It's a message that holds true for every business - but while the technologies we use change constantly, the principles of structured communication remains paramount. Adam Leach reports
7 August 2017 | Adam Leach
Good communication sounds so easy to achieve. A bit of common sense, a shared objective, and a twist of close proximity, and hey presto, good communication should just flourish.
But within the working environment there are a number of factors adding complexity to communication. Hierarchies, structures, compliance procedures, office politics, and many other things all abound to make something as simple as one person engaging with others a lot more difficult than it needs to be. It's an issue across sectors and professions, but it is one that is particularly pertinent within facilities management. By its very nature, the FM function requires a broad mix of communications between various parties. Manager to staff member, provider to client, frontline staff member to frontline staff member - the profession is filled with different lines of communications. And if those lines aren't functioning properly an order might be missed, a new policy might be fudged and, in some cases, a contract might be lost.
Ensuring good communication is critical to all operations. So how, with all these overlapping and conflicting objectives and various levels of seniority, can it be catered for and designed to ensure that from the top to the bottom and across departments, communication flows free and easy?
Dave Grimshaw, general manager at Skanska, says: "It is having the right level of structure and management so you can go down from general manager level through to operations managers and supervisors and the actual engineers. Off the back of that, it's then creating an organisational chart so that everyone on the team understands the structure."
By mirroring that organisational structure in the operational model of the helpdesk, Grimshaw and his colleagues are able to enable effective and efficient communication between the team in the office sending out the work orders and the team of engineers out on the road carrying out the jobs across a sizeable geography.
But it is not just that remote communication, aided by a CAFM system that enables data to be sent and accessed at a touch of a button on a smartphone, that is key to managing the contract to a high standard. Building strong personal relationships across the team is just as crucial.
Strengthening relationships through structure
"On the particular contract that I work on, we work in areas, so the helpdesk person links to the engineering team that work in that specific area. That helps aid the communication and the bond," says Grimshaw. "The helpdesk people then go into the meetings where the engineers meet once a week, so you're able to put a face to a name and that then helps the day-to-day operational communication and also that helps when you've got to have a difficult conversation, if you're instructing an engineer to go from one job to another, as it's a lot easier to talk to them."
But as much as a strategy built on an organisational structure and clearly defined lines might work well for a large and complex FM contract, it would fall flat in a different setting. Through her work as an FM consultant Liz Kentish has been privy to an eclectic mix of methods by which FM teams communicate with those they service. One trend she has identified is an increasing number of companies starting to mirror the ways we communicate out of the office, in the office.
"I think the way we communicate outside of work is our expectation in work," she says. Illustrating this trend through a recent visit Facebook's UK office, she explains that they don't even have a traditional FM helpdesk - everything is run through the company's own platform.
"Everything is just posted onto the facilities Facebook page. What they have to do is respond really quickly because people have this expectation that if you put something on Facebook they get back to you quickly, so it's a whole cultural thing. I think so many organisations out there are aligning their comms to their culture and that's really interesting."
Taking technology to new heights
This tech-enabled method of communicating across teams and with clients is also having a big impact in more traditional sectors. Ever more companies are managing work orders and communication bespoke and custom-made apps through to those used in the mainstream. This transition to the paperless sharing of documents and idea sessions carried out on the fly opens up opportunities for financial and efficiency savings.
"What we get with new technology is the ability to make that easier. So now, it's not about my daily calls to team members to make sure they are all right anymore," says Martin Pickard, managing director of The FM Guru Consultancy. "Now, whether it's a WhatsApp group or Yammer or a collaboration tool, you can chat, share information, swap files and work on single documents without being in the same room at the same time."
But while there are undeniable benefits to this reduction in need for face-to-face communication, Pickard says FMs must make the most of the moments when teams do get together. One way companies can achieve this, he believes, is by taking the toolbox talk method taken to explain health and safety measures and applying it within an FM setting.
"I love the idea of that process to have a talk about facilities. To talk about why people should wear the right uniforms, to have a conversation about how to talk to clients or to have a conversation about innovation. The supervisor, or whoever it might be, should be making the effort to get out there and have the conversations in a structured way, such that everybody gets communicated with and everybody gets listened to."
Bill Hancox of Edge Hill University also stresses the importance of face-to-face communication. He strongly promotes communication within teams and also across different functions, and has found that they deliver significant benefit to overall operations. "What we've really benefited from here is the creation of specific focus groups to aid teamwork. We've got a lot of service groups like security, catering and so on, and any opportunity we have to pull groups together that has a representative of each of those groups, we do it," he says. "We believe that those individuals talking to each other will have far more benefit than those vertical lines of communication."
Keeping up with face-to-face engagement
Hancox suggests that while structures and lines of authority have their place, they can also overshadow or hide the value of having more horizontal lines of communication. "The barriers to communication are created by the structures themselves. There's almost a discouragement to communicate between two service teams without going up the chain. So an operational frontline service like catering wouldn't dream of having an open conversation with a member of maintenance."
He adds: "I think what we've done in the past is refuse to accept that those informal lines of communication exist, but now realise we should embrace them and use them. I think if you use them, you can create the single point of truth. So we tend to use and not ignore it, and what we've got in our minds is communications going across the whole team."
While across the sectors approaches to the structure of communications differ, with larger corporates favouring more structured and hierarchical approaches and those focused on a single site or smaller team opting for more open and horizontal lines, there are issues on which all appear to agree. Prime among those is the supervisor's role in stewarding communications.
"For a long time I've been banging the drum about how vitally important the supervisory function is," says Hancox, who highlights the critical role they play as the main point of contact for frontline staff, who are unlikely to have the apps and mobile comms that management might possess.
"The supervisor for us is the day-to-day, hands-on communication with the team," says Grimshaw, highlighting that their importance is as high at Skanska as it is within Hancox's university team.
"The manager is there and also talks to the teams, but the supervisor in the main is spending half of their time supervising and being the go-to person for the engineers if they have a question. They are often the most experienced, so it becomes easier to get advice from them in the day-to-day."
With the supervisor serving as the go-to guy or gal for both the management to send out policy and processes down to the frontline and equally, for the frontline to run feedback or air grievances or issues back up to management, both tightly structured and hierarchical models and more horizontal or informal structures are able to flourish. So while communication across the sector is undergoing significant changes, the fundamentals remain the same. Communication should be efficient where it needs to be and where information needs to be sent as quickly as possible, but there remains a significant place for the personal touch.