The key to surviving FM

For those who were unable to attend Workplace Futures 2019 this week, don’t fear – Magenta is on hand to give you a short summary of the day’s highlights, with a longer report available on the conference organiser’s website here.  The first major conference of the year proved to be full of insights, debates and, despite best efforts, the occasional mention of the “C-word” – Carillion. Loaded with FM and workplace leaders, the programme was packed full of insights, especially with our very own Cathy and Jo on the ticket.

Introducing this year’s conference theme, ‘Surviving FM’, conference chair Martin Pickard brought to mind a theory by American business consultant William Bridges. Bridges is responsible for the ‘transition model’, which splits the process of transitioning into three key stages. First comes the ‘ending’, the point when people figure out what they are losing and learn how to manage these losses. The second phase is the ‘neutral zone’, the period between the old and new reality that produces a state of flux. Finally, there is the ‘new beginning’, which is typified by a release of energy in the new direction.

Photo taken by Stuart Butcher.

This year’s conference, held for a seventh consecutive year at The Crystal in East London, found a facilities management industry somewhere in that neutral zone though close to its new beginning. While i-FM’s 2018 conference had taken place mere weeks after the liquidation of Carillion, when doubt, anger and recriminations still filled the air, the atmosphere this year felt different. Pickard sought to explain this change in mood. “Periods of chaos produce maximum innovation,” he said, extrapolating on the Bridges model.

Though Pickard did his best to dissuade speakers from using “the C-word”, it was inevitable that they would. i-FM had challenged presenters to demonstrate how their organisations are responding to a period consumed by liquidations, profit warnings, failing revenue and hard-nosed transformation strategies. If facilities management is to continue on its broad track of successful development, and overcome these recent tribulations, its practitioners need to understand the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Sticking to the theme of transition, Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith argued that FM people are change managers. Mitie’s former CEO warned that FM would once again have to adapt to a new environment. Factors like higher regulatory costs will force everyone to foot the bill, she explained, while the original rationale behind outsourced FM services — to save money — is no longer sufficient.

Next up, the Cabinet Office’s Coleen Andrews explained the steps the government had taken to save the vital public services that were plunged into temporary chaos after Carillion’s collapse. She told delegates – a room full of central government’s facilities suppliers – that lessons had been learnt from the debacle. “There is no such thing as outsourcing the risk,” she said. “That’s something the government didn’t think about.”

Andrews also used the opportunity to voice Whitehall’s concerns around an increasing level of short-term financing in the facilities market. “Almost all our strategic suppliers have some form of it,” she said. “We’re pushing for transparency in this area. We need the private sector to manage core services for us. But we need that cultural change, too.”

One of the most memorable presentations on the day came from Ian Marson, transaction advisory director at EY. Describing the current period as “extreme turbulence”, Marson noted that facilities services firms will need to deleverage and focus on niche markets to improve their margin. Growing revenue alone simply won’t suffice. “We expect FM companies won’t make investment on a large scale, but they will look to invest in technology solutions that offer a unique way of offering services,” he said. But he wasn’t terribly optimistic about this avenue, either: “Technology must be the long-term driver, but most FMs aren’t well placed to take advantage of tech because they don’t have infrastructure or internal capability in place.”

The afternoon session moved on to the views from the mid-market in FM, a segment which it seems could exploit the turmoil that has engulfed the wider market as customers turn away from large, risky contracts. James Bradley, a director at Churchill Services, explained how his organisation finds itself competing with both the bigger players and smaller specialists. “To be successful in the midmarket, don’t forget the basics,” he said. The goal should be to find your specialism and develop it.

These words were echoed by Alistair Craig, managing director of corporate sector specialist Anabas, who laid out his company’s journey over recent years. Anabas, he said, needed to determine which areas would deliver the business profit and then plant its flag there. Craig used the example of vanilla, a term that generally equates to cheap thanks to its association with plainness – but the spice itself is actually the second most expensive in the world after saffron. Craig said that he initially wanted to differentiate his service from vanilla, but when he discovered its cost and the neat packaging that pods comes in he understood that vanilla was, in fact, the perfect metaphor for Anabas. People who buy vanilla pods are very particular about what they want, and they’re prepared to pay a premium for it. Similarly, Anabas’s corporate clients want service excellence. Craig’s advice? “Be clear about what you do and be clear about what you don’t do.” Not everyone wants vanilla pods, but those who do appreciate them.

In another stand-out session of the day, FM’s professional bodies were given an opportunity to demonstrate their plans to guide the profession out of this current period of turmoil. First up, Rory Murphy, an RICS World Regional board member, described the RICS focus on professionalism, regulation, ethics, and ultimately client confidence. The global institution, he said, would lean on the trust it has with members to create real pull for qualifications. Next, IFMA UK Chapter board member Dave Wilson explained IFMA’s recent efforts to expand its global reach. With 24,000 members in 105 countries and a host of new chapters opening up across Europe, he claimed there is real value for FM professionals working internationally. Finally, Chris Moriarty, director of insight at the IWFM, emphasised the newly rebranded institute’s plans to develop a professional pathway for the tens of thousands of people working in facilities management who might not know it, and referred to its 10-point plan to modernise the professional body (which can be found here).

The honour of last presentation of the day went to Cathy Hayward and Jo Sutherland, from built environment PR specialist Magenta Communications. In a presentation that looked back at some of the most embarrassing PR blunders of the past few years, they went on to arm delegates with top tips to survive crises in FM. “Organisations are often ill-prepared and don’t communicate,” said Sutherland. “Anyone who’s going to handle the media in a crisis should be trained to do so.”

Summing up Workplace Futures was once again left to Lucy Jeynes, managing director of FM consultancy Larch, who delivered another rousing performance. Jeynes said she had counted 20 mentions of the C-word and four non-mentions. But more significant, she argued, were the subjects that conference speakers and delegates failed to mention: workplace (with or without a capital ‘W’), diversity, and even customers. Jeynes’s conference summaries have become a key feature of these events – this year’s can be found here.

To return to Bridges and his transition model, FM may very well see light at the end of the tunnel but it must entertain many more awkward conversations before it is able to break free from its neutral zone. For now, the profession, the industry and its practitioners remain in a state of flux.

By Simon Iatrou, content manager at Magenta Associates 

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Ben Keeley