher education today. And we at EAB have looked at facilities management topics for a number of years now. As part of that research, we do an annual survey of facilities and estate leaders around North America, Europe, and Australia, and New Zealand, trying to understand what are the most pressing issues and how they might impact our campuses today. With me today to talk about the findings from our latest iteration of the survey is my colleague, Maya Graham. Maya, can you introduce yourself to everyone and let them know your role here at EAB?

0:01:40.5 Maya Graham: Yes. Hi. Thanks, Michael. I'm very excited to be here today. So, my technical title here at EAB is a Strategic Leader of Research, and what that ultimately means is that I serve as a conduit or a main point of contact between our university partners and the research that we produce. So really, I just wanna make sure that they're utilizing our resources to proactively solve problems. So, I've been working with the facilities partnership specifically for over two years now, but prior to my time at EAB, I actually worked in student activities where our department was shared with facilities and so we had a very, very close relationship. And so I'm just excited to be able to come in and speak a little bit more about what facilities leaders are experiencing.

0:02:25.9 MF: Well, we're glad to have that perspective here today. Well, Maya, in this iteration of the survey, which was done in December of 2022, we had just under 50 facilities and estate leaders from around the world who responded and shared their thoughts and data with us. What was your general reaction to the survey results, what would you say is the key headline take away in terms of what facilities leaders are most worried about?

0:02:51.4 MG: Sure, sure. So I will say I'm not the best with headlines, but I did want to at least reference the five key findings of the survey. So, regardless of region or institution type, the ones that came up were talent management, financial pressures, carbon neutrality, deferred maintenance, and space utilization, and then also satisfaction with Computerized Maintenance Management Systems or CMMS. And so this probably doesn't come to a surprise to our listeners, but that number one concern among professionals that we surveyed was attracting and retaining talented facilities professionals. So, this not only aligns with what we're seeing across the landscape of higher ed, but also what's playing out with many different industries around the country as we know. And so I know that we have discussed this before, Michael, but something that is a bit more specific to facilities really is this idea of the quote-unquote "grain of the trades" and really recognizing that majority of employees are close to or over that age of 50. And so as folks begin to retire, we're just not seeing that same number of younger employees applying for those particular roles, which as we can imagine makes for a huge, huge challenge.

0:04:09.9 MF: Yeah, in some sense, higher education is the victim of its own success. We've done such a good job of encouraging employees to enter into our universities to get four-year degrees, that a lot of the trades and apprenticeship programs have therefore suffered from lack of pipeline, which now makes it more difficult for us to maintain spaces, to clean them, to have landscapers and grounds keepers beautify our campuses. And the data that we collected this year, in particular, it was HVAC technicians, janitors, electricians, plumbers and landscapers, which were the top five most difficult to fill or retain positions. And I would say that, again, as you mentioned, Maya, his isn't surprising, this is an issue that facilities have been faced with for decades. But I think we're starting to feel the impact of that across campus, where it's more noticeable that there are just fewer people available to service things and people are there for having to make sacrifices on how often their offices are cleaned or prioritize different spaces for different levels of maintenance. As well as just the cost of operating our various different shops and trades organizations, having to contract them out if we don't the talent naturally in our labor force in order to pursue them?

0:05:30.0 MG: Yeah, for sure.

0:05:31.9 MF: Or are you hearing anything specific from your conversations with facilities leaders of how the problem is manifesting itself on their campuses?

0:05:41.4 MG: I think that one of the biggest challenges really comes down to university finances and really having the budget to manage competitive compensation for staff. And so I would definitely say that inflation is impacting that, so it's not just about making the cost of bread go up, but it's impacting things like building materials and the need for staff to receive higher wages, and so that presents a really huge challenge. Very broadly, I would say that there are constraints on enrollment as well, which definitely affects the budget, but there are a number of institutions that are not necessarily impacted by low enrollment. But for those who are, they have to take into account those competitive salaries as they are making decisions about prioritizing their highest needs. And one of the things...

0:06:34.3 MF: That ties nicely right, Maya, to that second priority area of financial constraints and limitations that facilities leaders raised. It's not just about talent, but it's also about material procurement, it's about utilities and operation, just everything is so much more expensive, which requires both a focus on cost-cutting and efficiency, but as well about generating new revenues or thinking about better ways to request and allocate resources from the institution to facilities priorities. I know that some people think that their custodians or their facilities operations is a low priority in a tight budgetary environment. But if you want to have that clean space or you wanna occupy a building that's safe and is unlikely to catch fire or have a ceiling tile fall on you or have the water line break, you're gonna need to spend that extra money to ensure that the facilities teams have the resources necessary to get in there and source parts that may take years to get from the supply ships off the docks and into the university leader's hands.

0:07:41.4 MG: For sure, for sure. And I think that facilities often flies under the radar, it's a little bit, I think under-appreciated in the grand scheme of things, when we're thinking about higher ed. And so even for... When we are thinking about what attracts students to a campus, it's those facilities, it's the buildings, it's those amenities that a lot of times are being overseen by the facilities leaders. And so we definitely want to make sure that we continue to take those things into account when we're specifically thinking about budgets.

0:08:13.9 MF: Yeah, in fact, in our most recent data that our Enrollment Services Division at EAB collected, asking students why they chose to go to one institution over any of the others that they got into, things related to physical infrastructure, like location, campus environment, student facilities ranked in the top 10 alongside things like affordability and career outcomes. So, certainly something that students and their families are keeping in mind when they decide which institutions to enroll with them.

0:08:42.5 MG: Definitely, definitely. So, lets move on to another big concern that we've heard from facilities leaders, namely how they are managing the very public, in many cases, commitment that universities have made to achieve carbon net zero by a certain date. So, as in many cases, achieving these goals is definitely easier said than done, particularly when the date to achieve it by is quite ambitious, we've certainly seen some ambitious dates. But Michael, what kinds of challenges do facilities managers face on this front? And how do you think that they're feeling about the magnitude of the task, given the budget constraints that they're forced to stay within?

0:09:23.5 MF: There's a lot of technical jargon that we can get into of comparing scopes one, two, and three, and neutral versus positive carbon emissions and what exactly should count here. But by and large, many universities are constrained by governmental mandates or association levels that require them to set very ambitious dates, this is particularly true outside of the United States, where these expectations are being set. But the vast majority of institutions that have chosen the date have chosen 2050, which I tend to maybe cynically think is kicking the can as far down the road as is politically viable. And then we might see some fluctuation in those final days as we approach them there. Now, for most institutions, scope one and two are the only things that fall directly within the facilities leaders perspective, which are things related directly to utilities, infrastructure, water waste, those types of things. But oftentimes, for universities, it's the scope three emissions, which are things related to tangential activities like travel, transportation, study abroad, that are the real open questions. And so I hear a lot of facilities leaders say is, "Hey, we know we can get the scope one and two, if we have the resources and the time to do it, these dates are ambitious."

0:10:45.1 MF: But what really I'm focused on is how do I start a conversation on campus and get everybody involved with thinking about these broader mission level topics that I can't directly control because they are outside of my purview remit and expertise. Studies, faculty, staff, stakeholders and the community boards of trustees, cabinets, everybody has a role to play in achieving those carbon net zero goals. So, getting all those stakeholders on the same page and gain them to think differently and realistically about sustainability and some of the trade-offs that might have to be made, I think is the core and crux of the argument. Just to take one example, will we let people travel abroad as much as we have historically? Certainly important from a globalized university perspective, providing experiences to students. But those admissions from those trips abroad are a major component to the university’s admissions responsibilities. And so there is open conversations around, do we limit that level of travel for our institution moving forward? And what consequences that might have on what services we provide and our relative position in the rankings and prestige across the world?

0:12:00.8 MG: Yeah, yeah, that's a good point, because as you mentioned, we often want to relegate it to one specific office or one person or one student organization, and it really is... It's everyone's job. And so we don't always think about things like study abroad or faculty travel, but it certainly plays into the overall big picture kind of landscape of things. And that actually reminds me of one institution in particular that we often profile American university, right here in Washington, DC. And they were the first, and I wanna say the largest university in the United States to achieve carbon neutrality. So, they actually set it to get it by a goal of 2020, they beat that goal by two years, so very ambitious, but they hit it in 2018.

0:12:51.4 MG: And so they were highly focused on those scopes of one and two, but they definitely have some creative ways to hit that scope three of offsetting their missions, including... They actually have a program where they distribute energy efficient cookware in Kenya to offset Study Abroad travel. So, they have done some creative and some really incredible work. And so that just has to be something that we take into account, something that we think about is, how can we be creative? How can we offset emissions to make sure that we're meeting that goal of carbon neutrality? So, it's complicated, it's a very detailed process, but I think it's inevitable, and we're seeing that that really is a goal for a lot of institutions across the landscape now, so.

0:13:39.1 MF: Americans are another great example of that, because one, they did such a great job of diversifying the partners that they worked with there, trying to find every nook and cranny, every possible angle. That way, if one initiative didn't work out, they have three others that would spring up from the ground to support their engagement in this front. But also because they had ended up a lot of pressure around those offset, there's a lot of controversy with carbon offsets in the industry right now of whether that's green washing and whether they actually do their intended job. And so they've done a lot of work to try to transparently communicate how they select their offset partners, how they're ensuring the accountability and auditing of those activities, so that they can maintain the relative level of success they achieved back in 2018, 2019.

0:14:31.4 MG: Yeah. And it's an ongoing process, and I think that people have to keep that in mind as you don't just achieve it and then that's it, you have to continuously look at those metrics and those goals and make sure that they're staying present and relevant to what we're finding out as far as being carbon-neutral. So, that's definitely something to keep in mind.

0:14:52.1 MF: And certainly sustainability is connected to that fourth priority of our facilities and the state's leaders. Because as one university leader told us, the greenest building you can ever build is the one that you choose not to build, and certainly there is lots of conversation about the future of campus-based design and its impact in particular on deferred maintenance, that come up in conversations with facilities leaders recently. Now, we've done a lot of research over 2022 on campus space and I'm sure many of our listeners have seen some of that research play out. But, Maya, I'd love to hear from your conversations on the ground with facilities leaders, what kinds of spaces are people prioritizing right now? Where is the level of focus and investment when it comes to campus-based design?

0:15:37.8 MG: That's a really good question. And I think one of the biggest takeaways from the conversations that I'm having is really the importance of being able to take a step back and understanding how spaces are utilized before decisions are made. And so if a space is being requested, is it actually being utilized by the requester? Could it benefit from technology upgrades? Could it be repurposed to be more multi-faceted? One of the conversations that comes to mind for me is a conversation with Ohio University. And they're actually doing a total overhaul on their space portfolio and really re-imagining their strategy in order to become more efficient.

0:16:20.0 MG: So, some of the big ticket items, I would say that they focused on were live tracking who's coming in and out of the spaces and how many times, at what times? Comparing space-scheduling systems, it's interesting because, just depending on the institution, you can have as many as 10 space-scheduling systems, you could have two, you can have five. And so really figuring out if there are ones that could be sunset that you no longer need, and could you centralize that process a little bit more. And then I think the last thing that they were really focused on was a space governance and determining which departments own which spaces, and if they need to make the case for reassignment. And so, of course, this can certainly be an uncomfortable process, but I would argue that and it's necessary if you want to be as effective as possible.

0:17:12.8 MF: Yeah, I think it's a great point. It really speaks to the consensus building that's necessary around changing how space is utilized on campus, facilities can lead and trying to create the best designs, be as efficient as possible with construction, showcasing the art of the possible. But ultimately it's all leaders on campus, all interested parties who have to make the conscious decision of, let's better use our space we have as opposed to building new and suffering the financial environmental consequences of them. Or we as an institution needs to make a priority effort to reduce our deferred maintenance backlog and prevent this debt or space and for infrastructure and for technology from growing to be too much for future generations of our university employees and students to have to deal with there. That requires consensus, building communication, and really everybody has a stake in the game, 'cause we all spend time on campus, all campus is really people in place. Staff, students in space, that's what a university is, by and large, the tangible things you can touch. And so we wanna make sure that we're keeping those the top of mind as we're making those decisions.

0:18:25.5 MG: For sure. It's like, who doesn't utilize space? Whether you're in a classroom, whether in a social space, whether you're eating at the cafeteria, you're utilizing space in some way, and so keep that in mind. So, I think that that brings us to a final, notable takeaway, the relative satisfaction or dissatisfaction with Computerized Maintenance Management Systems. So Michael, would you explain in layman's terms, what CMMS is? What it's supposed to do for facilities managers? And then is the technology actually delivering on its promise? What do you think?

0:19:02.2 MF: So the CMMS basically serves as the central data hub for facilities activities. The most important thing that it does is it serves as a work order management system, it's where the intake for requests, as small as changing a light bulb to as large as executing on a major redesign get filtered in and get assigned and prioritized to various trades people or custodians or grounds people, and then connecting with the tools and materials that they're going to need. And more advanced iterations of these systems can be used to try to forecast what kind of maintenance issues are gonna take down the way, look for efficiencies in terms of the distribution of staff or the use of materials, and try to accurately predict how much financial impact different projects are going to take.

0:19:50.6 MF: Compared to 2021, the levels of satisfaction in 2022 and CMMS systems plummeted down from 90% to about 35% positive experience with CMMSs. Now, to some of that, that's a very technical, only in the facility's world perspective that needs to be considered, but I think it is important from a university perspective because as we try to be more data-driven, we need to interconnect all of our data platforms, our enrollment systems need to speak to our student success systems, our financial systems need to speak to our advancement systems. And that includes our facility systems, especially as we invest in more smart center technology and Internet of Things, materials within our buildings, we can leverage that data to be more useful in how we deploy finances, how we think about the student use of spaces, how we think about assigning classrooms and the way people move across campus. But that's only as good as the facilities systems that we have in place.

0:20:51.9 MF: And if there is so much dissatisfaction with CMMSs within the facilities population, that might stymie the ability to try to interweave these systems and be a more data-driven university writ large. Now, I think that there may be some opportunities for leaders to revisit some of the new modules that the major vendors have put out there, or re-address or do a re-orientation in the post-pandemic environment with these here. But certainly data-driven facilities is a key concept and something that we're actively doing research on as well. One of our chief priorities in facilities research this year is on the smart campus of the future and the better integration of facilities and IT-related activities in this new multi-modal space that we're designing.

0:21:38.7 MG: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. And it feels like that conversation was always a looming one, but since the pandemic, it's expedited that process. And it definitely feels like facilities leaders are more focused on that conversation and connecting more closely with their IT divisions.

0:21:57.0 MF: Well, Maya, I know we're coming up on the end of our time together here. So, I think it might be great if I ask you what you think are the big key takeaways for anybody on the line? Not just those who work in facilities or have a direct say in any building designs or sustainability initiatives. What would you say the data that we collected from the survey suggest all university stakeholders should have to consider over '20 to '23?

0:22:24.3 MG: That's a great question, Michael. So, I think that there are probably two things that come up for me, I think the first one is, and take the time to invest in your staff. As I had mentioned previously, I really do believe that facility staff were some of the most overlooked and under-appreciated during the pandemic, they showed up day in and day out to really be there for institutions and I think unfortunately, we're still seeing some of the ramifications of that under appreciation. So, I think that for any facilities leaders who are tuning in or university leaders in general, definitely take the time to invest in your staff, I certainly believe that you will see the return on that investment by creating more in-house programs, enhancing staff morale and just finding more ways to be equitable and appreciating those who do this work everyday. I would say the second thing is that it's everyone's job when we're thinking about carbon neutrality, when we're thinking about spaces. It is not beneficial to only think of it as something that the facilities division needs to be concerned about. If everyone considers it to be their role, then I think it will make it easier for everyone at the end of the day. And so I wanna turn that question over to you, Michael, now, what do you think? What are some of the top piece of advice that you would share?

0:23:43.8 MF: Well, you took two really good ones there, Maya, I don't know how good my answers are gonna be here. But, I'll list two as well, I'd say, first, I think that people underestimate the impact that facilities has on strategic priorities on campus. The nature of enrolling students and making your campus as attractive and safe and as appreciative as possible to the outcomes on student success, of ensuring students have spaces to study, that they have well-lit pathways so they feel safe at night, that they can easily move between spaces and feel well and secure with the ventilation and lighting that's available. All of these things play a key role to achieving the university strategic priorities, but because so much of facilities work takes his place behind the scenes, under the floors, on the roof, behind the walls, it can really be difficult to realize the impact of those activities.

0:24:40.6 MF: I might even suggest our viewers imagine a world where facilities didn't show up one day, imagine a world where there were no maintenance, no technicians, no custodians, those ground peoples, no auxiliary services, no transportation officials, no planners and architects. Just imagine how much more difficult your life would be, how many things that you rely on, the personnel, those staff that as, Maya, you said have felt burnt out and under-appreciated, because they had to come to campus throughout the pandemic, and they haven't gotten the advantage of flexible work and hybrid working arrangements that a lot of our other staff have, imagine how difficult it would be without those activities there.

0:25:20.0 MF: The second thing I would say is that even as we exit the pandemic period, and as we turn to new normal, people need to realize that there are permanent unsolvable problems that the pandemic has had on facilities, and those are gonna have consequences on campus for decades to come. Everything is much more expensive and it's going to take a lot more time to execute on projects and budgets will have to be higher. And that will require us to think differently about prioritizing this praise and prioritizing activities to meet those ambitious sustainability goals. We're not gonna return to the days of cheap materials and cheap labor, everything is gonna require more conscientious investment and more transparent communication, in order for all the stakeholders who are impacted by these projects to feel like they're being listened to and for facilities and their teams to be able to execute successfully on those projects. And there are gonna be some hardships, people are going to feel the frustration when they're told that they're not able to get private offices anymore, 'cause there aren't resources available or told that we can't clean their spaces as regularly as we want, because we just can't hire enough genders at the rages that we're able to afford as a university. So, be cognizant of that and start looking for opportunities for trade-offs to say, "Hey, we really need to do X, so let's yield on Y and Z in order to free up those resources to support those efforts."

0:26:43.5 MG: Yeah, yeah. It won't be easy, but it will be for the benefit of the greater good. For sure.

0:26:49.4 MF: Well, Maya, it's been an absolute pleasure, thanks for sharing what you're hearing from facilities leaders on the ground today. That's Office Hours with EAB, and I'm sure there'll be more conversations to come.

0:27:00.4 MG: Yeah, thank you so much, Michael. This is fun.


0:27:07.8 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we explore ways that Northern Arizona University is streamlining student access to mental health resources. Until then, thank you for your time.


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