Breaking into a male-dominated space like facilities management can be difficult for women. While the number of female facilities managers has been steadily increasing, the role is still primarily held by men.
To excel in the facilities management sphere, women must be bold, innovative and not afraid to break new ground. We're fortunate to work with many amazing women in facilities management who are eager to share their advice. In honor of International Women's Day, we're sharing their insights here.
1. Overcome employee resistance to change
One of the biggest challenges facilities management pros face is implementing new changes in the workplace. This could be starting a new process for entering service requests or installing new technology. But forfeiting in the face of resistance simply isn’t an option if a facilities manager wants to make a positive impact.
To increase the likelihood of success, facilities management pros should understand the underlying causes of the opposition. For example:
- Insufficient communication regarding the reason for the change
- Previous experience with failed initiatives in the past
- Apprehension about how the change will affect the employee’s role and the possibility of losing his or her job
Recognizing why employees aren’t enthusiastic about embracing changes in the workplace enables facilities managers to proactively plan ways to address these concerns.
“Make Allies” - Jodi Parrott, FBL Financial Group
Jodi still remembers the time a male architect tried to dismiss her by telling her she didn’t need to be at an important meeting. It was early in her career as an interior designer, and she was young. But she knew she was essential to the project and had a job to do. Fortunately, the client she was representing jumped to her defense. Even after a 25-year career at FBL Financial Group and working her way up to become a facilities planning specialist, Jodi said there are times when she still has to assert herself to make sure she’s at the important meetings.
“As a woman, you have to know something about all the aspects of facilities management to be taken seriously—whether it’s mechanical, electrical, plumbing or architecture,” Jodi said. “Even a discussion about flush valves in urinals helps me understand the whole project.”
“Make allies who will help you understand the issues and show you respect. Know who you’re dealing with, male or female, and get to to know them as a person. Life is all about relationships.”
2. Embrace the evolution of the facilities management role
Because the elements of facilities management are constantly expanding, the role of facilities manager becomes increasingly complex. And facilities management pros who don’t recognize and embrace how the position has changed will inadvertently decrease their value to the organization.
Rather than being simply a service provider, facilities management pros must become strategic partners. To accomplish this goal, they must expand their skillset beyond the traditional duties of a facilities professional. This includes:
- Developing a risk mitigation plan to reduce the impact of expected and unexpected issues in the workplace, from preventive maintenance to security concerns
- Protecting the integrity of the company’s brand by ensuring workspaces are well-organized and employees have what they need to be productive
- Creating standard procedures for proper environmental, health and safety management to create a safe and healthy workplace that is dedicated to sustainability
- Measuring relevant facilities management metrics to demonstrate success to the C-Suite
“Don’t be afraid to ask” - Elizabeth Vasek, Ford Foundation
Elizabeth Vasek, a facilities manager at the Ford Foundation in New York City, said she encountered a lot of “mansplaining” early in her career—men explaining technical terms to her in a condescending tone.
“Because of this, especially early on in my career, I was sometimes afraid to ask questions or let on that I didn't know everything about every aspect of FM,” she said. “I think I've gained a lot more confidence over the years, which has helped. For me, it comes down to knowing that I'm intelligent and a fast learner and that it's okay to not know everything. I think it's important to not be afraid to assert yourself when you have an opinion or recommendation, but also to not be afraid to ask questions—it's the best way to learn!”
Having a mentor and being part of a network will go a long way to build your knowledge, she added.
3. Know how to speak to the C-Suite
The executive team may recognize the importance of facilities management. But because they are more focused on high-level strategy, they are likely less concerned about the day-to-day requirements for effective workplace management.
To get buy-in from the C-suite, you need to know the best way to approach the conversation. This means:
- Being confident and prepared. Have objective data to support your statements and be ready to field any questions an executive has without hesitation.
- Speaking their language. Don’t use facilities management-specific jargon. Explain issues in terms they understand, such as real estate, equipment and personnel.
- Provide only the most important information. Prove you understand how valuable the executive’s time is by leaving out any unnecessary details.
“Educate yourself and be direct” - Connie Drake, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting
Despite her training as an architect and her experience with CAD and data analytics, Connie, a senior associate at Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, admits she’s had to prove her expertise much more than her male counterparts have. She had to get buy-in from male executives who doubted her recommendations at times, particularly in the earlier days of her career.
After 20 years of working in facilities management, she experiences that much less often. Now, she’s more likely to have those conversations with male technicians rather than executives. While she’s not an expert in all the intricacies of building management, a little research before meeting with a technician can go a long way.
“If you’re going to talk with an HVAC man, you need to know what an air handler is,” she said. “Educate yourself on all aspects of the work, even if it’s a 10-minute Googling session; to be able to speak his language really helps your authority.”
4. Look for opportunities to add value
Facilities management roles don’t always come with clear job descriptions; it’s more often a progression of acquiring new responsibilities over time. You can either see that as a frustration or choose to view it as a challenge that motivates you.
Susan Veres chose the latter when she first started working as a consultant for Acorda Therapeutics. Her task was to help the company redesign its workspace—a project expected to last 12 months—but within six months, Susan had worked her way into a permanent position. She identified a number of ways the company could improve its energy efficiency and reduce costs, all while making the space more functional and inviting. A new window treatment she recommended resulted in a $75,000 rebate, and energy efficiency improvements saved about $125,000 a year.
Today, she's is a senior director who manages a nine-member facilities team as well as overseeing contractors, lease agreements, security and more at Acorda’s facilities in New York and Massachusetts.
“In many companies, this role isn’t really defined. You need to recognize where you can add value and make the case for it."
"The biggest challenge I see with women starting in the industry is a lack of confidence in how transferable their skills are. We feel like we have to have all the experience before we have the opportunity. But nobody has done everything in the space you’re in—there’s always an opportunity for something more to be done. If it’s something you’re interested in, you should try it!”
Being as direct and concise as possible also helps earn respect. Let technicians know exactly what you want them to do, as opposed to talking in more general terms about what you’re trying to accomplish.
5. Use workplace analytics
Data is a facility manager’s secret weapon, arming them with the hard evidence they need to justify their decisions. Thanks to workplace technology like the space management software, having access to real-time data is easier than ever. But if you’re only looking at space utilization metrics, you’ll never be able to see the full picture of your workplace.
With data analytics, managers have insight into both micro and macro elements of facilities management. This approach leverages historical information about business operations in order to accurately predict possible future issues and create plans to address them. The increased visibility allows facilities management pros to identify potential risks, find opportunities for improvement and make confident, data-driven decisions about how to best manage an organization’s facilities. For instance, they can identify traffic patterns in each area of the workplace to determine which areas are being underutilized and determine whether changing the layout would increase productivity.
Using an integrated workplace management system (IWMS) that allows you to quickly compile reports on things like space and asset utilization can help you ensure you’re always prepared for an impromptu conversation.
As you encounter challenges and setbacks on your journey to becoming an extraordinary facilities manager, keep this advice in mind. And most importantly: remember that you’re tough, capable and have the skills to own every aspect of facilities management.