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Career Ladder talks to director of operations at Portico

Q: What first attracted you to working in FM, did you have much awareness of the profession?

I applied for a job at a local airport and began working at the check-in desk. From there, I moved into a role as cabin crew. I worked long hours with a broader array of customers than in virtually any other sector. I loved the variety of work. After five years in the air, I saw an advert for a role at Portico. The recruitment team hadn’t initially been looking for a candidate with my background. I’d never even worked in an office or with a computer! But Portico saw potential and offered me the role. I started with Portico as a receptionist and worked my way up. I hadn’t been intentionally moving towards FM but I looked for roles that interested and challenged me, and this is where that outlook brought me.

Q: How did you progress through the profession to your current role?

My first role with Portico was as a receptionist at a leading investment bank. I moved into a senior reception role, managing a team of eight relatively quickly. From there, I became a reception supervisor and my work spanned the management of two reception areas and implemented procedures and standards. I was in that role for almost two years before deciding I was ready for a new challenge. I had demonstrated that I loved working with and training people, and Portico wanted to make the most of that! I became Assistant Client Services Manager and Training Coordinator before moving into the Head of Training and Development role. I loved that role and felt really comfortable so moving on was scary. I applied for the senior Operation Manager role and then the Director, Operations role that I’m in now.

Q: What have you found the most challenging experiences working in FM?

It’s important to understand that we’re providing a service, not an off-the-shelf product. It has to be tailored to the client, and it needs to evolve with them. That means that, ultimately, you can’t win every contract or make everyone recognise the difference you can make for them. Some people will always overlook the service or ignore the expertise. We have to remember that the client will have preferences but will also be busy and preoccupied with their own work. We have to find a balance between consulting them and making informed choices. FM providers must have confidence in their work. We are agile, mobilise quickly, and adapt to any situation. We are always learning and improving as a team. I try to be humble enough always to be open to learning new things without letting that dampen my confidence.

Q: What have you found most satisfying about working in the sector?

Developing people. That’s a cheesy answer, I know, but it’s the truth. Working with enthusiastic and motivated people is what motivates me. It’s incredible to see people getting promotions knowing that I was able to help them. Listening to people and guiding them provides amazing insights into what they do, how and why. I see people who want to grow and develop. I get to have honest, open conversations about the highs and lows of different roles.

Q: What qualities do you think are most needed for a successful career in FM?

There are so many roles in FM, and all require different skills. But there are some core elements. As I mentioned, it’s ultimately about looking out for a client or customer, even if you’re not working with them face-to-face. People skills, patience, and authenticity are vital in any service position. You need to be able to listen to and understand someone else’s needs. FM staff also need to be calm under pressure and good at negotiating. We are experts in our field, after all. We need to have the confidence to stand our ground and offer advice on certain things. We can’t back down over issues of compliance, for example.

Q: What has changed about your job role since the COVID-19 crisis? E.g. home working, furloughed, redeployed?

I’m lucky enough to be able to work from home. While I appreciate that, it’s still not easy; I’m such a people person. We have a lot of virtual meetings. They have a very different feel from in-person meetings, but they’ve made it much easier to get hold of people. Essential things are lost when working online. You can’t get a good feel for the emotion and atmosphere when it’s a virtual room. Presentations are more challenging because it’s difficult to judge the reception. Not being onsite makes things feel very distant. It makes you feel disconnected from the work. You learn so much informally, hear things in passing about someone facing a challenge or doing particularly well. All those little things are important.

Q: What is your organisation doing to ensure the wellbeing of staff – whether working at home or returning to the workplace?

Wellbeing has been even more important than ever. I hold regular catch-up sessions with everyone I manage. Resilience and wellbeing training have been available throughout the pandemic – both for those on furlough and those still working. We also have extra patch meetings to keep everyone feeling connected. We have our app, Heartbeat, to connect everyone, share news and updates, and offer tips on wellbeing and self-care. Our priority is to keep everyone safe.

Q: Do you believe the pandemic has highlighted the important role of the FM sector and what areas do you see as most key?

Hugely! FM has been right at the heart of keeping people safe. We have been agile, supportive, and demonstrated our expertise. We put a lot of work into being adaptable, considering what we can do to accommodate client wants and needs. During the lockdown, we were all given government advice at the same time – FMs and clients alike – but as a service provider, we have to be one step ahead. The pandemic has also demonstrated the importance of collaboration. The contracts that move forward in challenging times are the ones that unite the vision of the client and the provider.

Q: What advice would you give to someone coming into the profession now?

Moving into FM showed me how important it is to take opportunities that present themselves. I wasn’t confident that I would be selected for my first role with Portico; I didn’t have the traditional skillset. But I brought people skills and passion, and that made me stand out. Giving 100 percent of myself to what I was doing opened doors. Be open to constant learning and development. You have to be conscious of your mindset. In operations, you are constantly dealing with opportunities, negatives, risks, and pressure to deliver. Don’t allow that pressure to create a negative mindset.

Q: What do you predict could be the main changes to the FM sector post pandemic?

We are going to see a different balance in the workforce. The working week will look different for most people. Guest services will change as a result. Provisions will broaden, and expectations will be higher. Floor hosting roles will be really important as we will be more focused on helping individuals rather than just providing a welcome service. People are also going to be more conscious of their health and wellbeing. We will need to support and reassure people.

About Sarah OBeirne

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