#5QuestionsWith is an interview series with RE experts to help the industry learn, grow, and be inspired. Read on as FM and PropOps leaders talk to us about the highs and lows of what it means to be a change-maker in the smart buildings arena.

Edward Ehlers is the Founder of Facilities Management Group, CEO of Silver Brook Management, and former VP of Integrated Facilities Management, JLL. In his long career as an FM professional, he has encountered and overcome several challenges. Read on as Ed shares his insights on what it means to be an FM professional in this day and age, what the future of FM would look like in the wake of the pandemic, and his approach to dealing with and driving change in the industry.

1. What are the current challenges faced by facilities managers in the wake of the pandemic? How do you see the industry shifting/evolving to cope with it?

The challenges are legion and have been enumerated in many places, including Facilio’s own Leader’s Guide – How to rebuild, retool, and reopen buildings during a global pandemic. The opportunities range from tactical (HVAC changes, Visitor Procedures, Cleaning Schedules) to strategic (WorkPlace Planning, IoT, ISO 41001 Implementation). All of which are highly varied depending directly on the facility in question.

However, this pandemic has exacerbated a challenge that has existed since the very first person, in the very first office said, “It’s cold in my office. Can you adjust the temperature?” That challenge is what I call the “FM Parallax.” Parallax is defined by Dictionary.com as “the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer.” I define “FM Parallax” as the apparent value of an FM or Property Management professional as viewed by the end-user, be it tenant, occupant, customer, client, student, patient, patron, or C suite executive.

For too long, FM, and I include all related facilities disciplines, have been seen as transactional, reactive: the #OBTW (oh by the way) member of the leadership team. “We are going to open a new office in Boston. Oh by the way, let facilities know.”

We have to stop asking ourselves, “How do we get a seat at the table?” and remember that they wouldn’t have a table, or seats for that matter if an FM professional hadn’t provided it in the first place. Practically that means if we as FM leaders see ourselves as the head wrench turner, then our teams will reflect that view and all our stakeholders will see it also.

So start by realizing that what you, each and every one of you, do is important to the organization.

Next, look beyond a specific task. “I was just told to move this desk from here to there.” Why is the table being moved; is there a better place for it; is there a better way to move the table; maybe it shouldn’t be a table, maybe it should be a desk? Take initiative in your work and leaders must support, no, actively cultivate, that initiative. When a person knows and is involved in the “why”, the “how” will be executed with pride.

Finally, ask who else needs to know this table was moved? The manager of the area, information technology, human resources, finance, or someone else. Involving other stakeholders prior to the movement of the table will reduce confusion, consternation, and the most horrible response an FM can give, “I don’t know why it’s being moved. I’m just doing what I’m told.” When you proactively involve stakeholders, you not only elevate the efficiency of a specific task but also your value as an FM professional.

These are the 3 I’s: Importance, Initiative, Involvement. Certainly, specific scenarios and specific positions will have occasion to use the 3 I’s to a greater extent or another. However, in every scenario, every FM can use them. Whether you are an Office Manager moving tables or the Director of Real Estate and Facilities opening an office in Boston, you can use the 3 I’s and let all stakeholders know that “at the table” is where FM belongs.

2. Digital transformation is a common workplace mantra now. How is the industry viewing this now? What is the contrast in digital initiatives now vs pre-pandemic time?

The contrast is stark. Many companies were using some digital technologies (cloud computing, video conferencing, mobile devices) to one extent or another. We, and I mean most FM’s and companies, had these capabilities already but they were not comfortable using them.

The pandemic certainly has pushed many people and organizations way beyond their comfort level. We are surviving, and many are thriving, but some are striving.

What does striving look like? It looks like artificial intelligence (AI), cloud tech, IoT driven operations, and alternative fuels, to name just a few. Facilities such as The Edge in Amsterdam have already utilized many of these technologies. They are ahead of the curve. But are they? In a world where a dispersed workforce is the norm, are expensive innovations going to be enough to bring employees back to the office building in the same numbers as in 2019? And should they?

The most agile companies, the most visionary companies, are thinking less about how to bring employees back. They are more interested in what is beyond “Work From Home” or “Work From an Office”. They are embracing “Work From Anywhere.”

3. FM success is a direct tangent of customer experience. With the renewed focus on occupant health and wellness in today’s climate, what’s your advice to make informed tactical changes here?

As mentioned in the answer to question number 1, tactical responses are as varied as the facilities in which we operate: schools, Class A office buildings, hospitals, hotels, warehouses, distribution centers, etc. All will have different end-users and hence different needs. However, two points that apply to any scenario are:

  1. Pause- in many cases, a decision does not need to be made immediately, emergencies and disasters excluded. The miracle solution today can be obsolete tomorrow.
  2. Consider – there are many aspects but the top one is people, not just end-users and customers, but the FM staff. As an FM leader, the customer is not the only top priority, FM staff experience is.

If the FM staff feel valued and empowered with modern tools, processes, and resources, and are actively encouraged to utilize the 3 Is, then world-class customer experience automatically follows.

Once the appropriate tactical responses are identified, they must be carefully planned, clearly articulated, and receptive to feedback. To illustrate, new visitor procedures can impact the entire facility. Visitors and hosts must understand what is expected of each. In today’s terms, the expectation would be streamlining arrivals and providing a comfortable environment for visitors even with enhanced screening. Keeping track of visitor travel history and notifying hosts ahead of time would be beneficial as well. The ability of the visitors or hosts to provide comments and suggestions into this new process is critical to stakeholder engagement. Even if comments or suggestions can not be implemented, they must be acknowledged. It is not enough for a customer just to experience the facility, they should feel that they are indeed an important part of the experience.

4. We see terms like sustainability and environment friendly being thrown around in daily conversation. What are your thoughts on how FMs can help move that idea forward?

We shouldn’t throw those terms around, they should be carefully considered. With the exception of the scientists at a nuclear facility, FM’s arguably have the greatest impact on their company’s environmental footprint. Everything from the decision to purchase recycled flatware to the management of the hazardous material; Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) should be part of every decision. A company can not necessarily convert all facilities to solar power overnight but does the company send all its old, obsolete computers to the landfill, or do they recycle the electronics even though it might cost a little more?

Energy management and efficiency doesn’t have to be as elusive as it is. If every FM considered CSR, I mean thoughtfully considered CSR, every time a decision was made, we could make a tremendous change in our world as a whole.

Several years ago I was with a company that implemented a furniture donation program. It was spearheaded by FM; it involved more effort than just throwing the furniture in the landfill; it didn’t generate a few bucks by selling the items to a furniture reseller – It was donated to a local school system. And over the years, more than 15 tractor-trailer loads of desks, chairs, office supplies, lamps, electronics, oh, and tables were put to use, and are still used today, by thousands of students.

5. What do you think about the future of FM moving forward- specifically, through the lens of someone in an executive position like yourself?

I will refer you back to question 1. FM leaders are being valued as a strategic department with their continued demonstration of effort in operating facilities post the pandemic. So realistically what can be done – eliminate the “FM Parallax” by using the 3 I’s. Know that you and your team are important. Take the initiative and understand the bigger picture. Involve other stakeholders. FMs have come to be invaluable to every organization- it is time that we are acknowledged and appreciated for it. It is time to take our seat at the table.