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Survive to Thrive


The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on industries the world over, with social-distancing protocols shutting businesses and scuttling supply chains. The effects of lockdowns had many stores putting up “Closed” signs that didn’t come down for months.


The pandemic response in Canada varied among provinces, but overall, the national approach was relatively conservative. Nonessential stores were closed when the first wave of infections hit. They started reopening with limited capacity in June 2020 — but then largely shut down once again when a second wave took hold later in the year.


Facilities managers (FMs) have had to roll with the punches, establishing new work and safety protocols as understanding of the virus has evolved, adapting to ever-changing regulatory requirements and doing whatever it takes to keep customers and employees healthy and secure.


Every Day Feels Like ‘the Holidays’

While the pandemic closed stores, restaurants, offices and schools, FMs didn’t get a break. If anything, said Deanne Barker, FMP, Senior Manager Facilities for Best Buy Canada, the workload only increased.


“We were fortunate to have always been considered essential throughout Canada and all our big box stores remained open, to some extent, throughout the pandemic,” Barker said. But that meant a lot of on-the-fly thinking and quick pivoting as COVID-19 upended operations again and again. “In many ways, it has felt like ‘the holidays’ since last March as we have put our best foot forward to support our store employees and customers.”


Barker started her 15-year career at Best Buy opening new store locations across Canada. These days, her efforts are focused on keeping stores open and running, even under the most difficult circumstances.


As COVID-19 cases rose and fell in confounding, often scary waves, regulations, mandates and attitudes changed, as well — and not uniformly. Health and safety measures differed from province to province, affecting business operations and the facility needs.


Barker’s team collaborated with other departments at the office, as well as employees at the stores, to establish new ways to keep up with evolving demands.


“We changed operating models many times throughout the pandemic, which resulted in different needs from facilities,” she said. “Some services that we used were deemed nonessential, but we found ways to make sure our stores were maintained.”


Throughout the pandemic, she kept the health of employees and customers at the forefront of decision making, ramping up cleaning protocols at store locations. “In many cases, we have gone above and beyond what is regulated [or] mandated either federally or provincially in an effort to ensure that everyone in our stores feel as safe as possible,” she said.


Redefining Necessity

One of the biggest shocks of the pandemic came when global supply chains buckled under the pressure of shutdowns that interrupted manufacturing and shipping.


“While FM companies continued to service retail maintenance to dollar stores and pharmacies, the supply chain just exploded,” said Noah Sidel, Vice President of National Dispatch Services. “Suddenly, supplies that previously took two weeks for delivery would take two months.” At first, he said, when supply issues were restricted to China, clients were caught off guard by the fallout. Now, more than a year and a half in, operators are familiar with kinks in their supply chains and more understanding of delays.


“We’re transparent with clients,” Sidel said, telling them, “Here’s a quote, please expect delay.” He points out that the remaining issues differ depending on the product in question: “One supply could take three weeks longer, while another could take six months. Others have a completely unknown delivery date.”


Along with shortages and backups come the inevitable price hikes, which Sidel tries not to pass along to his clients, often providing items at cost. “Because we’re a repeat business model, I’d rather not increase the price, make a little less, and have my clients’ business for a long time,” he said. “We always push back on pricing with suppliers, we’ll push back a little harder now.” Barker said some of her costs have actually gone down as a result of shutdowns that put the kibosh on previously planned work. But of course, other costs have ballooned. “At the end of the day, we manage the budget and not the task,” she said. “There have been instances where we have decided to prioritize some projects over others.”


Sidel is seeing cost-saving patterns among his clientele, particularly mid-tier chain facilities, which are facing more struggles than their higher-end counterparts. They may wait to address smaller facilities repairs until there are more issues to attend to, then do it all at once.


Encouragingly, Sidel reported that in Q3, the amount of work coming in is back to pre-COVID levels. “There’s been this incredible wave of unlocking saved money,” he said, with companies ready to spend again after months of austerity.


Looking for Signs of What’s to Come

If the pandemic has taught FMs anything, it’s that you can’t predict what’s coming up around the corner — an especially daunting concept when trying to prepare.


“There’s no measurable sales data year-over-year anymore,” Sidel said. “Clients have no idea [of] their projected sales. Everyone is handicapped because we can’t forecast.”


He predicts it will take years for the Canadian market to recover from the pandemic, and emphasizes the importance of managing expectations — pushing where you can and accepting those things beyond your control.


“It’s very hard to find normal when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. The companies that are succeeding take the data and measure it with what their gut is telling them,” Sidel said. On the staffing front — which Sidel pointed out was an issue long before the pandemic hit, with labor shortages in Canada stretching back a decade — he said he’s focusing on making frontline workers feel valued and using subsidies to furlough people, ensuring jobs for experienced workers. Staffing for the field has been relatively easy, he said.


There are other hopeful signs of recovery, like the new food court at a mall in Montreal where business is booming as consumers jump at opportunities to get out and socialize once more.

“If we all take the risk together,” Sidel said, “the multi-site industry will recover and thrive.”


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