Crisis management and the Japanese earthquake

As crisis management plans go, Japan’s was a well-prepared one. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the Japanese have become world leaders in seismic technology and all modern structures are designed for earthquakes – and older buildings retrofitted appropriately. Buildings shorter than three storeys have reinforced walls and foundation slabs of a certain thickness, while taller structures have innovative earthquake-resistant designs that undergo regular review by structural engineers. Mid-rise buildings often rest on huge rubber or fluid-filled shock absorbers which slide from side to side, dissipating lateral motion and turning it into heat. Buildings sway in high winds but that helps to prevent them disintegrating into reubble when earthquakes hit. Every household is instructed to keep a survival kit with a torch, radio, first aid kit and enough food and water to last for a few days, and issued with instructions such as avoiding placing heavy objects in places where they could easily fall during an earthquake and cause injury or block exits; having a fire extinguisher to hand; and being familiar with the local evacuation plans in their area. Earthquake planning is a key part of all organisations’ business continuity planning, and the Japanese view crisis management planning as a core business activity – it is simply an essential way of life.

This is a country used to quakes as the Japanese archipelago is located in an area where several continental and oceanic plates meet. But the recent earthquake in the north of the country, measuring 8.9 on the richter scale, followed by a series of aftershocks many of which were larger than the earthquake which devastated Christchurch last month, a tsunami and the resulting nuclear emergency, demonstrated that no crisis management plan, however carefully prepared and well practised, can cover all eventualities. The crisis management plan for New York’s Twin Towers, for example, included the notion that a plane might strike the towers. But it was envisaged that this would be an accident on the way back to a New York airport and the planes would therefore be almost empty of fuel. Of course when the planes hit on 11 Septemmber 2011, they were full of fuel which exercerbated an already disastrous situation.

The crisis in Japan is expected to be the world’s costliest natural disaster – in the region of £100bn. As facilities professionals, all we can do is to plan for realistic and anticipated emergencies. No doubt, crisis management plans in earthquake prone areas are being revisited at the moment, and of course it’s a timely reminder for all facilities professionals to dust off the business continuity plan and make sure it’s suitable for today’s business – and continually rehearsed and updated.

But of course it’s not just earthquakes and natural disasters which can rock a company. Cotswold Geotechnical was fined £385,000 last month after becoming the first company to be convicted of corporate manslaughter. The sum amounted to 115 per cent of its annual turnover and could well result in the company’s liquidation. The message is clear: while the horror of earthquakes and the shocking loss of life make the headlines, a lack of proper health and safety management can quickly result in not only reputational damage and massive fines, but also in the company’s demise. And all this is in the hands of the facilities manager.

Working on the move

This week I have worked at my own office desk, at a client site, at the kitchen table, on a plane, a train, a bus, on the Tube, and in a number of coffee shops. While some of this work has involved reading magazine and newspaper articles, chatting on the phone and scribbling notes, the majority has been tapping away at the laptop. An FM case study of a Liverpool building, for example, was largely written in the waiting room at Liverpool Lime Street station and on the train back to London, and then finished off at home.

And I’m not alone. Everywhere I go these days, there are people perching laptops on their briefcases, tapping away at iPads, iPhones or BlackBerries and chatting to colleagues through Skype. People who defend the office as the only location for work need to get out and see the reality. People are working everywhere – and that’s just in the winter. On the way to a meeting in Pall Mall last week, I passed a businessman who had set up his laptop on the side of one of Trafalgar Square’s fountains (his IT manager would have had a heart attack) and was busy talking on Skype. And that was despite the temperature being only marginally above zero. When spring finally comes, every open space will be full of people working in one way or another.

But there are two major downsides – and I’m suffering from both. The first is the lack of WiFi connectivity. Last May, London Mayor Boris Johnson revealed his desire to convert the capital into the world’s technological hub with a free city-wide WiFi like Venice, Miami and a host of US cities. We’re still way off that in most of the UK. For those regular mobile workers, buying a WiFi dongle is an easy option for a small monthly charge, but for those of us who are only out and about occasionally, that extra cost is hard to justify. And the result is that you either pay exorbitant costs for one-off WiFi use, you try to piggy back off free connections (only to have them drop at a crucial moment) or you camp out in Starbucks where there’s free WiFi.

The other, more important, issue is physical comfort – or lack of. Us facilities professionals spend a lot of time ensuring everyone in the workplace is as comfortable as they can be. They have the right ergonomic chairs, adjustable desks, screens at just the right height (or laptop stands) but then the business comes along and gives people laptops and we know full well that they’re going to be sitting in uncomfortable positions for long periods craning their neck to see the screen. As anyone who’s tried to type on a laptop on a train table for long periods will know, you leave the train with your shoulders hunched up around your ears.

But few organisations seem to be concerned about the ergonomic suitability of all the locations that their staff are working in. Surely, it’s only a matter of time before there are a spate of claims for repetitive strain injury, and other health problems, against organisations for failing to provide the right working environment – and there have been several already. It will be the facilities manager who will have to shoulder the blame. We need to be thinking now (and I know many of you are already) about how we balance this desire to work flexibly with the need to 
be ergonomically safe and sound.

Hashtag fail

Search Twitter under the hashtag fail and you’ll come across a lot of examples of poor service, disgruntled customers and some almost unbelievable situations. Look for the hashtag fmfail and there are some great examples of facilities management failings, enough to make even the most robust facilities professional blush – the security guard playing solitaire in a City office reception and the receptionist reading news stories on the internet (thanks @fmguru), the security asleep when the FM turns up to do a site inspection (@stapletoncoach), the empty Klix machine during a swimming pool gala (@FM_day2day) or the retailer who plays rap so loudly in their changing rooms that shoppers are forced out (cathy_fm_world). BIFM deputy chair and powerPerfector consultant Ismena Clout (@iswhiz) added to the list when she went for a night out at a local restaurant and spotted the big aggressive sign in a restaurant to instruct people to use the loo brush after use – with no loo brush provided.

As a nation we’re renowned for being poor at complaining and being prepared to put up with some awful service but the joy of Twitter has allowed us to rant about poor service without the embarrassment of actually complaining to a person (big companies should take note – if you’re not searching Twitter for mentions of your company and responding quickly to complaints, then you’re missing a trick and what might now be a minor complaint could escalate very quickly when people retweet the more hilarious or serious complaints). Virgin has been very swift to respond to #virginfail tweets but other companies have not performed as well. It’s now known by BT customers that it’s very difficult to get through to their customer service department to actually speak to someone but if you post negative tweets about an organisation, they will respond more promptly. Surely properly staffing their call centre in the first place would avoid customers having to go public via Twitter with their complaints?
But do we reward good service? Asda is known for its very competitive pricing but not usually for its good customer service or friendly staff. So when an Asda delivery driver went beyond the call of duty and carried my shopping down two flights of stairs to my kitchen (not even the Ocado man used to go that far) I went on to Asda’s website to email my thanks to his bosses, so he would get recognised. Even though there was an option to complain, there was no way to simply make a comment or say ‘thank you’ so I ended up sending a complaint to say thanks (which probably never got read).

As an industry, we need to get better at recognising great service. Yes, there are various annual awards, but what about the numerous examples of exceptional service that happen in facilities management teams every day? Which is why @izwhiz and @theatreacle have suggested an #fmgoldstar hashtag on Twitter. If you have witnessed great FM, then post your comments on Twitter with #fmgoldstar and we can start to recognise all the great things happening in our profession and learn from them.

But don’t stop the #fmfail either – it’s good to know when we get it wrong so we can make it right. My next #fail is directed at computer manufacturers who bury the hash key deep inside the keyboard – they need to move with the times and have it as easy to reach as the exclamation mark. Moan moan moan…

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.