FM Frequency: Don’t Be A Lighthouse Keeper

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By Charles Carpenter
Published in the October 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

You probably know that some facilities are harder to manage than others. At the Beavertail Lighthouse in Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the official state name of RI), long hours were the norm, since facility managers (fms) lived on site.

Winding the weights that kept the light spinning might need to be performed every eight hours for the fm-also known as the lighthouse keeper. There was also the need to haul gallons of whale oil (used to keep the lamp illuminated) up 90 steps and a short ladder throughout the day. The job did not come without its risks, as the Whale Rock Lighthouse assistant keeper washed away with his facility during a 1938 hurricane.

Lighthouses were eventually outfitted with electricity, meaning these live-in fms had to adapt their skills to understand electrical and battery backup systems. Eventually, the U.S. Coast Guard automated the lighthouse, and the lighthouse keeper was one of the few fm jobs to become extinct.

The lighthouse keeper story illustrates just how essential it is for today’s fms to keep their skills relevant. It’s hard to imagine an fm who has not learned how to use a PC or e-mail or does not know what “Googling” is. Cell phones are the minimum where smartphones are routine. Love or hate text messaging, the time has come to for fms to embrace it.

Adapting technical skills to understand a new variable drive motor might not be a challenge. Modifying space planning skills to encompass the new layouts that are common in the workplace is easily obtainable. But honing people skills to understand the different generations in the workplace is an entirely different matter. Googling multi-generational and facility management (FM), you might come across Meredith Thatcher, who has been speaking on the topic for what seems like a decade.

Fms have to work with managers who are promoted because of their technical knowledge and not their people skills. While it may not seem fair to hold fms to a different standard, it is not difficult to imagine that companies will find it easier to replace an fm than an IT manager responsible for racks of servers. So here are some tips for dealing with people of differing age groups, education, and intelligence levels.

How many sides are there to an issue? If you said two, you could be wrong. There could be as many sides to an issue as there are people involved. For instance, take the issue of whether or not to install automatic soap dispensers in a restroom. Supporters might only be in favor if the dispenser uses foaming soap. Others might be in favor because of improved sanitary conditions. Some people might be against it because of the cost. Others might be against it because they find the sensitivity settings are not to their liking or the cartridges to be environmentally unfriendly versus refillable pumps.

Eventually, you reach what Dr. Michael Pierson of Texas State University calls that narrow band of dissatisfaction called consensus. Consensus is hard to reach because everyone has a different take or side to an issue.

You will find that most people are doing the best that their current level of awareness allows. While an fm is left to wonder why someone would do something stupid like break the cover off a toilet paper dispenser, it might be that a person could not figure out that a cover will slide from left to right or not understand the concept of coreless toilet paper and assume the current roll is finished. So breaking the device is the best they could do with their current mental or rational capabilities.

If you want to get people to listen to you, you must speak to them on their level and from their point of view. For example, you might have a department that you want to relocate in smaller workspaces. These people may not resist the layout because they feel they need more space and do not want to use shared spaces. The resistance may be because they feel smaller workspaces lessen their importance and ultimately their livelihood. As an fm, you might need to sit in their seats, so to speak, and explain to them the reasons behind the change and gather their feedback before making the final layout.

Studies have found that people with just a high school diploma do not lose their jobs because of lack of knowledge or ability but because of a lack of people skills. If you don’t improve your people skills, you might find yourself going the way of the lighthouse keeper…extinct.

Do you Twitter? It might be time to embrace this technology too. An fm could set up a facility-related Twitter account to share import information in 140 characters or less (i.e. “East parking lot closed for resurfacing on Saturday”). If tweeting gets your building occupants to pay attention when you need it, what is the harm in that?

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