Professional Development: OBCs In A Struggling Economy

By George Russell
Published in the April 2009 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

The International Facility Management Association (IFMA) Web site defines facility management (FM) as “a profession that encompasses multiple disciplines to ensure functionality of the built environment by integrating people, place, process, and technology.” In today’s economic climate, facility managers (fms) are truly challenged to fulfill that description. This is a time of dramatic and unprecedented change. More specifically, the way fms perform these essential tasks has been thoroughly transformed.

Conventional Space Versus Office Business Centers. Traditionally, fms are accustomed to creating a built environment in conventional, commercial space. This process always seemed to make a lot of sense. Yet, it does require purchasing a building or signing a lease of a fixed term (usually at least three to five years), designing and building out the space, and equipping it with a telephone system, Internet service, office furniture, duplicating equipment, and the proverbial coffee pot. Once done, an organization is stuck with it.

Photo: Courtesy of The Private Office.

A frequently neglected option, the office business center (OBC) provides a pre-built environment to “integrate people, place, process, and technology.” OBCs have existed for about 40 years, partly because they eliminate many of the activities associated with creating a work environment in conventional commercial space. Once aware of this option, fms seem impressed by the culture of flexibility, both in the physical arrangements and the attitude of OBC management itself.

Solely in terms of the office space for an OBC, the contractual terms are shorter and the amount of workspace can expand and contract as needs dictate—an especially important factor in a volatile economy. Thus, fms provide their co-workers with a physical environment designed to achieve maximum productivity in a cost-effective manner.

Staffing Considerations. Top OBCs are run by experienced management with business know-how gleaned from occupants in a wide variety of industries. Fms should consult with OBC owners on many topics, such as using remote workers, streamlining staff support, cutting overhead, and avoiding the LIFO (last in, first out) personnel dilemma.

The internal staff of an OBC may allow a reduction in personnel at a given site without losing access to needed support functions. Smaller client firms often function without any administrative employees at all. For example, professional staff at some OBCs can handle scheduling at multiple locations for their clients and are available on a 24/7 basis to deal with any contingencies.

In struggling economies, a changing roster of company personnel can also become problematic for fms because of its impact on an fm’s ability to integrate people, place, process, and technology. During contractions of commercial space in tough economic times (or even periodic renovations to a company’s headquarters), OBCs can serve as a temporary location for supplementary staff.

Remote Working. In another business model, fms may set up a management outpost at an OBC and use the office setting primarily for a coordination role. The balance of the staff can work remotely, either from home or another location, while maintaining complete connectivity through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and the use of Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony.

Customers will be unable to differentiate between the various locations, because the OBC can integrate the company’s main phone line and e-mail domain in a completely seamless manner. In addition, a company’s IT security devices can be implemented at the OBC to ensure completely confidential communications.

Working remotely provides one more example of the flexibility of OBCs—a key component in relieving pressure on the fm. It can also provide a boon to human resource departments. For example, working remotely may enlarge the pool of qualified candidates as the commute and the associated costs are avoided. Team members can still schedule face-to-face staff meetings or spend a day or more working with their co-workers in an OBC by using the center’s conference rooms, day offices, and seminar facilities.

Electronic Infrastructure. The need for flexibility in a struggling economy means fms must constantly adapt to new technologies as well. Here OBCs truly shine. Instead of investing in complex infrastructure that may become outdated in just a few years, fms can—and should—rely on OBCs to update their hardware and software support constantly. This capability may be the strongest argument in favor of OBCs, regardless of the economic situation.

Finally, the expense of travel, both in fixed costs and lost productivity, provides one more reason to evaluate OBCs. Many of them offer video conferencing for quality, face-to-face communications anywhere in the world. In fact, the fm’s firm may lack such equipment at its own headquarters and end up traveling to a nearby OBC to use it.

Fms can find OBCs at convenient locations around the country. But to differentiate facilities, they must consider physical flexibility, economies of scale, business models, and IT infrastructure.

In the future, for many of these factors, OBCs will play an increasingly prominent and established role in the American business landscape. As globalization proceeds in its relentless march forward, their 24/7 services will enable increased integration with global partners, many of whom have explored and used OBCs far more than their American counterparts.

Russell is president of The Private Office, a Westchester County, NY-based provider of full service office business centers. Contact the Office Business Center Association International for additional resources.