An understanding and appreciation of others’ perspectives, be they peers or subordinates, makes for the broadening gamut of skills required to be an effective workplace and facilities manager. Bradford Keen talks to sector specialists about the personal professional development and training necessary to ensure truly empathetic facilities service management.
Technical know-how has always mattered in facilities management, but increasingly soft skills are make the best in the sector stand out from the crowd. We are seeing the profession watch its pioneering building engineering base step back to make way for a new generation with broader social skills. To what extent is employer demand leading this shift?
“The people that illustrate softer skills, emotional intelligence and empathetic leadership are more likely to rise up the ranks,” says Nikki Dallas, director of Talent FM Executive Search. “If people don’t have those kind of personality traits they may well be a little bit left behind in the FM of the future.”
“The move away from the ‘bogs and boilers’ perception of old has coincided with a similar evolution in our understanding of the relationship between leadership and emotional intelligence,” says Chris Morris, director of Xenon Group. “FM is increasingly seen as “more of a management discipline rather than a purely technical one”.
Liz Kentish, managing director at Kentish and Co, prefers the term ‘people skills’ but in any case regards them as integral to the profession.
Indeed, personal traits or learned skills such as empathy with clients and team members are integral to quality service delivery, believes Claire Huish, colleague services manager Bennett Hay. New employees at the contract caterer undergo ‘transformation training’ and personality profiling to encourage the sentiment that “everyone’s views and values count” while senior personnel focus on being better role models and getting the best from your team.
Empathy, resilience and self-awareness
Any discussion of soft skills, particularly over recent months, quickly coalesces around what is perhaps the topic’s single guiding principle – empathy.
“Empathy was traditionally seen as a natural trait, but research has shown that it is a neurobiologically based competency that can be taught,” says Ann Clarke, deputy managing director at workplace interior design and fit-out business Claremont.
As with any competency, some learn it quicker than others, or at different times of their lives. But today it is seen as a particularly desirable attribute for team leaders, helping to boost employee performance, job satisfaction and innovation. Empathy also enables the building of trust.
“Empathetic Leadership – as a scientifically studied leadership technique – is relatively new,” says Clarke, “so it’s important to ensure training programmes are based on proof and scientifically proven techniques, in order to have real organisational value.”
Empathy means being open to what others may be feeling or thinking, making self-awareness a critical first step – and, by extension, personal resilience.
“It’s difficult to stand back and see things from the point of view of an irate customer or contractor if you aren’t able to shrug off the implied criticisms that may be coming your way,” says Morris. Being self-aware enables people to control their own emotions.
“Tomorrow’s talented manager comes with a very different outlook and expectation of the workplace. They… have grown up in a world where the nuances of face-to-face interaction are potentially not as developed as they were with their predecessors.”
How best to learn resilience? Courses can be taken, certainly. But Liz Kentish worries about labelling empathy and resilience as standalone things. “They’re critical, but only part of what we need as effective people. Resilience is part of so many other things, like being a good leader or effective team member. I’d like to see more training around being a great team member, with resilience as part of that.”
But being empathetic can sometimes be perceived as a weakness, argues Jane Wiggins, owner and director of FM Tutor & Associates Ltd. “You can be very empathetic and be a very good listener, but you may not be able to get across the issues to the occupant, suppliers, tenants and stakeholders that you have to deal with,” she warns. “If you are too empathetic, you may not be able to make a good decision and actually get on with it.”
Empathy is necessary in how an FM communicates “the explanation that goes alongside the ‘no’ and the explanation that goes alongside a ‘yes’,” adds Wiggins.
Soft skills and training
Although soft skills have undeniably become more fashionable, Wiggins says she continues to see “this huge focus on technical knowledge types of training, rather than on management skills and the soft skills that go alongside someone developing as a person.”
The reasons for this paucity, she says, include the difficulty of measuring results and ROI, and a shift towards more outsourced FM.
Historically, FMs working in-house at organisations would attend management training as “just part of the overall package of being an employee”. Nowadays, people are working for “ginormous supply organisations” and many “have failed to understand that they are only there because a client needs somebody to manage facilities services”, she adds.
Morris is more positive about the soft skills training on offer. “Many of the units in IWFM qualifications, for example, have an understanding of soft skills and communication as essential criteria and there are plenty of good-quality informal courses and coaching programmes that can help teach and develop these skills.” The issue for employers is to “develop meaningful ways of measuring the effectiveness of such programmes”.
A good indicator of changing preferences is how training budgets are spent. Rachel Hiscox, managing director of Quadrilect, has noted a shift in spend from compliance to broader business and people skills, with a wide range of relationship management programmes and professional qualifications available, such as ILM Level 2 Team Leading or Level 3 Management Development and Customer Focused Training.
Huish at Bennett Hay believes that soft skills have a limited shelf life, needing regular relearning to keep pace with the service sector’s rapid evolution. Nevertheless, training is also important because of the demographics of newcomers to the profession.
“Tomorrow’s talented manager comes with a very different outlook and expectations of the workplace,” Huish explains. “They are highly educated yet have grown up in an online world where the nuances of face-to-face interaction are potentially not as developed as they were with their predecessors.”
Soft skills that would have been previously been developed through interpersonal relationships need to be nurtured. “The service sector has much work to do with the soft skills needed for a post-Covid commercial environment,” adds Hush.
Soft skills training should be paired with chances to implement learning on the job, with a focus on “building underpinning knowledge and increasing practical skill and confidence through experience and reflection” says independent FM consultant Jane Bell.
Morris says whether soft skills are better learned in formal training or on the job is like asking “which is better for losing weight – eating less or exercising more?” Both will help people achieve their goals, but a combination will be faster and more effective. “Developing empathy and emotional intelligence may require some significant behaviour and attitude changes on the part of some managers,” says Morris. “Of course, they need to learn the theories and concepts behind it all – but then they need opportunities to apply those concepts, learn through trial and error.”
For workplace managers, there’s little doubt that the qualities of empathy and self-awareness make for more positive relationships with IT, HR, procurement, health and safety, and the supply chain – the uniquely broad church of essential contacts that, perhaps, is the best reason for prioritising soft skills over others.
What’s needed is an ability to measure their effectiveness. Obvious ways to quantify empathy’s impact would be sickness absences, retention rates, career progression, 360° employee feedback, guest feedback, and even revenue. But, Huish notes: “A more empathetic management style can also be seen in the standards of service that a team will deliver because they are inspired by their manager, respect them and want to perform well as a result. They also observe and follow the example set by an empathetic manager and so their dealings with guests are influenced by it.”
Softly does it
Guy Battle, chief executive, The Social Value Portal
Building occupiers can add social value by focusing on four principal areas: jobs and skills, economic growth, protecting the environment, and building more resilient and healthy communities. They need to create social value through property management – FM’s role of FM – and how the occupier employs locally and engages the community.
FMs need to be the link between the occupier and local community. If they fail to develop the soft skills to facilitate this relationship, says Battle, “their role will diminish over time or, at the very least, another type of organisation is going to take on that role because it’s becoming an essential part of an asset manager’s job description. FM is the bridge between occupier and community. FM is the catalyst to get the occupier to engage with the community.”
FM providers also need to bring the community into the building to meet the occupier. “How do they engage with the occupier to get them to think about local employment and procurement? What are they doing about raising occupier awareness of the importance of their role?”
It takes empathy, says Battle, for a property manager to engage the occupier about how they ought to interact with the community. They play the roles of broker and matchmaker.
Covid-19 gas given the sector a unique opportunity to reimagine how it should work. “If the community is going to rebuild back better, fairer, and greener then buildings are fundamental parts of every community; the FM has a really intrinsic role to play in rebuilding our communities.”
Compton Darlington, business development director at FSI (FM Solutions) Ltd
Workers’ states of mind have never been as openly considered as they have during the Covid-19 crisis, says Compton Darlington. But while managers having and deploying soft skills is important, his concern is that in recent years a generational shift has occurred such that the most basic of human responses now have to be taught to people who are happy to essentially be told how to think.
“Every airport bookshop is full of self-betterment literature encouraging the reader to stop, dissect, consider and plan every aspect of their life. This fashionable level of self-reflection plays neatly into the monetisation of human emotion; in fact it even has a fully accepted name – ‘wellbeing’.”
“It’s not enough to assume that good health, mutual respect, caring, consideration and kindness should be a natural consequence of being human. No, these basic elements of a civilised society have been packaged as the core of a major industry.”
For Darlington, genuinely addressing wellbeing demands a genuine focus on each individual’s unique situation; it cannot be introduced on a ‘one size fits all’ basis.
”To monetise something like wellbeing, it has to become formulaic,” he explains. ‘It’s not then dealing with people as a people, but people as a business.”
Both managers and the managed need to more often step back and question the way they act. To which end, Darlington sees crisis-related forced behavioural shifts such as output-based management and employers having to adapt to workers fearful of returning to the workplace, as positive developments.