Despite being one of the most called upon professionals in an organization, the facility manager (FM) is one of the least understood professionals in an organization, said Marcia O’Connor, president of AM FM Consulting Group. For that reason, it can be challenging for FMs to demonstrate their value.
The International Facility Management Association (IFMA) generally defines the multi-disciplinary profession as integrating people, place, processes and technology to support the function of the built environment. But, as O’Connor pointed out, it’s hard to agree on a common way to explain the FM’s role and responsibilities.
“No two FM job descriptions are the same in the world,” she said, speaking in the PM Expo seminar Advance your FM Profile last fall.
O’Connor, along with co-presenter Arnie Wohlgemut, president of KP Mylene, talked about how FMs can get recognized for their work. The seminar shared lessons from the book Value-Based Facilities Management by Stephen Ee.
Among the takeaways was that it takes financial literacy and fluency in C-suite lingo to communicate how the FM department contributes to an organization’s bottom line, as Wohlgemut underscored. Consulting the strategic plan is a good place to start, he said, suggesting that facility managers align their work with their organization’s mission. Broadly speaking, some of the way FMs can add value are by reducing costs with energy-conservation strategies and improving productivity by locating additional space.
However, there is a tendency for senior management to look at facilities management as a cost rather than an investment, Wohlgemut said, which may be rooted in the long-standing stereotype of FM as a janitor. Running from one fix-it job to the next will do little to dispel this misconception, O’Connor added, making it difficult to earn a seat at the boardroom table. Getting the ear of executives also demands communicating in terms that resonate with them.
This is lingo that FMs may not pick up in school, even though one-third of these professionals hold degrees. There is no one widely accepted post-secondary school path to facility management, which may explain why many FMs stumble into the profession later in life from other fields, such as architecture and engineering. Credentials such as IFMA’s certified facility manager (CFM) are becoming popular among millennial newcomers to the profession, O’Connor observed, but the average age of FMs remains around 47.
Some of the terminology facility managers have picked up in their efforts to speak the language of the C-suite are key performance indicators (commonly known as KPIs) and service level agreements. While working for the Regional Municipality of Niagara, Wohlgemut took the service level agreement one step further, using service level objectives as the basis for his budget asks.
“I was meeting with public health and they had a particular need for a certain amount of cleanliness in their health clinics, especially in flu season and delivering flu shots,” he said by way of example. “I could translate that into dollars and cents and get them to agree to that as a service level agreement.”
It’s not just communicating with the C-suite that FMs may struggle with, but also financial literacy. Having the confidence to be able to defend a budget is another way to avoid the vicious cycle of deferred maintenance, although it’s not always straightforward to prove that a request is evidence based, Wohlgemut conceded.
He recalled a time when he asked for funding to replace a boiler he believed would soon fail. Since he had always found money to cover patchwork repairs, he said he was told to continue to extend its life.
“I had the fortune or misfortune that it actually failed in the middle of the winter, [which] closed the school for a week and a half,” said Wohlgemut. “After that, they believed me when I said, ‘It needs to be replaced.’”
This anecdote speaks to the character, or the trustworthiness, of an FM, which is one of two traits Wolhgemut identified as important to being in a position to add value. The other trait, competence, can be improved through professional development.
On another occasion, one of Wohlgemut’s budget asks was denied when he appeared before school board trustees to request funding for a roof replacement. He said he followed a compelling deck of PowerPoint slides presented by a group of teachers who successfully secured funding for additional textbooks, which taught him the importance of marketing.
A related challenge for FMs, many of whom fall into the baby boomer age bracket, is leveraging technology in their work. For example, Wohlgemut said, it may be more effective to use social media than email to send alerts about work happening on-site in facilities with large millennial populations.
Bringing value to an organization through facilities management should go beyond meeting the current needs of an organization, he noted. It should encompass anticipating future needs as well as circumstances where legally mandated minimum standards set out in legislation such as the building code may fall short of occupant needs.
And retaining a seat at the boardroom table requires FMs to show their subject matter expertise, O’Connor said, moving past a singular fixation on maintenance issues to make sure facilities are factored into the big decisions. Facilities are frequently forgotten in important decisions that will affect an organization’s real estate portfolio, such as downsizing, she explained.
Although FMs may be one of the least understood professionals in an organization, they are not only one of the most called upon professionals in an organization, but their calling card is also one of the most visible parts of an organization. The facilities have a significant impact on the first impressions of visitors, as O’Connor illustrated with the example of prospective students visiting a university campus.
“The first thing that comes out of that when you drive through the gates is, ‘Wow, what a nice grounds. Oh, look at the buildings,’” she said. “It’s not the program anymore; it’s the work that we’ve done.”
Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.