About this blog

My name is Martin Read. I’m an editor, writer and publishing project manager with experience in the B2B, client publishing and membership organisation sectors. This blog comprises three types of post — examples of my editorial comment writing from the past twelve years, blog entries and general comment on business issues. I am the editor of FM World magazine.

Thanks for dropping by. Get in touch if you’d like.

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A flatter future

Not that long ago, talk about ‘breaking up hierarchies’ would have marked you out as a seditionist, extremist, troublemaker or worse. In 2013, the phrase has completely lost its pejorative connotations; today, breaking up hierarchies is all part of the move to creating agile, some even say (and indeed do say) ‘kinetic’ organisations.

Talk to workplace consultants about their office redesign or major organisational realignment projects and you’re unlikely to avoid, at some stage, discussion about restructuring around fewer chiefs and more empowered indians. Those that introduce such programmes – and Brother UK presented on theirs at the recent Workplace Week Convention – end up with fewer employees, smaller senior teams and, crucially, flatter hierarchies. The question most people have about such outcomes is – how do you sustain them? Surely the ability to move up and down the greasy pole is what’s sustained business life for at least the last hundred years if not more. Can you really eliminate all of that so easily?

By definition, flatter hierarchies surely mean fewer senior positions and thus fewer opportunities for individuals to progress their careers, at least in that particular organisation. Or does it? Could it also mean

Fewer hierarchical steps also surely mean a greater focus on the people who find themselves in those positions. Associating remuneration with an individual’s contribution and worth to an organisation by an independently verified audit – rather than notional seniority – is a massive change, but one that’s necessary if a new, flatter hierarchy is to be maintained.

Why is all of this important? Because for most knowledge work organisations this is a situation that’s right here, right now, and of increasing urgency. Also, it will increasingly influence how the facilities involved are managed. We talk a lot about flexible working in this magazine because of its obvious impact on the workplace and the size of facilities required; but connected to that is management predominantly by output – the success of which is as much down to the age of the people imposing such policies as it is the age of the people being managed. There’s a lot of potential friction between the baby boomers, Generation X and flexibility-loving Generation Y – three distinct groups with often conflicting attitudes and requirements when it comes to the workplace. And real heirarhical change still typically requires a strong character with the conviction to see the project through. It’s clear that this was the case at Brother UK, whose charismatic MD Phil Jones was able to convince his Japanese parent organisation of the need for this fundamental realignment.

This is a massive organisational shift for whichever organisation undertakes it, and one with equally significant implications for its facilities management. It can mean organisations focusing their recruitment on quite different requirements to those they have today, as well as a move to accommodate equipment owned by employees rather than that provided by the organisation.

One other issue involved in reducing layers of hierarchy is, of course, the position of the facilities management post-realignment. Is this an opportunity for FM to move into a more prominent position? Well, yes, surely it is; any project to cut layers of hierarchy must involve an assessment of the value of different departments’ importance to that organisation. Yes, of course, I’m the eternal optimist – but it seems to me that an appetite to reduce tiers of management could play into the hands of the facilities management function.

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The flexible flaw – maintaining corporate cohesion

So here we go again – a major international company, ironically perhaps a key player in the IT revolution itself, wants its employees to work from the office more and from the home less. Everything we thought we knew about flexible working is, for the second time this year (Yahoo! hit the headlines for a similar announcement in the summer), up for debate.

HP’s is not the blanket ban imposed by Yahoo!, but the language it’s using is interesting.

“We need to build a stronger culture of engagement and collaboration; the more employees we get into the office the better company we will be,” explained an all-staff briefing note.

This seems to be about applying the brakes on a former policy rather than forcing it to a full stop. The way in which teams collaborate, and the extent to which that collaboration is conducted face-to-face, is obviously a question of deep-seated debate.

And ‘culture of engagement’ is an illuminating phrase. Much is said about flexible working’s great gifts to individual workers – giving them freedom to work around their non-work commitments, concentrating when concentrating is needed and collaborating when that’s the name of the game. But perhaps the issue concerns multiple ideas of what constitutes ‘collaboration’.

Technology allows us to Skype, chat, message and otherwise audio / video /web conference with others. The use of this stuff is increasing on a daily basis. Yet the liberal use of these tools can encourage the absence of something actually quite important – actual physical engagement. Teams van be more productive when they’re in the same physical space. Teleconference all you want, there’s nothing quite like everyone being in the same actual room. (Perhaps this physical engagement needs a buzzword to describe it. ‘Actual Reality’?)

This, somewhat belatedly, seems to be what HP and others are now scrabbling to come to terms with. It is far too easy to focus on the financial benefits that derive from moving to a displaced workforce; but prioritising the potential to save money on office space ahead of the most productive mix of office and displaced working could prove to be damaging in the extreme. As the Yahoo! and HP examples surely prove, when organisations that would seem the obvious trailblazers pull back from the brink of a full blown flexible working revolution, there’s surely something important for us consider. “Work is something that you do, not somewhere you go,” – great soundbite, but not necessarily 100 per cent accurate.

This is an extraordinary time. The tools for measuring every conceivable piece of human interactivity are being commodified at a dizzying rate, while awareness of how that might affect the workplace is on the up.

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The trend of all things

In its recently published report, ‘Megatrends: the trends shaping work and working lives’, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) confirmed what we’ve surely all known for some time now – that over the past 21 years the proportion of workers aged 50 and over has grown (from 21 per cent to 29 per cent) and the proportion of under-25s fallen (from 18 per cent to 12 per cent). Cue various concerns about the suitability of facilities for this changing demographic, including the need for disability-friendly equipment and technology. There was also confirmation of the dramatic shrinking of the UK’s manufacturing sector, from 36 per cent of all work fifty years ago to just 8 per cent today – barely a quarter of that figure. Those in service sector organisations now make up an astonishing 81 per cent of all workers, up from 49 per cent. These are indeed megatrends, but could we have predicted them? And would we have done anything differently if we had? It makes you wonder.

The report also identified a trend perhaps less well documented – overall size of organisation by employee numbers. The proportion of people employed by firms with more than 250 workers has fallen from 49 per cent in 1998 to 40 per cent today. Put another way, that’s pretty much 20 per cent fewer ‘large organisation’ employees in the space of fifteen years. That kind of statistic can’t fail to have an effect on the requirements that organisations have of their facilities.

But the report goes further. It suggests that a fall in average real earnings and a slow down in job turnover will also weigh heavily on managers when considering what their facilities requirement will be in the near future. These are two fascinating areas – but how can organisations possibly hope to cater for them?

All of which makes me wonder if there’s actually any point in searching for the perfect, optimum working environment. Where flexibility and greater staff turnover was so recently the norm, this report suggests the opposite. Where there’s been so much talk about accommodating workers on shorter hours with flexible working, this report talks about taking care of employees whose need is to work ever longer hours. Add to the mix the fact that we are living in a world in which three generations of workers need to be accommodated in the workplace for the first time, and I begin to wonder if any amount of planning can cater for the sheer variety of need.

We quoted CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese as saying that the biggest challenge facing organisations is “the unprecedented pace of change in the workplace to which businesses must adapt”. Adapt when? How often? What’s increasingly clear is not that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all, rather that there’s never going to be one size anymore. The best organisations will change their optimum working environment on a daily basis, because the mix of employees they’re dealing with can no more be readily categorised.

I say that this is surely more opportunity than threat, with sound business logic favouring putting greater power in the hands of the FM. The other departments of empowerment – marketing, IT, HR – deal with the realities of operational requirement once they’ve been set. FM’s role has always been to adapt, adapt and adapt once more. FM should be setting those operational requirements, not responding to them. And that can only help boost the status of FM within organisations.

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Empowerment’s role in powering organisations

“What do we want? Evidence-based change! When do we want it? After peer review.”

So read a banner at the American ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ a couple of years back. And you have to ask, is that ever any less than a reasonable request? Change brought about based on the results of professionally conducted research? Difficult to argue the alternative, surely.

Chartered occupational psychologist Dr Craig Knight used a picture of that banner as part of a recent presentation. He’s done plenty of work measuring workplace well-being and productivity, and in an entertaining session he made great play of how little the typical office has really changed in the century or so since FW Taylor’s pioneering work, ‘Principles of Scientific Management’.

Knight detailed an experiment that he and colleagues had conducted in which office workers were allowed varying levels of freedom to control their own workplace. They monitored individuals placed in four office environments: ‘lean’ (rows of workstations, in which you have no power to change how things are), ‘enriched’ (a more natural workspace with flowers and art), ‘compromised’ (someone else dictating the personal nature of the space, not you) and finally ‘empowered’ (in which you get to decide on how your workspace looks). After observing how people worked in these environments, they then tested their mental faculties.

The results? Essentially, the more empowered an individual is, the better their quality of work and productivity levels. People in an ‘enriched’ workplace are typically 15 per cent more productive than those in a ‘lean’ one. In fact, after a decade of Knight’s experiments and research, the ‘lean’ workplace has always come out worst. People empowered to develop their own workspace are 32 per cent more productive and make fewer errors. I mean, Hell’s teeth! How is that not important? Empowering people and enriching their working lives increases their productivity. That’s not some woolly claim – it’s scientifically proven.

Incidentally, this is not just an office worker issue. Knight detailed another experiment in which residents of care homes dramatically improved their problem-solving skills, memory and general state of wellbeing simply by being involved on an ongoing basis in the control over their own environment (making decisions on decor and other day-to-day choices rather than being constantly waited on).

Knight bemoans the fact that typical productivity projects are often instigated with the aim of headline-grabbing instant cost-savings. Take the government, which recently boasted of saving £34,000 per year by removing plants from government buildings. A prudent saving in a cash-strapped economy? Not against evidence which shows how minimal spending on office greenery can boost productivity.

Knight says there’s an unbroken link between well-being and productivity. Shouldn’t we in FM be doing more with that fact? If we’re to get a grip on FM’s Holy Grail of defining the value we bring, let it be through something like this.

We’d surely do well to more frequently talk up the science behind the facilities services solutions we propose. Because while our opponents in such arguments are certainly entitled to their own opinions, they can’t be entitled to their own facts.

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All about the outcome

We are living in a world in which some senior facilities managers are seeing fit to remove the words ‘facilities’ from their job titles in order to advance to more senior positions, with greater responsibility and more strategic portfolios, within their organisations. That, at least, is the view of workplace data-gathering guru Tim Oldman, who wonders if there’s something about the FM ‘brand’ that’s presenting some form of career limiting factor.

If true, could this be the result of FM being seen as a support function rather than an enabling one? When FM is viewed internally as little more than a necessary evil, that can hardly help the personal ‘brand’ of those practising it. Small wonder if some subsequently feel the need to park the word ‘facilities’ when seeking to sell themselves – and the true value they know they can bring – when seeking more senior positions. Unless FM is seen as having the same ‘enabling’ status as HR, IT or even marketing, this problem won’t go away.

It’s all about perception, as we’ve discussed so many times before. Indeed, this issue of perception seems so intractable, and comes up for discussion so often, that it’s easy to wonder if it can ever be adequately addressed. Inevitably, we look to trends elsewhere to gauge whether they can shine a more positive – some would say more realistic – light on the FM service.

With that in mind, I wonder what impact outcome-based contracts might have? The idea is simple: the successful delivery of an organisation’s ultimate objectives is the main determinant of whether a service provided to that organisation is fit for purpose. By ‘ultimate aims’, we are talking about, for example, ‘getting re-offending rates down’ or ‘making customers happy’. Unrealistically broad? Incredibly complicated to measure? Well, perhaps – but think of the possibilities.

From an operational perspective, such contracts give (in theory) much greater freedom for the FM delivery partner, who becomes unshackled from a slavish addiction to input specs. Yes, the organisation and its FM department/partner need to work closely together to make sure that compliance issues and the way the service is delivered are understood by all. However, by definition, a focus on required outcomes ties FM delivery to the overall strategy objectives of the organisation – and that’s got to be a good thing, right? In that context, how can FM not be more visible?

This topic of outcome-based contracts was addressed by various FM luminaries at the recent Workplace Futures conference. 
(You can read about that in our 28th February edition.) How FM’s performance is measured against those outcomes is one of the sticking points. But if our argument is that FM is never adequately recognised for its overall impact, surely having its performance measured in direct relation to whether an organisation is meeting its core objectives can only be a good thing?

Anyway, to my astonishment it’s suddenly time to see in British Summer Time and wish you all a happy Easter. I’m off to celebrate across the road. The input will be a pint of beer. The output will be an inebriated state. The outcome? Don’t ask.

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The fleeting power of ‘innovation’

A few weeks back I took a strategic decision to give the sector’s favourite ‘s’ word a good kicking. This time it’s the turn of the sector’s favourite ‘i’ word.

You could argue that talking about innovation in this column is an innovative approach to comment column-writing. It’s not – it’s just another topic. And that’s part of the problem. Defining what is and isn’t ‘innovation’ can be tricky. We all want to be seen offering it, yet we all struggle to say exactly what it means.

Are big process-changes innovative? They can be, but their status as ‘innovative’ is often fleeting. Take, for example, the organisation-wide adoption of tablet computers to centralise the capture of building performance data. Initially, that’s true innovation, but when it becomes an expected way of operation, as it most assuredly will, the use of tablets will quickly move from ‘innovation’ to ‘standard practice’. Where, then, for further FM innovation in that organisation?

True innovation in service delivery is necessarily specific to the organisation in question and the nature of the service delivered into it, whomever is doing that delivering. Significantly altering the parameters of a service to an agreed, precise operational requirement is not necessarily something that can be subsequently bottled up and sold on. Innovation so often results from the maturing of cross-departmental relationships; the minutiae of day-to-day interactions between particular individuals and their interlaced job functions in a bid to agree a new and (critical, this bit) consistently deliverable alternative to an existing process.

Where true innovation in FM is happening, both the organisation and its facilities manager can explain it in fine detail. But when we talk about it generally, it can turn out like any of these last three paragraphs – touching the subject in broad, sweeping terms while remaining frustratingly empty of anything approaching concrete detail.

Worst of all is when the word ‘innovation’ is used to dress up a cost-cutting exercise: this is just middle-management, job-justifying nonsense. It’s what our American cousins would call “kicking the can down the road” – ignoring serious operational problems until they appear in a much worse form later on.

I may be cynical about the word being used as camouflage, but I’m far from cynical about innovation per se. Indeed, I relish the myriad examples I come across, in everything from catering to cleaning or the amazing advances in equipment and training. And at the point where FM takes on a formerly operational activity, there’s likely to be an example of innovation worth reporting on.

This year is also shaping up as a year in which the seeds of future FM innovation are sown. For service contractors, the government will soon offer the opportunity to bid for probation-service work; what is learned from that could then be ported across to other FM services. Meanwhile, Mitie and Interserve’s recent acquisitions mean FM firms will, for the 
first time, be directly responsible for operating within the home. FM operatives dealing directly with the public in their own homes? That, surely, will generate some true innovation.

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Still learning from Procord

Sometimes it feels like 2013 is going to be just like 2012 all over again. Or 2011, or 2010 – or indeed, any of the past fifteen years.

Our sector has been blessed with some strong conferences over the past few weeks, and you’ll read elsewhere in this issue about the many refreshing angles taken by presenters (outcome-based contracts, organisational design and worker mobility, to name but three).

Yet, despite these topics, so many of the issues under discussion seem to return us to the same insoluble staples – inadequate representation, uncertain parameters and patchy engagement with the young. To paraphrase the mighty Klingon warrior Lieutenant Worf, as sampled on Orbital’s seminal album Orbital 2, the recurring issues in FM can often make you believe that there’s a twist in the fabric of time and space, ‘where time becomes a loop…’

Which is why it was refreshing to meet Ian Mills and David Burnett, two of the people involved in the setting up of Procord, the facilities service company. Procord gew out of IBM’s property management function during the early 1990s recession. Mills and Burnett visited the FM World offices for an interview with Leigh Carter, who was working with IBM at the time of Procord’s formation. Carter was also at Johnson Controls when it acquired Procord just a few, very successful years later.

Procord made huge strides in re-setting the parameters of the outsourced FM function. What I found most fascinating about their story (which reads as if they were working in the Wild West of facilities service contracting), was the reverence both men had for that basic requirement of a good FM: the ability to communicate.

Much was made of the service model developed for IBM and then packaged for sale to other organisations. Naturally enough, there were issues in convincing sceptical business leaders, union leaders and workers. And much was made of the inspirational leadership of one John Jack, whose communication skills have become the stuff of legend. Jack appears to have been a gentle giant of a man, assuaging the concerns of men like Mills and Burnett and putting them into positions within the newly set-up Procord that he innately knew they would flourish in. Then, having put his own directors at ease, Jack would go out to clients and convince both board and workforce that Procord’s proposition was something they could believe in.

Consultant Anne Lennox-Martin told me that Jack had “a real humility about him when dealing with clients – a lesson I never forgot.” Indeed, that ability to get through, to connect with the decision makers, must have been essential to Procord’s success.

These days, we’re constantly reminded how important communication skills are to an FM, and while it could be bracketed as one of those recurring themes mentioned above, it’s one we ignore at our peril. In fact, if anything it could be argued that we undervalue the worth of knowing when and how to communicate with an audience, adapting as that audience changes. Can such levels of empathy be picked up, or is it innate? Whatever the answer, it’s a recurring theme I’m happy to indulge.

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