Personal reflections on IFMA’s World Workplace: San Diego, October 5th-7th 2016

A Workplace Evolutionary

By Chris Hood

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The very fact that the globe’s largest facility management association is describing its largest annual gathering as World Workplace acknowledges the fact that this profession is spinning away from the purely tactical to a more strategic and important role in supporting the mission and value of the workforce. The word “Workplace” continues to evolve into a more holistic addressing of all the factors that affect and effect human performance. And yet………..in truth it’s taking a while, and it seems that only a relatively small portion of the four thousand people attending World Workplace in San Diego really “gets-it”.

The organization continues to put the operational excellence roles of facility managers in the spotlight, as demonstrated by the predominance of the subject matter of the presentations, the talents and focus of those who received awards and the exhortations of leadership in their opening and closing remarks. No-one is arguing here with the value created by those who manage buildings with untold dedication and skill and who have evolved both the science and art of facility management over the years, but this organization has, sitting within it, perhaps the most creative, passionate and active group of “workplace” thinkers anywhere in the world. This is not a US-only phenomenon, the group has active participation from both thought leaders and practitioners from across the globe.

What is missing at the moment is the forging of a stronger dialogue between the tactical practitioners of facility management and the C-suite whom they are ultimately supporting. This is where Workplace expertise comes in. The best examples of Workplace strategy are those which start with business strategy and set in action a stream of discovery, planning and implementation activities tightly aligned with supporting effective responses to the business challenges that exist today and, perhaps more importantly, those that lie ahead. The two great nuclei of organization and energy within IFMA (workplace strategists and facility managers) are at opposite ends of the implementation trail and perhaps they ought to spend more time sitting in each other seats.

It is true that there are plenty of roles between the poles: architects, engineers, space and occupancy planners, portfolio strategists, environmentalists, regulators, project managers, move specialists, change managers etc. each of which, to a greater or lesser degree, are adopting a greater appreciation for the strategic nature of their contributions, but it seems increasingly important that strategists and implementers need to share common measures of success, and be more conversant with each-others language and priorities. Ultimately this would create better workplaces, more interesting jobs with which to attract really bright and diverse talent into the profession and engender even higher value dialogue between business people and all those delivering and maintaining their workplaces.

Looking for an example of future-state

Perhaps the most useful example of a possible future-state facility manager are those who run and facilitate co-working centers. Not only do they have to keep the infrastructure running but their priorities veer towards high-touch human engagement and facilitation, and the delivery of a great work experience. If they fail to deliver this, operational excellence doesn’t matter and they will be out of business, supplanted by alternative communities who do a better job of delivering services more accurately aligned to both business and human priorities. Because these are effectively market driven services it is possible to observe these preferences at work and should give all those working in medium or large enterprise situations pause for reflection and thought.

What else?

Goals and objectives

I am struck with how many presentations now start with the same list of challenges and business drivers.

  • Only 15% of employees are truly engaged
  • Employees represent 80% of the cost structure of organizations
  • We need to improve productivity but we don’t know how to measure it
  • Stress is the number one challenge in the workforce
  • Collaboration is key
  • We need a branded environment that reflects our culture

Sound familiar? This is not to dismiss these entirely valid calls for action but seriously we have been seeing these numbers for the last ten years. Surely the science of workplace should be getting smarter about identifying more granular goals and objectives. Personally I think that the next big breakthroughs will come from those who invent the most creative measures of success. These will directly align to the business challenges and will be more illustrative of the outcomes required.

Clearly this year’s star metric was “net-promoter” score. Really?

Education

An opportunistic discussion with Roy Hinton, Associate Dean of George Mason University’s facility management program, lead to a common conclusion as we debated the repositioning of educational curricula to both attract diverse disciplines into the FM field (one of the most important points Steve Forbes made in his very enjoyable keynote speech). We both settled on the thought that the most interesting jobs will be those that sit between current and traditional disciplines: space, IT, human resources, etc, not within the disciplines themselves. It is the interplay between the disciplines that will be most interesting particularly if it is undertaken by those from further diversified skills: anthropology, environmental psychology, liberal arts, analytics etc. We finished by concluding that design-thinking would be perhaps one of the most critical skills enabling one to flourish in this new world.

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HR

I actually found someone from the HR field who “gets it”. Kevin Mulcahy, a lecturer at Babson College, who was launching his new book, “The Future Workplace Experience” is a breath of fresh air. I loved his definition of culture: “the worst behavior that an organization is willing to tolerate”. He, along with similarly enlightened individuals such as Michael Grove of Collabworks, are the great hopes that, sooner or later, HR folks will similarly take their compensation and benefits duties as “price of entry stakes” and begin to move further up the value chain entering into richer discussions on the management and value of human capital, the evolution of the shared economy and emergence of the inevitable workforce marketplace that will match the supply and demand of talent in the gig economy. Talking of the Gig economy, I can’t wait to read Kevin’s wife’s book which goes by the same name.

The generations

Mercifully the number of presentations on millennials seems to have peaked and is now on the way down. Partly because they are being succeeded by another generation, and partly because they have been found to not actually be that different to the ones that preceded them. They have been spotted living in suburbia with children and pets.

Technology

Everybody knows that technology is a great work enabler but the world still seems to be short of technologists or IT organizations that have spent more than a nano-second thinking about what they are actually trying to enable. If IT organizations spent as much time thinking about business strategy and the ultimate business success of the organizations they support as workplace strategists do we would all be much better off. Instead there is myopic focus on costs, self-help and the retreat to the cloud, all of which tend to degrade the support and effectiveness of human performance rather than enrich it. They don’t even teach us how to use the technology, meaning that most software applications in common use today are used to perhaps 10% of their ultimate capability and power. The most interesting IT person I met at World Workplace was not even in attendance. Tom Wise, the husband of an attendee shared his attempts to bring technology to a large school district in Atlanta…….now here was a spectacularly motivated and useful IT person.

There are visionaries in the virtual world organizing digital communities as evidenced by the CMX summit, but what is it going to take to bring this kind of innovation into the main stream. IT professional perhaps need the same elongation of their profession that FM’s could benefit from.

Workplace experience

The historical focus on costs is now being paralleled (but probably not overtaken) by the consideration of the experience of going to work. The Workplace homeroom at the conference offered several inspirational moments ranging from an offering of the potential of the next generation washroom as a big driver of improvement in employee engagement to spirited investigations of the value of bringing fun back into the workplace. Creating efforts to introduce health and wellness initiatives, to brand spaces in deep and meaningful ways and to introduce higher levels of concierge services also served to offer a more optimistic, thoughtful and exciting vision of the workplace moving forward.

Work on the Move 2

There’s no doubt that for me personally the highlight of the week was the reaction myself and a group of authors received to the issuance of our new book, Work on the Move 2. This was a collaborative effort from which all the proceeds flowed into the IFMA Foundation and its benevolent efforts to sponsor education and other worthy causes in our industry. The book is an attempt to supply a broad audience with new insights into the trends, practice and best practice of implementing workplace solutions.

Summary

Things are good at IFMA. There was good attendance, a lot of good interaction and some really first class presentations but it can’t stay this way. In the words of one presenter, there cannot be a “default future”, there needs to be a “declared future” and it is one in which there is a vision established and a series of commitments made to get there. It should be bold, important and strategic. The result will be more interesting jobs, more value being placed upon our work and a greater share of top talent. We will take part in and, in numerous cases, drive business improvement and in the process will change the name of the profession, it’s standing in the populations we serve, and the depth and breadth of the things we learn, discuss and impact.

Who’s up for it?