Industry Insights: Robert Larsen

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Robert Larsen is the Facilities Manager for Mercy Hospital, a private, not-for-profit surgical hospital in Dunedin, New Zealand. With years of experience in the complex world of healthcare facilities management, we sat down with Robert in May 2023 to get his insights of the industry.

How did you get into facilities management?

I started out as a fitter and turner in charge of a foundry, the only engineer, and tasked with looking after all their assets.

At the time, they didn’t have any asset management practices in place. I started getting a bit of a taste for it through contacts outside of the business, and started introducing some of what I was learning there.

I eventually moved on to working in facilities for a learning institution, which was the first time I’d worked closely with a facilities manager. That really piqued my interest, and so when the role with Mercy came up, I jumped at the opportunity.

Moving into facilities management was a challenge, very different to what I’ve trained in. FM is one of those things that is behind the scenes, people often don’t realise there is a whole process of fixing things and making sure things run smoothly.

What is unique about facilities management in healthcare?

Facilities management is about making sure spaces work as they should. Healthcare is a heavily regulated industry, so the challenge is in the standards applicable to these spaces.

For example, in an office building, you might have a HVAC system, and you need it to deliver a certain amount of air per second. But in healthcare, that HVAC system also has to be HEPA filtered, has to meet a certain number of cycle changes per hour and has to be closely monitored.

The steepest learning curve for me in facilities management has been the compliance stuff. Making sure we’ve got all the correct safety systems in place, they’re all working, all appropriately reported on etc.

Everything from our fire safety systems, to stairwells, doors and ventilation requires some kind of “paperwork”. For me, that was the challenge as it was so outside my wheelhouse. I have a strong background in and passion for the maintenance side of things, but knowing what documentation is needed, and where it needs to go was something I had to learn once I started.

What are some of the biggest challenges you see in facilities management?

I think compliance is a challenge for everyone, things are always changing, laws, regulations and standards are very dynamic, particularly in healthcare.

I think for some coming into the industry, another major challenge is the mindset shift. There’s so much to know, you’ll only get ahead by leveraging the expertise of others. Coming from an engineering background, I was always very self-sufficient, but in facilities management, you have to learn to ask questions.

There is no such thing as a dumb question in FM, there’s such a vast amount to learn that the only way to get ahead is to ask questions when you’re not sure, or want clarification or validation.

What are the core skills needed to succeed in facilities management?

Time management and prioritisation are absolutely key in my opinion. You need to know that you’re dealing with the right things at the right time, and not burning time on something less important.

Above all else though, you need to be able to talk to people. Communicate, manage expectations, let people know what is going on. Being able to communicate, and build relationships is critical to being a good FM.

For me, mentorship and asking questions has been key to developing as a facilities manager. Nothing can substitute having good people to talk to and get the facts from. Good process development is something that’s important to get right at the start, and talking to people, and sharing information can really help there.

What changes do you expect to see in facilities management in the next decade?

Facilities management is becoming a lot more digitised. It’s less about walking around with keys checking doors, and more about working with automated door systems. Having skills in the digital arena is going to become really important. I think we’re going to start seeing totally different ways of doing things, and technology like AI will start to play a big role.

We also recognise there’s a need to reduce our carbon footprint and arrive at carbon neutral. We need to start building systems today to allow that to happen in the future. At Mercy, we’re a community who want to get that happening because it is the right thing to do, but it also represents significant savings.

Technology that allows us to accurately assess our carbon footprint and uncover opportunities to reduce it will continue to have a good uptake in the next few years.

What changes would you like to see in facilities management? 

Given the value in mentorship and knowledge sharing, I’d like to see the FM community be more proactive in that area. We don’t need a high degree of confidentiality in our processes and things like that, because essentially, we’re all really doing the same thing, looking after a space.

It has always been difficult to effectively share knowledge. FM is a relatively new field, and historically has been focussed on commercial buildings, rather than FM’s looking after a particular site.

I would also like to see more of an adoption of digital solutions. There’s a general need to develop those kinds of skills, and knowledge sharing is key to that.

What do you love about working in facilities management?

The people! I do love the maintenance, and it’s always been a passion, but I really enjoy all the different people I get to play with in the sandpit. I deal with such a variety of people, and it is such a joy to be able to help them to fix their issues.

I really enjoy being in a healthcare facility for the complexity and the challenge. Mercy specifically is so rewarding because it is not for profit, everything goes straight back to patient care, or to charity.

We’re not funding shareholders’ Lamborghinis or anything, it’s all about giving back to the community, and it’s somewhere I am really proud to work. I never have a day where I come to work and I’m not enjoying it.