FM Frequency: In-House Sociologist

By Charles C. Carpenter, CFM
From the July/August 2014 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

The American Sociological Association defines sociology as an overarching unification of all studies of humankind, including history, psychology, and economics. Whether or not facility managers (fms) studied sociology in high school or college, they may not realize they play amateur sociologist everyday. Today’s workplace is an amalgamation of many peoples. Demographists report that the workplace now has five generations all trying to work side-by-side; moreover, the workplace is awash in cultural differences from transient workers caused by unemployment to immigrant workers providing various skill sets.

Charles Carpenter
Carpenter is site manager, global real estate for HP in Austin, TX. He has worked in facility management since 1995.

With workplaces full of a mishmash of humankind, there are bound to be a few problems where divergent people spend a majority of time together: your facility. When all else fails, employees likely turn to their fm to solve their problems, answer their questions, or listen to them complain. Most days you just have to deal with it. While Charles Darwin said “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed,” he didn’t encounter some of the oddball issues in the current workplace.

Some of the issues occupants present to fms are easy to navigate, such as finding a large enough meeting space or fixing a broken desk. Others make even a seasoned fm cringe at the sight of an e-mail subject line, such as “what’s that smell?” or “noisy neighbor.” Fms have to be ready to shift gears from mechanical mode to workplace sociologist.

As I pointed out in my October 2011 column, “Don’t Be A Lighthouse Keeper,” most people are doing the best that their current level of awareness allows; however, that does not make your job easier when an occupant wants you to do something about the employee who burns popcorn in the microwave.

Since you can’t put a security guard on the microwave (camera, yes; guard, no), fms are expected to referee the use of these appliances. Maybe a future architect can borrow from clean room design and incorporate microwave rooms into facilities, complete with their own ventilation system. Frankly, there may not be a bigger disproportionate drain on an fm’s time than the microwave: they break; they trip circuit breakers; they stink; they are dirty; and there never seem to be enough of them.

No one ever complains about a “low talker” (a la Seinfeld), but when someone is loud the fm is supposed to solve it as if the person is a noisy variable frequency drive. In this age of apps, people can even download a sound meter to record in decibels all their noise complaints; there’s nothing like a bar graph to accompany a complaint e-mail. How the fm became the sound police is a mystery, but, again, who else can the occupant turn to?

Another area many fms are expected to have answers for is parking. Big cars in small spaces, employees in visitor spaces, door dings, and shortages are just some of the issues that arise. Unless the facility is a parking garage, few people have the budget to enforce parking effectively. Even fewer have management backing for when Zale from Sales hits his 10th violation. While towing may be an option, social media can brand a company as the employer that tows cars.

It is tempting to take a page from Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive who, in his Academy Award winning role as Deputy Samuel Gerard, utters, “I don’t care.” While he does not care (at the time) if Dr. Kimble is guilty or innocent, Gerard has a job to do, and that is his only concern. Fms sometimes have to see things much the same way. Someone parks in visitor parking so he or she would not be fired for being late. Birds used a car for target practice. Somebody gets upset because they lost their Tupperware during a refrigerator cleaning. On some level, fms have to channel their inner Gerard and say, “I don’t care.”

At the same time, fms do care. There is no shortage of happenings with humankind that fall to the fm. When employees get sick and/or die, collecting their belongings might be a job for the fm. If a company has a mass layoff, the fm has to terminate access and bar even the most even-keeled from returning. When a facility shuts down, the fm may have to keep the secret for days or weeks and ultimately lock the door.

While an fm has to play amateur sociologist and deal with humankind, you just have to put on the persona, check your emotions at the door, and go reset the circuit breaker.

Do you know of an Academy Award worthy fm? If so, consider nominating him or her for TFM’s 2015 Facility Executive of the Year. If they’ve overseen a recent facility-wide project that’s delivering results (a task that definitely requires people skills), they may be the perfect nominee. You can even nominate yourself. Nominations are open until October 1 at the following link.