The coronavirus pandemic, as turbulent as it is, won’t delegitimize the challenges that were impacting our industry’s facilities management strategies before its onset. Rather, it may amplify some of them.
For example, enrollment instability was already an issue facing higher ed institutions. And it’s still unknown if the move to online learning for the spring semester, anxiety about a second round of the virus, or impacts to family and college finances will make it less likely for students to come back to campuses in the fall.
Moreover, the backlogs of facilities renewal projects have long been tied to the challenge of limited institutional resources. Now, room and board losses for the spring semester, and possibly beyond, will only add to short-term budget issues—not to mention revenues lost to departments whose activities have been canceled, such as athletics, events and research.
But higher ed leaders remain dedicated to stewardship responsibilities. They are increasingly interested in how their existing buildings and infrastructure, the care of which often represents 10%-15% of annual expenditures, are positioned to perform going forward. A data-driven strategy can help prioritize facilities needs and actualize the institutional vision for the future.
Compiling facility data
A facilities condition assessment (FCA) is a powerful tool for weighing day-to-day demands against long-term capital needs. But only if the FCA is done right. An FCA assembles the essential information for guiding facilities, finance and board decisions on how the property will support the campus going forward. Many of the details are likely known within and across the facilities organization, but the effort to assemble or update such an assessment is daunting given other ongoing obligations. The challenge becomes defining and then communicating what leadership needs to get out of the assessment and how it will be used.
The assessment can also include data about the financial pressures that will be placed on the capital budget, helping finance leaders identify and prioritize projects and maximize available resources.
The FCA can be an detailed effort that captures every piece of information about the equipment and materials in every nook and cranny on campus, empowering maintenance teams to optimize daily facilities’ care. The assessment can also include data about the financial pressures that will be placed on the capital budget, helping finance leaders identify and prioritize projects and maximize available resources. Even further, an FCA can be a vehicle to inform strategic or master planning efforts, ensuring that the existing campus is taken into account when developing a vision of how best to support the campus of the future.
Ensuring assessment success
It takes a tremendous amount of effort to complete an FCA. Performing one with the wrong focus will still provide valuable results, but it may not help the institution move forward effectively. Level setting to find the right mix of objectives is essential to making an assessment worth the commitment and investment.
Answer these nine questions first to make sure the assessment outcome will be actionable:
- Is my facilities organization prepared to use the detailed information?
- Are they staffed with the right skills to manage the information and implement a new operational work behavior?
- How will the organization’s knowledge be incorporated into the effort?
- Is the institution in a position to make capital investments today on the demands that will be outlined?
- What will happen if those investments weren’t made?
- Do I know what my institutional priorities are for spending the resources that I do have?
- Can the organization imagine what the future will look like yet?
- Will the physical campus remain the same or will it be evolving in some way?
- Can the community see beyond today yet?
Too often, a higher ed institution will grapple with these kinds of direction-setting questions and hope the FCA will provide answers—that simply getting the data together will establish direction. But this isn’t realistic. An FCA is at its core a technical document. Without the right balance between the level of detail, institutional context and strategic intent, it won’t provide the actionable knowledge necessary to move an organization forward.
An FCA is a powerful tool when organizations are intentional about incorporating the data as part of an overall strategy for guiding the institution forward. Taking time to consider how it can inform other efforts and connect to an overall institutional strategy will make the investment worthy of everyone’s effort.
Pete Zuraw is vice president of market strategy and development for Gordian. He has gained facilities management and planning experience through work in organizations serving higher education institutions, state agencies and faith communities for more than 27 years.
UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.