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Workers who work at your company but not for your company, many of those people are employed by a facilities management firm.

In May, I attended two conferences on facilities management and the future of work. The first was Worktech 11, in New York, the other, was the European Facilities Management Conference in Vienna, Austria. Certain themes came up in both meetings that suggest uncertainties not only for facilities management, but for business in general.

Overarching the deeper uncertainties is the recurring theme of organizational configuration. The question of organizational configuration raises another question: how much can a firm outsource and still retain an operationally autonomous character? How much can it outsource and remain differentiated in the market? How much can it outsource and remain innovative? If future organizations consist of smaller and smaller collections of employee specialists and larger percentages of outsourced functions held together by a hodgepodge of contractual obligations (most of which are not transparent to other outsourced partners), how then, is the organization defined?

So much of management training and management consulting is focused on getting the most from employees, but in this age of the conglomerate organization, shouldn't organizations focus more on partner management as an integrated, strategic competency and less on employees in isolation. Not only are individual employee roles often dependent on the partners they manage, but increasingly, the firm itself relies on its partners for execution, for quality and for operation excellence. Is the core competency of the firm to become the expert in financial management, brand and partner management alone?

I will leave you to ponder those questions while I provide a deeper context about uncertainties specific to facilities management and the organizations that employ this resource.

What model of work will prevail?

A major uncertainty for businesses, and one particularly acute for facilities management, comes in the form of the work model. Will people want to come to work? Will sustainability drive them away as firms realize the benefits of home work and commuting times given back in the form of increased productivity? As firms allow more and more people to make the choice about where and when they work, the facilities teams will need to be intimately involved in order to scale their resources, perhaps even offer new capabilities such as home office set-up, safety and security services.

With a range of possible work models, facilities management firms can use scenario planning to explore different models and understand the impact of those models on their businesses, and to drive strategic discussions that will perhaps lead to innovative new products and services.

How much can/will the facilities management industry take on?

There is no one definition of facilities management. The International Facilities Management Association (IFMA) defines facilities management as "a profession that encompasses multiple disciplines to ensure functionality of the built environment by integrating people, place, processes and technology. Europe and the U.K. actually have published standards that define facilities management, but as I heard during the conferences, those definitions are being challenged by evolving business models, models of work and the opportunity for commercial firms to expand their services.

Facilities management firms typically offer a variety of services including:

  • Health and Safety
  • Fire Safety
  • Security
  • Maintenance (including automation, heat, air, ventilation, grounds, paint and fabric)
  • Statutory testing and inspections
  • Operational roles (ranging from waste management and photocopying to reception and pest control)
  • Lease negotiations
  • Disaster recovery and emergency response
  • Facilities models
  • Facilities planning and design

As a former employee of an aerospace company who kept a hardhat, an orange vest and a flashlight in his office as part of an emergency response team, that list of non-employee services is rather extensive—and under maintenance and operational roles I just scratched the surface of the services some contractors provide. In the Michael Porter model of core competencies, it would be hard to argue that that any of these jobs equated to the level of engineer or Vice President of Sales, but in the past, these were fellow employees, each of them invited to company picnics and parties, all wrapped into the same blanket of anxiety and expectation during annual reviews, all equally triumphant when a new contract arrived, or remorseful at the loss of an long-time customer.

Perhaps this isn't the place to ask this question, but I will ask it anyway: who owns the emotional architecture of an organization? For many outsourced workers, their sense of identity is torn between where they work and who they work with and who they work for. And "regular" employees have a difficult time reconciling their behaviors and actions with policies regarding outsourced employees. This lack of emotional architecture creates a clear uncertainty about how to maintain organizational effectiveness and organizational well-being in the years ahead.

Public sector leadership

We often equate our public sector with space, not by function. We refer broadly to "what's going on in Washington," when discussing politics rather than refer to what a particular department or congressional committee is doing. I had a fascinating discussion with a facilities manager for a large European city who shared with me the role space plays in politics. Politicians, he informed me, understand the equivalency that constituents put between space and accomplishment. When politicians want to demonstrate their political prowess, they build a building, and they often do it grand style with much investment in aesthetics and design. The building is, after all, a lasting legacy to those who negotiated its funding—people's whose name sometimes adorn the building, or perhaps just hang over entrance portals or on brass plaques hung in hallways.

Political-building-grandstanding, however, doesn't usually take into account the long view of owning and maintaining such a structure. This young man shared with me the shock from politicians when they are informed their new, multi-story stained-glass windows require renting a special crane to keep them clean or that the new wood floors requires thousands of Euros to keep them shinny and unweathered—these politicians seem to uniformly respond with: "no one told us." In other words, buildings are seldom built with realistic maintenance budgets.

As politicians the world over stress energy efficiency, sustainable practices and many, the mantra of learning to live within the country's means, it isn't clear if they will actually demonstrate leadership at the most fundamental level by figuring out how to effectively maintain their current structures, and how to plan structures that can be maintained over time. Will politicians take the long view as long as they are held to account only for their current term when entering a re-election cycle? Will the public sector be a model for sustainable facilities?

I see political leadership as a litmus test for sustainability. If government organizations, and their Non-governmental organization (NGO) counterparts, cannot design for sustainability, and invest in retrofits for sustainability and lower-cost maintenance, then their rhetoric about sustainability and ecology will continue to fall softly on ears waiting for eyes to demonstrate that words lead to action.

Strategic role

Like other roles, in my experience IT is the best example, if an organization is trying to find its strategic role, its seat at the executive table, then it is probably one where senior leadership is questioning is position as a core competency. At both conferences, discussions about the elevation of facilities management to a strategic role in the organization were everywhere, in both the public and the private sector. With the broad set of services coming under the umbrella of facilities management, many of which are increasingly customer facing, does the outsourced partner deserve a seat at the executive table? Does the conglomerate organization extend upward, so that even the senior leadership team starts to reflect the reality of outsourcing?

Partnering and interfaces

People who work for facilities management firms report to managers within those firms. Their performance reviews are ultimately delivered by those facilities management firms, as are promotions and transfers, discipline and rewards. The design of the work environment, the interface between people, the shared experience, remains uncertain. As does who facilities management firms report to. Is it operations? Human resources? Procurement? Who owns creating the shared experience? Is that experience negotiated in the contract? How do firms with different contract owners interface with each other? These are questions that seldom make it to the table today, creating uncertainty internally with the firm, and externally with the contractors. The very way I had to construct that last sentence points to the issue—the internal and external view—how does the melded view, the consensus reality, of the organization, come into being for conglomerate organizations?

Will technology outpace standards?

Europe likes standards. A lot. When it comes to technology, however, standards can be constraints to innovation. Facilities management in Europe is falling into the same standards trap as many other fields. Standards may create a level playing field, but a level playing field that is full of potholes or one that offers a vantage point to a more modern field with a fence separating one field from the other, doesn't exude agility, adaptation or innovation. Facilities management organizations need to be cautious about their standards work so that principals and interfaces don't get in the way of their ability to execute when underlying technology platforms shift, either in facilities management modeling, or in standards for light bulbs and solar energy.

Will sustainability move beyond marketing?

Sustainability was on everyone's tongue and in almost every presentation, but it was clear that presenters and attendees were struggling with the cognitive dissonance between capitalism/consumerism and sustainability. Many vendors tout the acquisition of new things, from software to sensors, that will make people and organizations more aware of their energy use, but few talked about downturns in consumption that would reflect a shift in the economic models. Sustainability seems to be focused on a combination of recycling and energy savings. Governments and politicians are focused on appearing to use taxpayer dollars more effectively while software and hardware vendors are trying to build new markets for their goods and services. General businesses and agencies are trying to legitimately reduce their costs, but sustainability is placed into an industrial age context where it fits into other cost savings efforts. If the investment in sustainability generates savings equal to or greater than other cost savings efforts, then it wins, but that is not a given. More mundane efforts, from process improvements to labor reductions often generate shorter term results, pushing off sustainability efforts.

This points a critical uncertainty around the character of sustainability. Will sustainability become a meaningful metric in its broadest sense, or will it remain a second-tier effort worthy of marketing rhetoric but always an easy drop when profits are at risk?

Who will occupy the facilities?

Last but certainly not least, we circle back to the question of the conglomerate organization. Who, indeed, will occupy the facilities that facilities management organizations run? Depending on the reach of the facilities management contract, facilities managers could include security, janitorial staff, environmental technicians, receptionists and many other roles. All of these people will be occupying facilities but they are not employees of the firm with its name above the door, but of the firm running the facility. And in firms with outsourced IT and other internal services, many other people working inside the facility will be non-employees. This raises the question of contractor interfaces. Who for instance, prioritizes requests? Do "real" employees always receive the highest priority? Does an employee arbitrate requests for the facilities manager? Is there a hierarchy of commitments and service level agreements that inform priorities?

Those questions force one down into organizational uncertainty and they can be answered, but the larger question of who will occupy facilities is one with ramifications at the highest level of organizations, public and private—because it begs the question of the role of the facility in an increasingly conglomerate organization. The virtualization of work—the ability to deliver value anywhere, anytime—for many roles, creates an recursive question that goes like this: does the facility exist only to facilitate work, and if so, does software now replace the facility with a workspace?, or does the facilitation of work require a facility? Each organization will need to answer this question. The prevailing assumption in the industrial age was that work required a place, but more and more jobs and roles no longer require a place, however, as the coworking movement shows, even virtual start-ups like to have a place to exchange ideas—to touch things, to see people, to congregate.

Perhaps the larger uncertainty here is what role space will play in the future of work, and the impact that question will have on people who choose place-based careers over those who choose placeless careers. Facilities management will be a good place to monitor how the work experience of the 21st-Century evolves.