Facilities Management Uncertainties Point To Deeper Organizational Questions

Is the facilities industry a good test-case for how organizations manage everything from operational excellence to emotional architectures?

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

  • 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


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


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.


About the author

Daniel W. Rasmus, the author of Listening to the Future, is a strategist who helps clients put their future in context