The importance of communication

When Sky Sports presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray indulged in a few off-air comments about female assistant referee Sian Massey and West Ham vice-chairman Karren Brady during the Liverpool and Wolves football match late last month, they thought that was the last they’d heard of their banter. But what they thought was a private off-air chat turned out to be an extremely public one, when transcripts of their conversations were published in the Sunday newspapers and the video became one of the most watched clips on YouTube. Gray was sacked from his job and Keys swiftly resigned.

Keys and Gray are hardly the first people to be caught out in that way. The tabloid archives are full of celebrities recorded saying things when they thought the camera, microphone or tape recorder was off (often with hilarious consequences, at least for the headline writers); employees have been sacked for making disparaging remarks about their employers on Twitter and Facebook; and personal and business relationships have broken down when the wrong person was sent the wrong email.

Sending the wrong communication might lead to some pretty dire consequences but sending no communication at all can be even worse. Last week I visited the FM team of a major retailer embarking on a large facilities management project, which has been in the planning stages for two years. My visit coincided with the head of FM presenting the new project to the company’s purchasing department and I was invited to sit in on the meeting to get an overview. I naively assumed that the presentation was the latest update on the project to the procurement team but I couldn’t have been more wrong. This was the first time the head of purchasing and his team of regional purchasing managers had heard about the plans, despite the proposed strategy affecting their day-to-day roles. After the meeting I quizzed the FM about this, and was told that the purchasing (and other) departments in the company had been consulted about the project since its inception but had not responded. It turned out that few people understood what FM was in the organisation and even fewer cared – despite the FM team playing a key role in managing the organisation’s core business, its retail stores.

Clearly there are two sides to every story and maybe the company’s other departments weren’t that interested in what FM was all about. But the success of that FM’s particular project lay with other departments changing the way they worked so communicating the plan was an essential part of the strategy.

Sometimes us facilities professionals are very good at doing the technical and practical job of an FM but terribly bad at communicating to other people. If we remember to tell people that the loos on the first floor will be shut next week, it will be a brief note on the door saying ‘out of order’. Instead we need to adopt some PR skills and promote why we’re doing something and the benefits: ‘Apologies that these facilities are closed. Your newly-refurbished bathrooms will be unveiled next Monday’ is a much more positive message.

Good communication is so essential to the success of what we do. Getting it wrong is unlikely to end up with public shame like Gray and Keys but could lead to professional obscurity, project failure and even prosecution if we fail to communicate important legal issues.

The social media revolution

My email inbox is full. Not of the usual press releases, ideas for articles and spam but of invitations to connect on LinkedIn, comments on my Facebook status and the news that more people are following me on Twitter.

After erring on the side of technophobia, last year I started to embrace social media. I rejuvenated my dormant LinkedIn account and set myself up on Twitter tweeting mini reports from facilities management and workplace events and links to interesting blogs and articles.

Without over-dramatising it, social media has revolutionised the way I work. LinkedIn is one massive database of contacts. If I’m looking to find a specific person, they’re easy to track down on LinkedIn. And it’s a great way to get some background info on someone you’re about to meet or have met in the flesh. LinkedIn, like all similar sites, allows you to get in touch with people you might not otherwise have the opportunity (or the nerve) to meet or say hello to in the flesh.

In the Twittersphere, I’ve had the opportunity to be in touch with people I already know and get snippets of news and links to articles and blogs that they find interesting – and often I do too. But more interestingly, I’ve also developed relationships with people I didn’t know before. At several FM events recently which I’ve been tweeting using the event hash tag (see #wtrends or #worktech on Twitter) I’ve met other people also tweeting the same event and we’ve developed a conversation through Twitter about the event. Another member of the Twitterati described this as the same as passing notes around the classroom, but with the health warning that these ‘notes’ are in the public domain. Some of these people I’ve been lucky enough to meet afterwards and it’s a great springboard to a relationship if you’ve already been discussing ideas online first.

Recently I’ve also had a go at virtual worlds such as Second Life, and from initially being very suspicious, have realised that there are numerous opportunities for the facilities management sector. It’s like an advanced Twitter or LinkedIn, where you get to meet and discuss ideas, but in an almost real environment. Although the technology still has some way to go, I think Second Life will be as big, if not bigger, than Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Which brings me on to a problem with social media. With all this time spent online, will we lose the ability to talk face-to-face? Will the idea of actually having a random chat with someone in the flesh become anathema to some people and will we hide behind our screens? Already people email across offices rather than pick up the phone or walk a few paces.

As Neil Usher from Rio Tinto said at the Workplace Trends conference (#wtrends) we need to “respect the encounters which may be inconclusive” and introduce a bit of chaos into our lives. Nothing is quite as a good as a natter over the coffee machine. We need to remember how to chat.