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16 January 2019
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What are the demands on the building services facilities manager in 2018 – and how is the required skill set evolving? Geoff Prudence looks at why hard FM service provision today requires a new focus on leadership skills.


8 May 2018 Geoff Prudence

While most facilities managers find their way to the profession through routes as various as business administration, HR and hospitality, those who manage hard services have usually tended to come from an engineering or building/surveying background.

But the world is changing. In a business landscape increasingly influenced by the game-changing impact of new technologies, the more generalist skill set of the typical facilities manager requires an assessment of the building service specialisms once intrinsic to the role. In particular, do those engineering FMs demonstrate effective leadership when communicating inside and outside of their teams? This article argues that resilience in hard FM provision can be achieved through an investment in leadership skills.

The first thing to do is look at the current state of play. It’s particular to FM engineering that senior positions are often held by white, middle-aged-to-older males. (The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) has an overall membership of 20,599 – with just 

9 per cent female).

And while there are efforts to increase greater inclusivity in engineering and technical subjects across the spectrum, the emerging shift in the labour market for technical FMs is tied to the retirement of those entering the profession in the 1970s and 1980s through apprenticeships and training informed by the traditional skills and backgrounds of entrants to UK industry at that time.

Back then, there were plenty of large organisations with the capacity and the requirement to invest in training and resources. These included bodies such as the Property Services Agency (PSA) and National Health Authority, as well as the nationalised utilities such as British Rail, British Gas and the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB). 

Further demand came from the motor industry (Ford, and the giant British Leyland) and from production and manufacturing (British Steel, the National Coal Board).

Where such entities remain today, in general they have neither the demand nor capacity to invest in training and apprentices. And where they still exist as client-side functions, in many areas the requirement for strong technical/management skills has diminished. 

A combination of altered political priorities, an evolving economy and an associated shift in working culture has led to a well-publicised demise in the number of applicants for engineering service posts and the attraction of science and technical subjects in schools and universities, the latter despite a variety of efforts and initiatives from both institutions and government to spark fresh interest.

Today, those who do take up a career in building services engineering typically end up in a design/construction or operational management/maintenance/facilities management role.

And while there is slightly more interest in technical/engineering careers now, the sector is having to deal with the many senior experienced personnel now retiring from the profession. The routes that shaped their experience and skill sets no longer exist; there is no formal development of a pipeline of new technical FMs to take their place and thus meet the many challenges that our technologically fluid future demands.

Leadership skills first, technical second

The general growth of the FM profession, with its wider management of services, has seen the championing of those from a hospitality and general administration background, speeding a dilution in the technical/engineering specialism.

It is the critical building service environments – data centres, financial services, production, manufacturing – that have continued to attract those at the high end of the building service engineering market, the nature of the risk and potential impact of failure on corporate reputation putting a premium on specialism.

Given the mission-critical nature of the role, it is relatively easy to isolate the priorities that technical FM demands of its practitioners (see Key technical FM priorities).  But while physical resilience in building engineering systems is key, so increasingly, is the resilience of the technical FMs managing them. In particular, while technical specialism is part and parcel of the role, interpersonal relationship management is becoming paramount – strong leadership skills are now essential to manage in these environments, with demanding clients and closer links between technical FM and other departments introducing new management skill set demands.

Derek Allen, global head of operations for data centre provider Global Switch, believes that today’s technical FMs need to come to the profession having first conducted core management training. 

“We should train generalists and then let them specialise,” says Allen. “We need to train leadership as well as technical skills. How can a good business person make good decisions on critical equipment if the operators cannot communicate with him or her in business language? We need to work on the total cost of ownership and encourage more open systems.”

CIBSE Knowledge Series KS21 document explains that “management of existing building stock is suffering from a decline in skilled staff…  as a result of political change and corporate pressures to perform financially”.

But we need a further intervention of technical management and leadership skills to meet the future. The market, types of contract, the drive to ‘commoditise FM’, outsourcing models and transfer of risk to supply chain and so on may all have contributed to the current position. Good technical managers are now very much at a premium – but their potential future is also very exciting.

The workplace advantage

The move to put ‘workplace’ to the fore as part of BIFM’s identity can also act as an opportunity for technical FMs. Workplace performance is directly influenced by the design, operation and maintenance of lighting, heating, cooling, and thermal comfort. The drive towards smart buildings, big data and artificial / automated intelligence provide further opportunities. 

This doesn’t just apply to building services, but to the expanding ‘workplace’ across industry sector boundaries. But to be effective, leadership in hard FM provision demands a much wider skills set (see Hard FM: Separating out the leaders).

The idea that you cannot simultaneously be a “people person” and an excellent BSE/technical manager has to be challenged.


Leadership will be the differentiating factor to drive the change required both in organisations and the sector potential as a whole – creating the physical and emotional environment for people to perform and grow. This in turn, will unlock the innovation and deliver the results and respect the FM sector aspires to. To support that, leaders will guarantee effective succession planning through skills development and opportunities to learn, challenge and reflect on varied aspects of work in the sector.

An energetic imperative

While it is always recognised as part of the project design function, there continues to be an even greater awareness for operational and maintenance (systems thinking) in the design process. 

Acknowledging that a need for collaboration and effectiveness in the BSE role is demanded through such documents as RIBA’s Plan of Work, the government’s Soft Landings, management of building information models (BIM), among other drivers, it is here that the opportunity (and challenge) exists to make it happen in practice.

Building services engineers must fuse existing technical design/operational capability (and experience) with leadership and its associated influencing skills in the marketplace of the future.

Focusing on energy shows why this matters. A performance gap created by an incomplete design stage assessment of operational energy use is often made wider by ‘value engineering’ during the design and construction phases. 

The overriding duty of an FM is to ensure that the buildings they are responsible for work effectively. Their practical involvement in value engineering would be as a stakeholder to champion building energy-efficiency measures during this exercise.

Feeding the need

Here is where leadership skills come to the fore. Energy and sustainability have highlighted a growing need for excellent FM. As well as challenging the need for property, successful businesses are not only driving out unnecessary costs and utilisation through efficiencies, but also maximising the benefits of effective workplace regimes and practices to enhance their business performance. To feed this need there is the additional dimension required to attract, develop and retain the best people in their chosen field.

It is not possible to recreate the skills drive that informed the technical FMs of the 1970s and 1980s. But we can recognise the elements that, back then, produced rounded, technical experts who developed into managers and leaders – and create similar technical FMs for the future. 

We have to grasp the opportunity that such technical leadership skills will provide for the benefit of future design, builds and effective operation of future workplaces and the exciting career structure it could generate as part of facilities management/built environment employment and ongoing development.

Emma Potter