A mile high and twenty years ago …

Twenty years ago I visited America for the first time. I went to Denver, Colorado in October 1993 to report for PFM magazine on IFMA’s Annual Conference and Exposition, since rebranded as World Workplace.

This is how I began my report: “After the slow but steady progress of facilities management in the UK and Europe, after the self-doubt and identity crises, it was refreshing to attend an event where confidence abounded, where the boundaries of FM were being tested. At least that was the superficial impression.”

Two decades later and on the eve of this year’s World Workplace (2nd – 4th October in Philadelphia) you could argue that not much has changed. Certainly the UK profession continues to suffer existential angst and progress towards recognition and real influence remains slow.

A bit of context – in 1993 John Major was the UK Prime Minister; Britain was struggling to emerge from recession, with unemployment reaching three million for the first time in six years; the Ford Mondeo was launched; England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup and three members of One Direction were born! It was also the year that the IFM and AFM merged to create the BIFM.

In the USA – Bill Clinton was in his first term as President; IBM announced a $5bn loss, the largest single-year corporate loss in US history; In New York a van bomb parked below the North Tower of the World Trade Center explodes, killing 6 and injuring over 1,000; Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands in Washington DC.

The opening address in Denver, from Gary Hamel (then associate professor of strategy and international management at the London Business School) echoes down the years. In a three way comparison between the US, European and Japanese economies he identified one of the key issues as the difference between restructuring and revitalising. According to Hamel, productivity gains in the Britain and the US had been achieved by reducing the resource base but the key to growth is to increase revenue. “Downsizing doesn’t fix fundamental problems,” he said.

With Nancy Sanquist in Denver - a speaker in 1993 and 2013

I grouped the concurrent sessions at Denver by subject – topping the list was management/quality issues, followed by technical issues, energy & environment, budgeting & benchmarking and project management.

Looking at the programme for this year’s event, quality again tops the list by number of educational sessions and technology is in the top five but leadership & strategy, communication and business continuity are all heavily featured.

I contacted two of the speakers at the 1993 event and asked them to contribute their thoughts to this blog. Kit Tuveson was facility operations manager with Hewlett Packard back then, he’s now an independent consultant.

In Denver, Tuveson joined a panel of five experts from Silicon Valley firms to discuss new and emerging workplace challenges.  “The big ‘place event’ at the time was the story of Borland abandoning their huge HQ facility in Scott’s Valley, Santa Cruz County,” he recalls.  “It was gorgeous, functional, and huge.  The CEO wanted to make a statement with this huge edifice.  Unfortunately, it was a mismatch to the business risk of the company, and it proved too much, too costly to keep in use – another casualty of the ‘edifice complex’ of some business leaders.

“So was this an FM failure or a business failure?  It depends on who you ask. When the leaders ‘require’ such a project, how does the RE & FM team add that needed perspective of risk and flexibility to be able to respond to changes in the business results?  I suggest that they did not have an adequate strategic facilities plan. This was a design that pre-dated flexible officing, shared space and teleworking. Maybe it took such a grand failure to make such concepts more visible, who knows.

“When I teach FM courses on planning, design and risk management, I often use the example of Google’s HQ facilities in Mountain View. One could think that their facility design, operation and amenity list is ‘over the top’, but in this case, the facility exists to house very creative, very expensive employees, who produce results at various points throughout the day or night, in various work settings. It’s a productivity factory, not an edifice complex to honour Larry Page!

“Place has its place in the planning and implementation of facilities. The FM is both the provider of well designed spaces, and the critic of ideas that are not supported by rational business objectives. They are key partners for the leadership team.”

Another member of the discussion panel in Denver was Robin Weckesser, a project manager with Apple Computer and now managing principal project management  with real estate services firm Cresa in San Jose.

In 1993 Weckesser provided an overview of Apple’s 32 acre, six building campus in Cupertino – not just buildings but a “communications tool”. Answering his own question, “Is there still a role for the central office?”, he said, “Yes, there is still tremendous value in human interaction but people also like the freedom of telecommuting or home working.”

“The workplace in 2013 is still a communications tool,” says Weckesser today “and perhaps it has always been that … a tool used by an organization to capture and facilitate the work process. The proper design of that tool is based in the task that it will be asked to support. This is why it is critical that the first step in the process is a through understanding of the product development process, how the organization interacts, communicates along the product development path. Business success is an outcome of an organization’s ability to capture and act upon ideas, information and technology.

“Real estate and facilities are second only to people on the balance sheet, as such it becomes the perfect candidate for reinvention and creative thought on how the need for space can be accommodated at a lower price point or increased density.

“Additionally organizations recognize that the workplace sends a message externally and internally about the company, its brand, its values and its place. A few things have come into play since 1993 that have driven the change: attraction and retention of workers; technology that supports mobility; multi-generational workforce in all sectors; realization of the importance of the concept that space needs to be task-centric.

“In 1993 the notion of telecommuting and working from home were in their infancy. While these programs have value in supporting work-life balance, we now understand the importance of staff being in the office.  No technology replaces face to face interaction and the spontaneity that comes from interactions along the path.

“In 1993 workstations were larger, walls were higher and private offices were prevalent. Today, workstations are getting smaller, walls are coming down and a variety of spaces are being developed to support different types of communication that occurs throughout the day. People need spaces to socialize, focus, learn and collaborate. Research shows that top performing companies collaborate more, value socialization and learning.

“Companies realize the value of natural light, air quality and the health and well being of staff.  Food is also becoming a key attraction and retention tool at top performing companies. Today we have four generations working side by side.  Each have different learning styles, communication and collaboration styles. The workplace and management have had to evolve to support each … one size does not fit all!

“The workplace is an evolutionary process. Each organization needs to determine what’s right for them and work toward development of a solution that’s appropriate. At the end of the day the workplace is perhaps the most unique tool in that we are asking it to support, facilitate and contain a human process – interaction….a tall order!”

I concluded my report on the ’93 event with comments that it would have been good to see business issues infused more effectively; that the programme was dominated by consultants and service suppliers and that, despite the many innovative ideas on offer, audiences often seemed quite conservative – “where they were receptive, they seemed to be looking for solutions which they could adopt 100% rather than adapting them to their own situation.” I think most of these comments hold true today.

For me, Denver 1993 was a life-changing experience – within a few hours of landing I was learning to line dance at the Grizzly Rose! The trip began a love affair with America which has taken me back to FM events in New York, Boston, St Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Phoenix as well as on vacations in Washington State, California and New England.

If you were in Denver in 1993 it would be good to hear your views on how things have changed and if you’re going to be in Philadelphia this week – have a great time!