ThinkFM: back in the FM limelight

Ever since the BIFM annual conference moved from its collegiate homes of Oxford and Cambridge in 2009, it has lost its sparkle. But if last week’s recently-branded ThinkFM was anything to go by, the event is back in the FM limelight. At Oxford and Cambridge typically more than 300 guests enjoyed two-and-a-half days of debate which included conference dinners, a Fringe and various site visits. The slimming-down of the event to a packed one day is a sign of the economic times, but the 320 delegates (up from around 100 last year in Nottingham) demonstrated the power of a great venue at the Royal College of Physicians, near London’s Regent’s Park, and an attractive programme.

Yet those who had got up 45 minutes early to attend the motivational breakfast session would have been forgiven for wishing they’d opted for a lie-in. A thinly-disguised sales pitch from Mark Woods and Simon Shimmens at Statius Management Services, which involved delegates wearing 3D glasses and choosing their favourite dragon, for no obvious reason, failed to motivate delegates’ horizons for the day as promised, and instead made most of us want to join the other conference the building was hosting – on the early signs of cervical cancer.

But the energy was soon flowing thanks to Sahar Hashemi, one of the UK’s most inspirational entrepreneurs and the founder of the Coffee Republic, who, in an insightful keynote introduced by new BIFM chairman Ismena Clout, talked about setting up a business and offered some tips for business success. “You should work as something that suits your personality, so who you are and what you do are very similar. You shouldn’t go to the office and leave part of you behind”, she said explaining how she’d started her career as a solicitor. Leap, and the net will appear, she urged the audience while warning that “whenever you want to make change, the fear part of the brain will start talking. You need to press ‘delete’ or you’ll never do anything.”

While the coffee bar format is now well-established in the UK, it was unknown in the early 1990s when Hashemi was trying to persuade bank managers of the opportunity. It took “15 years to become an overnight success” she said, advising delegates to innovate and change as they won’t get it right first time.

As the company grew – from seven stores in 1997 to 110 in 2000 – there was a tendency to leave the entrepreneurial sense behind. “But whoever you are, in whatever role, you must act like an entrepreneur.” Hashemi’s tips for success include:

  • Become the customer because you see the problems and opportunities when you are the customer
  • Get out of the office – you can’t become the customer stuck inside four walls
  • The importance of being clueless – the biggest trap is to do something this way because we’ve always done it this way. We need to clear our minds and spot the opportunity
  • Bootstrapping – get inspiration from new things and try different things again and again
  • Notch up the numbers: people hate change – 12 editors rejected Harry Potter, 217 bank manager rejected Starbucks. If you’re getting a ‘no’, you’re not in your comfort zone
  • Take 100 per cent of yourself to work: Fun is not a form of entertainment, it’s an integral part of being good at what you do

Few could top such an inspirational performance, but Assurity Consulting’s (formerly ems) Greg Davies managed to capture the audience’s attention in one of four hub sessions, with a series of scientific experiments illustrating the concept of risk. (Un)fortunately he failed to blow up the room as many of the facilities managers had secretly hoped. Davies was followed in Hub Four, known as the ThinkFM Lab, by Peter Kimmel from FM Benchmarking talking about the drivers for benchmarking: to prove what a great job we’re doing as well as areas in which we can improve. Quality and cost were key areas but benchmarking energy consumption was the main reason most of the delegates were at the session. Kimmel explored how to get the best out of benchmarking and avoid falling into common traps such as hastily-drawn conclusions and invalid and inappropriate data.

Hub Three, which focused on Competitive Advantage, then hosted a presentation from Deborah Rowland, head of facilities management category, Government Property Unit and Mark Bew, chair, Government – Industry Working Group, on the hot topic of Building Information Modelling (BIM) and what it has to do with FM. They urged delegates to move away from the acronym and instead think about what they wanted from information.

Jane Drysdale, HR director at OCS Group UK, was part of a panel in Hub Two, focusing on People, exploring the role of qualifications in the FM sector. Sitting as the only employer next to students and education providers in a debate chaired by Linda Hausmanis the BIFM’s head of awarding organisation, she argued that qualifications had to be undertaken in partnership between the student, the employer, the customer and the education provider. “The individual is responsible for stretching their knowledge throughout their career, and keeping up-to-date professionally; the employer must create the right environment for experienced-based learning and support their employees, whether that be financially or through dedicated study time and education providers must develop iterative change in their offering, so that the needs of the customer and the industry are met and there is real innovation through learning together.”

An FM conference couldn’t exist without a presentation on new ways of working, but Philip Tidd, head of consulting EMEA at Gensler brought new insight to the issue arguing that presenteeism is dead, not because managers should manage by output  but because “just because someone is in front of you doesn’t mean that they’re working; 4.7 billion minutes are day are spent on Facebook and that’s not just at lunch hours.” In a direct challenge to the FM sector he argued that although property was the second biggest cost after people, it was so much lower that “why focus on shaving a few pounds off a bit of square foot instead of creating a more productive space for people?” But the effectiveness of the workplace itself would become less of an issue he said, as workplace became more distributed. Presenteeism would still be an issue, but by technology rather than by line of sight.

A similar issue was covered later in the day by Chris Webber of Advanced Workplace Associates, who discussed the role of agile working ­– a way of working that uses IT to let people and organisations choose the best places and ways to work both in and out of the office. An advanced workplace, which is scientifically designed to give people the right variety of spaces to do their best work and the services, technology and practices to support organisational flexibility, undoubtedly created more work for the facilities manager but it allowed them to become closer to the organisation and to their customers.

Social media is also a stalwart of every FM conference these days and Workplace Law CEO David Sharp, together with Oli Worth, solicitor and Julian Kirkpatrick, associate director, law firm Greenwoods, presided over a fascinating session attended by the FM twitterati, arguing that what you say on social media carries exactly the same dangers as if it was printed. “A tweet cannot be unsaid.”

Consultant Lucy Jeynes promised a session about doing the hokey cokey and duly got a packed room. Although she failed to demonstrate the dance herself, her tales from the frontline in outsourcing had delegates rocking with laughter. “It’s a funny time in the market. You have organisations that have never outsourced before, outsourcing everything and then others, who have outsourced for years, are bringing it all back in-house. The hokey cokey is not a journey, it’s a dance and you find you’re still where you were in the first place.”

In an entertaining and thought-provoking session, Jeynes argued that there is no best way “to get FM sorted”. It depends on the type of business and the type of facilities the organisation has, the type of customers and numerous other issues. Jeynes described four types of customers: straightforward professional adults such as accounts payable; people who expect special treatment such as academics, lawyers and hottest guests; people who need special treatment including children, animals, the elderly and hospital patients; and people who are a law unto themselves including young offenders, medical students and bingo hall customers. The latter are apparently well-known for playing a sedate game of bingo and then dashing to the loo to vandalise the facilities.

Jeynes concluded with her three golden rules for outsourcing:

  • Be clear about your outcomes
  • Never outsource a problem
  • Don’t let cost drive you towards a particular choice of model

In the final session of the day in Hub Three, Bev Burgess director from The Capsicum Group and Paul Crilly former CEO of Reliance Facilities Management and now managing director of NJC, continued Jeynes’ theme arguing that continuous improvement and consistency are greater priorities than cost when determining the value of a FM contract. That was one of the findings from Workplace Law’s recent survey, Evaluating Performance in Facilities Management. The research was based on one-to-one interviews, focus groups and a detailed survey of nearly 500 FMs and revealed that the majority of client organisations allocate up to 5 per cent of their turnover to the purchase of FM services, with 40 per cent investing between 1 and 5 per cent and 24 per cent spending between 6 and 10 per cent of their turnover.

The data prompted a lively discussion on the future of FM procurement, particularly the growth of outcome based contracts (whereby suppliers establish the factors which influence clients demand) and the growth of strategic partnerships, which many in the audience confirmed were on the increase.

The venue – The Royal College of Physicians’ award-winning Grade 1 listed modernist masterpiece – played a major role in the event’s success. The main modern auditorium, the Wolfson lecture Theatre,  where the keynote was held, was complemented by the council chamber, a circular room which hosted Hub One was held and the library where more than 50,000 antiquarian books and numerous portraits of eminent physicians looked down on delegates attending Hub Three. The medicinal garden, home to more than 1,300 species, was the stunning setting for the evening reception, and the only downside is that the free WiFi was so overloaded that tweeting (and catching up on emails) became an impossible exercise.

But the conference was not without its contradictions, particularly the slightly strained relationship between the two organising partners, the BIFM and Workplace Law, reminiscent of the awkward coalition between David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Workplace Law, which decided not to run its annual facilities management Legal Update Conference in June after 12 successful years, instead collaborated on the ThinkFM programme and took over roughly a third of the speaking slots.  While the result was generally very positive, and amalgamation of events should definitely be encouraged, there were some awkward moments as a result of both organisations needing to be seen to have had their say with both CEOs vying for attention. Workplace Law’s MD David Sharp introduced Mitie’s chief executive Ruby McGregor-Smith which left BIFM CEO Gareth Tancred the rather unenviable task of trying to keep delegates’ attention with his ‘thank you’ slot once McGregor-Smith had finished her excellent presentation.

But the main complaint, indicative of a good conference, was that the proliferation of fantastic sessions and speakers meant that many delegates missed out as they had to make difficult choices– and in many hubs there was standing room only for the more popular speakers.

Cathy Hayward