Bradford Keen speaks to practitioners about issues workplace and facilities managers should focus on, following an IWFM report on culture in the sector.
7 January 2019 | Bradford Keen
You know what's wrong with flexible workspaces? It's the lovely guest experience manager who makes sure you're settled in, connects you to the Wi-Fi and informs you of all the upcoming social events. Only, they're not too clued up on how to ensure the space - acoustic, thermal and other functional perspectives, along with understanding of human behaviour - helps users to thrive or that the money being spent is helping to achieve this.
"Without FM asking the searching questions about how the space facilitates performance or whether conditions are right, you have shiny customer-friendly stuff but without any depth," says Polly Plunket-Checkemian, senior executive director at property management company MJ Mapp.
And it is by filling this gap that FM answers its very own 'why question'. It is the responsibility of workplace and facilities managers to "discover their highest point of contribution", which Plunket-Checkemian describes as boosting the performance of workplace users through enhancing the workplace experience.
Pulling the performance lever happens on multiple tiers, says Plunket-Checkemian. On the starting level, it is about providing functional, safe, clean and secure spaces with reasonable ambient conditions. But higher performance focuses on analysing how effectively the space supports organisational activities.
The performance spectrum is important, Plunket-Checkemian explains, because it shifts the dialogue from providing supportive services dictated by others to enabling high-performance outcomes, developing skills, fostering partnerships and determining supply chains.
The idea of a performance spectrum is also something to which Ravi Bhatnagar, account director at Anabas, subscribes. Operational FM, he says, will always be a "behind-the-scenes" activity keeping the building functioning.
But at a leadership level, FM is about board-level debates, arguing for employee well-being programmes and providing a user-friendly building. To have an impact at this level, Bhatnagar says FMs need to understand the serviced workplace's idiosyncratic needs so they can improve users' working lives.
"That goes back to us being clear on what we're there to do. Are we there just to deliver day-to-day operations or are we there to make the workplace a better place to be?" Bhatnagar asks. "Knowing why helps people to understand what they're doing and look at ways of making it better."
Terminology should not offend
While the workplace debate is engaging, we should not let the wrangling over terminology cloud the function's goals of enhancing performance and demonstrating value. Yet, in many ways the use of 'Workplace' allows us to answer 'Why?' by providing a shift in perceptions.
Indeed, Dereck Dziva, lead manager, Workplace, at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, experienced this when his role was rebranded from FM to Workplace. Of course, colleagues no longer have a one-dimensional view of his role but rather regard it similarly to finance or HR.
But when rebranding the workplace environment, Dziva also became more aware of the experience he is providing to his colleagues. "Most of our discussions were about how staff and customers feel when they enter our workspace," he says.
"This helped me understand that in my role, I can actually shape how our staff relate to the organisation. Therefore, it meant encouraging my team to be more proactive in anticipating the needs of our stakeholders and treating everyone, including team members, as customers," adds Dziva.
While the conversation about performance management may require different talking points, it does not require a fancy new skill set. It is about "common sense, curiosity and true understanding of the purpose of the workplace", says Plunket-Checkemian. It's a shift from seeing FM as custodians to the frontline responsibility of enhancing performance.
Although 'workplace' does not necessarily demand new skills, being technologically able is essential to the transformation. Pleun van Deurssen, chair of IWFM's Rising FM SIG, says young people should be leading the charge to implement technology.
"We should be open to the change and be eager to learn about it and how it could optimise services," says van Deurssen. "We cannot 'just' be trained on the ways we have always done it by the people who have never even had the opportunity to use technology. Someone needs to be the first person to trial it and, therefore, we need to encourage that change, and we need to show them how it could benefit our industry."
A new asset proposition
The space - whether for 10, 250 people or more - is a platform that constantly shifts as the needs of its occupants demand. Historically, FM has ensured space functions according to predetermined criteria. But workplace, through the narrative of performance management, ensures space is fit for purpose and caters to the needs of an organisation and its end users.
"This isn't a land grab on corporate real estate," says Plunket-Checkemian. "There is a significant gap to be filled in terms of ambition, skills and proposition. In some organisations, highly skilled FMs have evolved their roles to do just this. They've been some of the profession's leading lights. Let's follow their lead, and help us all along the way.
"The commercial imperative is one of relevance and a higher value proposition. If we don't shift the debate then margins will continue their unsustainable trajectory. It's not a massive leap at all; it's just a certain shift in mindset and language, and a curiosity around the organisation that you form part of to understand what their challenges are."
Plunket-Checkemian says the question in everyone's minds should be: what is all this in service of?
"In this natural evolution, if we've been keeping places safe, clean and secure and been really good guardians of cost for the last 30 years, what are we going to be for the next 30 years?" Plunket-Checkemian asks. "And given how the landscape around workplace is shifting so radically, can we afford not to be looking forward now? We're either a budget holder or we're a budget-line participant."
While the narrative of 'strategy and business value' dominates, not everyone in the sector has really grasped this, says Guy Douetil, managing director, EMEA, at Hickey & Associates.
"They're watching what's going on and thinking they're getting involved but meanwhile service and flexible offices or co-working companies are changing the whole boundaries of how property works," Douetil argues. WeWork, Convene and others are providing flexibility and a nice-looking office, but more importantly, they are providing a "proper hospitality service".
Douetil says there should be less focus on designing "shiny offices for investors" and more attention on user experience - but obviously at the right cost and with the necessary returns. "It has to pay for itself and you have to justify the level of user experience."
Last year, Douetil met with building users, landlords and investors to gain different perspectives about why the property market has been slow to change.
"It is a very fragmented market," he says, "so when you look at the number of global investor developers - there are very few, at about 5 per cent or so - national developers at maybe 20 per cent. That leaves three-quarters or more of the market represented by small landlords and investors."
These 'mom-and-pop private investors' will have one or two properties in their portfolio and be under no pressure or motivation to change their model because they've always operated in a way that has worked for them.
"I suppose you look at the dynamics of why people want to change or the pressures that make you; when you've got your building fully let at a decent rent why do you need to change that as a model? But things are changing and the market is moving," Douetil explains.
A major shift has been moving from traditional long-term leased asset class, previously favoured by investors, with a focus on covenant strength to a flexible proposition that is valued as an operating asset," says Plunket-Checkemian.
"The flexible workplace is underpinned by different characteristics - it is highly serviced and requires steady capital injections to underpin brand and user experience," Plunket-Checkemian adds.
Most favourable is the realisation of a "connected workplace in which people, brand and strategic outcomes reach their highest point of contribution from being exposed to juxtaposition and immersion with different players, models and ways of working".
The shift, then, is that end users become a key point of discussion, Douetil says. This means large investors and landlords look to add a flexible provision to their portfolios. In a 10-storey building they might devote five or six floors to traditional longer-term leases to help average out fit-out costs over manageable periods, another few floors for shorter leases of around three to five years, and co-working or flexible spaces across the remainder of the building.
Key to all of this change is the evolution from landlord-tenant relationship to service provider and user.
Nowadays, there is a financial costing being tacked on to theorising about user experience. How workplace enables productivity, reduces sick days, boosts mental health and well-being are just some of the increasingly quantifiable sums making investors take note.
"People are understanding there is a direct relation that hasn't been monetised yet between providing very usable space, which is attractive not just to a company but the users within that company," Douetil explains.
Providing attractive spaces is a fundamental component of the new workplace offering, but it is essential to remember that without the FM experience and the energetic focus on performance management, there is a risk of ending up with not much more than shiny veneers. It is up to workplace and facilities managers to delve deep beneath the shine.
Guy Douetil is managing director, EMEA, at Hickey & Associates
Polly Plunket-Checkemian is senior executive director at MJ Mapp
Ravi Bhatnagar is account director at Anabas