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19 June 2019
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Bradford Keen examines the need for closer ties between business functions, with HR and FM allying to deliver a better employee experience. 

©Richard Gleed

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02 February 2019 | Bradford Keen

Relationship counsellors will tell you that empathy helps partnerships succeed. Little wonder, then, that HR and the workplace management functions are often cited for their potential to become a power couple: they share many of the same challenges and consistently deliver despite limited resources while trying to convince finance they’re worth the cost. And increasingly, they are being tasked with the same end goals.

“Every organisation, in every sector, in pretty much every geography is looking for similar things from their employees,” says Lucy Adams, CEO of Disruptive HR and 2019 IWFM Conference speaker. This includes greater agility, collaboration, productivity, innovation and the ability to cope with change such as cost pressures, customer expectations and shifting departmental boundaries.

And it is the responsibility of modern HR, workplace and facilities management professionals to create the conditions that enable these pursuits rather than remain in a compliance role with workplace focused on health and safety, and HR concerned with employment law.

“People-to-desk ratios, time and motion studies – these are 1980s-styled approaches,” Adams cautions. Instead, she contends, professionals should answer these questions: How do people do their best work? How can they service customers better? What gives them greater levels of energy and productivity? 

What’s required are the skills to bring about a product-focused mindset that looks beyond providing cost-effective and efficient services, says Adams. The focus should be on user-centred design, “looking at people in situ and how they truly operate, looking at their pain points, and designing around the user rather than the needs of the organisation”.

Both HR – and indeed workplace management – can learn from the field of agile product design, adds 

Adams, with its methodologies based on piloting, experimenting, minimum viable product, and planning out projects in time-limited sprints.

Tied to this is the imperative that HR, workplace and facilities management professionals use data to determine how people think, feel and behave, says Adams.

Making the connections

It is at this point in the conversation that some might point to the 2017 Stoddart Review’s suggestion of a ‘chief workplace officer role’ (CWO). In broad terms this would be a specialist role focused on using hard data as evidence to charter the best course of action as an “interface between people, place and process”.

The person acting as this ‘super-connector’ could emerge out of any current function of an organisation – as long as he or she understands business requirements, is focused on people, and values user-centric design.

Indeed, potential employers are emphasising the ‘workplace’ element of such roles in their job advertisements, says specialist FM recruiter Peter Forshaw at Maxwell Stephens.

“Employers are increasingly aware of the benefits that a focus on the workplace can bring,” suggests Forshaw, “such as increased productivity, talent acquisition and interdepartmental collaboration.”

Although delivering an enhanced employee experience and improving productivity seem to encapsulate the narrative of the ideal CWO, it doesn’t mean that hard FM skills don’t have their place. While not the primary requirement, good knowledge of hard FM should be a prerequisite for the position.

“Senior workplace experience people may have the most creative, forward-thinking and innovative ideas, but if they have no idea of things like cost implications, provision of services, building management systems, they will most likely not be able to implement these ideas effectively,” argues Forshaw.

Rather than demanding a set list of specific skills required for these types of roles, ideal candidates would have wide-ranging experience and knowledge but, more importantly, would possess the personal characteristics to “influence stakeholders at all levels, natural authority and gravitas, creativity and innovation”, Forshaw says.

Is FM ready?

Fewer than 10 per cent of existing FM professionals would be able to fulfil this role owing to the sheer breadth of knowledge and experience required for such a position, says Forshaw.

Indeed, the current candidate pool for the suggested CWO role, incorporating IT, CRE, HR and FM, is small.

“Many FM professionals specialise in specific disciplines, which will likely impede their ability to gain the knowledge and experience required of a CWO,” Forshaw warns. “I’m not saying FMs will not be able to upskill and fill these roles in the future; in fact, I feel FM professionals are best placed to fill such roles.”

For ambitious FMs, a self-auditing process is essential. “Identify where there may be gaps in your knowledge or experience,” Forshaw counsels. “Carrying out an audit will allow you to focus your time and energy into the right areas and fully inform your plan on what you need to do to become a CWO.”

Also key is for FMs to become involved with as many projects and other departments as possible. Meet with other department heads “to pick their brains and better understand how the working environment affects them specifically,” suggests Forshaw.

And yet all of this work will be pointless if you do not have the right personality, aspirations and passions for a senior CWO position.

“From my experience, it’s these intangible, personal attributes that make the difference when fulfilling these senior roles,” adds Forshaw.

Chiefly absent

Despite the appealing idea, Forshaw has not seen the promotion of specific CWO positions. In most cases, CWO principles and duties are still being incorporated into a traditional workplace or facilities manager role.

Why? Because there is often insufficient external impetus to support the introduction of a CWO position, argues Martin Frohock, head of facilities UK and EMEA, Global Smart Buildings Lead [Property] at Arm. 

“It’s more about senior leaders and their teams reporting to the senior person responsible for workplace that matters – not the role itself,” says Frohock. That said, creating a CWO role with clear responsibilities would “send a message of commitment and emphasise the importance of the employee experience to the wider community”.

CWO role or no CWO role, executive-level support and sponsorship will be needed for workplace and facilities management strategies to succeed, says Frohock.

Such support can be informal, and sometimes that informal support can yield better results; aligning with a group of senior and influential workplace champions can achieve the right level of overall strategic support.

“We have to be very careful about titles,” says Adams. “HR has gone through a number of iterations: we started as personnel, then HR, then people officers; now we are employee experience directors. There is a risk that we don’t change the content, we just change the packaging.”

However, the role of a CWO could be powerful when focusing on creating environments that enable users to thrive. “It’s a partnership between HR and tech; that tripartite relationship is absolutely vital and I don’t think any one function can do it on their own,” says Adams. 

Indeed, Frohock also references the need for a “really tight and effective relationship with HR”, which could take the form of joining existing teams, creating a new function or simply increasing interaction between them.

FM reporting to HR

Not all FMs will like this, but Forshaw highlights how many FM positions now report directly into HR. 

“Close ties with HR means FMs are required to work much more closely with their customers – employees, tenants, internal departments – to better understand their needs and how to fulfil them,” he explains.

As a result, FMs need to develop skills that enable and encourage collaboration. “We are seeing FMs emerge from the back office to become a much more visible and integrated department within the majority of organisations,” says Forshaw.

But closer ties to HR won’t make the FM role any easier.

“FMs who work closely with HR could potentially have more barriers to carrying out their work,” warns Forshaw.

“Strict adherence to policies and procedures, along with potentially increased levels of bureaucracy and red tape to cut through, can slow down an FM. They may require a level of patience and ways of working that many FMs are not used to.”

Yet in the long term, Forshaw regards closer working relationships between the two functions as favourable, ensuring that FM departments become more aligned with overall corporate visions and goals. 

FMs that focus on communicative and collaborative skills may well develop in new ways, leading to better perceptions of the FM function from colleagues in an organisation.

Who is best placed to fill this role is less about their qualifications and experience and more dependent on mindset and attitude, Adams says. Aim to be the creator of conditions rather than simply focusing on delivering decent service, she adds.

The real task is to understand how people think, feel, behave and communicate, as well as what motivates them. “Instead of this driving force being what’s best for the organisation, it’s much more around starting with the human and working back from that – and I think all of those trends are as relevant to FM and workplace as they are for HR,” she adds.

Adams notes how workplace managers are already transitioning to treat facilities users as customers with varied needs, accommodating introverts and extroverts, for example, or providing flexibility of space to cater to different workplace requirements and teamwork. Again, the workplace function needs to enable this change, not merely react to it.

FM and HR already share ambitions and strategies; the functions just need to ensure that their collaboration – whether under the direction of a CWO or not – is built upon firm foundations.

Perry Timms, founder of the consultancy People and Transformational HR, says workplace research and data allows FM to provide “science” to the HR, helping make the function more valuable in the creation of working environments. FM brings with it the values of being design-oriented, methodology-focused and dynamic.

Working in unison

The ideal set of connections, for Frohock at least, happens when the wider business regards HR and FM as a single team. “Stripping down those outdated barriers will harness shared vision, goals and, more importantly, remove excuses for not being aligned to deliver and working together in a collaborative way,” he says.

“IT is the key third pillar of an effective workplace strategy, but I see this being a gradual migration to an even broader workplace team – particularly as the dependency on a great ‘tech’ experience becomes even more critical and perhaps emotive,” adds Frohock.

To operate together effectively, says Frohock, it is key that HR and FM – and indeed all relevant functions such as IT and CRE – have common visions, goals and objectives. The best means to achieve these aims is to launch shared projects that combine various services and expertise. 

The workplace and facilities management profession is well placed to seize the CWO role both in duties and title, but more work is necessary to ensure that they do so in a way that elevates the profession and enhances their organisation.


By making more of the connections with other organisational departments, workplace managers could thrive in the role.  

IWFM Conference 2019

Theme: Skills Perspective

Speaker: Lucy Adams, 

CEO of Disruptive HR

Location: Premium Suite, 

Etc Venues, St.Paul’s London

Time: 11.00 – 11.45

Tickets: www.iwfmconference.org

Topic: Frustrated with HR’s limited impact, but excited by the difference it could make, Adams is on a mission to disrupt the HR profession. What has she learnt and what lessons can we apply to our own profession?

The big question of what organisational culture is and the drivers behind it.

Techniques necessary for company or team leaders to use to on a day-to-day basis to ensure they successfully change culture.

Pragmatic and practical approaches to encourage certain behaviours in an organisation, while discouraging others.