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Our duty of care

The 2020 Workplace Futures Conference focused on wellness and our industry’s responsibilities towards the wellbeing of our people and planet 

“FM is all about people,” said i-FM’s MD David Emmanuel in his introduction to the Workplace Futures conference, which took place in the new venue of One Great George Street in the heart of Westminster. The annual event always focuses on a key theme, and the title of this year’s conference was The 20:20 FM Vision of Wellness – addressing the wellbeing of the people that occupy the buildings cared for by facilities managers.

Kath Fontana, MD of Strategic Accounts, Public Sector and Critical Infrastructure at Mitie Engineering, and the first FM to be named RICS President-Elect, set the scene in her talk on creating a positive social impact in the built environment. “The real scope of the FM sector is to generate meaningful experiences for everyone it touches. As stewards of the natural and built environment we do have a risk of causing a negative social impact of our activity. By understanding social impact fully, and placing it at the core of our endeavours we will meet the twin natural and human challenges, proving that we can be positive agents in delivering sustainable progress that society demands.”

Martin Pickard, who once again chaired the day with some useful insights gleaned from his decades at the heart of the sector, reminded delegates that FM employs a significant 10 per cent of the UK workforce. When you factor in the number of people FMs look after within the workplace, this means they can have a huge level of influence on people’s wellbeing.

It was useful at this juncture to put the concept of wellbeing into context, for as Louise Aston, Wellbeing Director, Business in the Community, quipped, it’s much more than Pilates and fruit plates – it’s about supporting people to help them flourish. To her, the nub of the problem is that “we’re still psychologically injuring our people at work. They may be physically safer these days but not mentally, and there is no health without mental health.”

One of the most tangible ways FM can influence wellbeing at work is by ensuring that workers’ surroundings are good for their health. In his illuminating and entertaining talk on the impact of leadership, management and design on workplace performance, Organisational Psychologist Dr Craig Knight explained why workplace strategy needs to be people-led, not design-led, and driven by staff empowerment. This means creating workplaces suitable for grown-ups: “Why design workplaces with slides and gaming stations as if they’re for 15-year-old boys?” he asked.

The Leesman Index can always be relied upon to point up the link between wellbeing and engagement, and Development Director Kyle de Bruin provided a memorable demonstration of the negative impact uncertainty – such as finding somewhere to sit – can have on workers. Bringing Dr Knight and Hermes FM Wayne Young on to the stage and threatening them with (mild) electrocution certainly helped prove his point. His advice on solving issues – from anxiety over where you’ll find a free desk and dealing with the distraction of noise to combating the pressure on floor space utilisation, is “to offer a variety of different types of work spaces coupled with effective neighbourhood strategies”.

Putting people at the heart of the workplace was the focus of the day. So Young Hyun, Workplace Experience Lead, Wx UK and Ireland, at Sodexo related the ways in which her organisation is addressing the environmental, psychological, physical, and social factors that all contribute to wellbeing. Her presentation incorporated a useful slide which helped illustrate the complementary roles played by CRE, FM, HR and finance – hopefully working in harmony to make a positive impact on wellbeing.

Peter Ankerstjerne, First Vice Chair of IFMA’s board of directors, talked about the take-up of coworking, which, despite a slowdown in recent months, is increasingly viewed as a useful alternative to satellite corporate offices. He quoted a recent survey that found the biggest driver for workplace happiness was social connection – and where better to connect with people than a coworking environment, bringing people together to collaborate and engage?

The presentation by Donna Vizzini of OCS Group on the traumatic situations operational staff in FM may encounter was powerful. Her talk was illustrated by examples of incidents and their aftermath on people working on the front line of FM. OCS now helps train and prepare FM workers to spot the signs of distress and mental struggle among colleagues and other stakeholders. “We’re making people aware a service exists and it’s OK to talk about mental health,” she said.

Jamie Quinn, Responsible Business Director at ENGIE, looked at the societal impact FM can have on the wider community and why it’s so important for FM providers to establish a responsible business charter post-Carillion. It was encouraging to hear that a number of FM competitors are collaborating to help promote ethical practices across the sector.

Sheila Champion-Smeeth is the newly appointed Global Head of Wellbeing for Cisco. Her joint presentation with colleague Mark Needham reflected on how the company is not just talking about wellbeing but embedding it into all of its management and leadership structures to “create a safe and open environment where people have each other’s backs”.

The afternoon sessions included a couple of presentations which looked at the importance of involving people in workplace design and how this can influence their wellbeing. This might take the form of designing a curated experience, as described by Anna Kerr of Signal UK, or creating a user group at the outset of a change management programme, as addressed by Adrienne Mansfield of Jepmond Associates.

A common thread running through the programme was the way in which we are emotionally affected by the places we work. Dr Edward Finch, in his talk on emotional intelligence, warned that the continuing design of ‘benumbing workplaces’ stripped of character can create Teflon environments where nothing sticks. He remarked that while emotional intelligence may be more associated with HR, it’s actually much more relevant to facilities management.

Taking things to a macro level, the day drew to a close with a talk by Victoria Hughes, Business Responsibility Director at VINCI Facilities, on the wellbeing of our planet and FMs’ responsibilities in helping to preserve it. Profit does not equal success, she reminded delegates, and as humans we’re having a catastrophic effect on the planet – so what as an industry can we do to play our part? Quite a lot, it emerged, and she spelt out the 17 sustainable goals to which all in FM can aspire.

Overall, the conference delivered what it promised, homing in on the important way facilities managers can influence our economy, our health and ultimately our planet. Kath Fontana – whose upcoming role as RICS president will hopefully bring about a higher profile for the FM sector – commented: “It is no longer possible with any accountability to separate the social and environmental impact that facilities management makes in the built environment – you know it, I know it and our clients definitely know it…”

Or, as Lucy Jeynes, Managing Director of Larch Consulting, said during her excellent summing up of the day: “Be good.”

About Sarah OBeirne

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