My brief tryst with facilities management, thanks to a CII event

I was invited to moderate a panel for the CII-conducted conference on new-age facility management. The event was titled, ‘New age facility management enabling business outcomes’!

Now, I honestly have no clue about the facility management function at all. I have been an employee at various organizations all through my 2 decades+ career and have only experienced ‘facility management’ in the back of my mind. So, I first questioned myself why I’m even being called for this event.

And then I noticed the panel discussion’s topic: branding the FM function! That’s my domain alright 🙂

It was truly a fantastic experience because I opened my intro with that caveat – that I’m here merely as a user of the function and not as an expert, that pretty much everybody in the room was. But my external perspective gave me so much leeway to look at the function outside-in and think about better ways to brand it.

I took it as a challenge the way an advertising or PR agency would, when called to meet with a facility management company for a marketing or PR mandate.

To put it very briefly, facilities management is the responsibility of managing the day-to-day operations of enterprise facilities including maintenance, repairs, utilities, energy management, landscaping, furniture acquisition, and physical security.

So, what goes into ‘branding’ this function, and why?

That was my premise too. This is a function that is noticed only when something fails or goes wrong. When everything is working smoothly as it should, facilities management is taken for granted and is invisible. How do you ‘brand’ something like that? And to what purpose?

My first premise was to simply wonder if facilities management was a backend function? Should it remain one? If you think it shouldn’t, what are the points of intervention (from users’ point of view) where it ceases to become a backend function? Here, I had invoked a classic service industry parallel – hotel management, for instance. We all have our personal stories about ‘better’ or ‘great’ service in hotels. Are there equivalents in facilities management? Should that be a narrative thread to brand the function? Or, is merely keeping things running and avoid disruption the hallmark of facilities management (which makes it backend, not attracting attention to itself, ironically).

The 2nd premise was around the stakeholders. When trying to brand facilities management as a function, who should the target audience be? Is it users of the function, or the management (CXO level)? For instance, there is a tangible benefit for the organization in terms of reduced overheads if energy management is well thought-out and efficient. And tangible benefits for the HR leadership if the furniture procured is ergonomic and keeps the users healthy and fit. If facilities management becomes invisible for users, should you be focusing on branding facilities management only to the management?

The 3rd premise was on the functional overlap. If facilities management wants to have a say, or part of the ownership in employee engagement, diversity or technology adoption, how can it do so without seeming like it is treading on either HR’s or the CTO’s foot? Where does facilities management’s role start and where does it end?

The discussion on this point was illuminating, but the consensus was clear – that it is a collaborative exercise. There is no working in isolation. I drew an interesting parallel in this context, from the advertising world. In many of the award entries, for the same campaign, both the advertising agency and the media buying agency submit their work for the award! Or, the mainline advertising agency and the digital marketing agency, for the same campaign. One could have been the thought owner and the other could have executed it, with appropriate modifications of the core thought depending on the kind of media it is executed in. Both have a rightful say at the award.

Similarly, if HR comes up with the thought for an employee engagement campaign, the facilities management function is an integral part of the mix to help execute it, but with their own awareness of how to make it work, operationally.

My 4th premise was around individual heroes who can prop up the function from a branding perspective. Most functions that are destined to stay behind the scenes (for instance, cinematography in films. It is not meant to attract attention to itself, and has to work as a function of the script and the director’s vision.) brand themselves as something worth explicitly looking at based on the leaders, stalwarts and experts in that domain. They become the human face of the function, through which the function is identified and celebrated. Who are the facilities management stalwarts or thought-leaders in India that this segment’s employees can look up to? What should they do more of, to attract attention to this function more?

The 5th premise was addressing the elephant in the room (pardon the jargon, but it seems perfect!). How does the function of facilities management evolve when it is not catering to ’employees’ but ‘users’, as in the WeWork model of co-working spaces? The users in such spaces do not belong to one organization, don’t adhere to one organizations shared sense of purpose, culture or ethos, and don’t see themselves as being fixed to one location either! How should facilities management deal with this shift in perspective, particularly when coworking spaces are so widely popular now?

The last premise was zeroing in one specific aspect of facilities management that most of us would have experienced at some point in life – the fire drill! I have been in many, many fire drills, across multiple workplaces – as an employee, as a vendor, as an agency, as a guest! But the only thing I remember is that while it is done with a lot of sincerity by the facilities management/admin personnel (or outside vendors), it is also done in an entirely soulless, must-complete-this way. A fire drill is a rare occasion when the users and facilities management personnel intersect and communicate directly. How can this action be done in a more human, involved way so that the users/employees not only remember that but also talk about it excitedly with their networks online/offline?

As I mentioned in the beginning, I went into the event merely as an outsider to provoke a different line of thought. I do not have any answers to the questions I raised. That was taken care of wonderfully by my panel members, Vinod Mathews and Manjunath Prabhu. But, from the hugely enthusiastic reactions and responses from the crowd, I could see that my questions themselves were not misplaced.

In fact, Sandeep Sethi, the chairman of the conference and Managing Director, IFM – West Asia, Jones Lang LaSalle Pvt Ltd, made a poignant remark at the end of our panel. He observed that human resources was also once a back-end function, but they have done a series of things over the decades to earn a seat at the top management! Facilities management, as a function, is perhaps the 2nd most expensive item in an organization’s balance sheet, and yet they are still being seen as a back-end function. So, what should facilities management learn from HR in terms of the steps to rebrand itself to bring more importance to it?

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