Looking across the meeting table I see the facilities manager looking browbeaten. This is one of many project meetings for a new facility. Meetings with the designer; key stakeholders; planning authorities and the infrastructure team have started to overwhelm the FM’s diary. However, this meeting is just about ‘users’: people that will eventually inhabit the space and live with the design decisions.
So how important are these user group meetings? After all, most of the important decisions have already been made. It’s now become an exercise in ‘selling and telling’ – Perhaps managing expectations? Perhaps playing the role of fairy godmother with a wish list?
I’ve now switched places. No longer am I an FM – I’m representing a section of the multifarious user group. I’m speaking up for disabled users. The FM is busy trying to placate our anxieties and I’m not sure he is in a ‘listening’ mode. I raise concerns about access to the proposed health facility from the neighbouring bus stop. Has there been dialogue with the local planning authority regarding dropped curbs? The discussion moves on. Was my point even heard?
It’s a familiar story – the facilities manager inundated with appeals from the more vocal. The ‘white noise’ of the building user is often lost in the cacophony. But hang on. Does it have to be this way? Do the lines have to be drawn in such an adversarial manner?
Engaging in ‘coproduction’ is surely the way ahead. Nevertheless, in a climate of organisational upheaval (which often accompanies facilities changes) nurturing a collaborative environment is often difficult. Users may become withdrawn, entrenched or confrontational. But the challenge for the facilities manager is to eke out insights from people that intimately understand the day-to-day workings of an organisation. This may involve leading users through a process of ‘self-discovery’ in understanding what is truly important.
Mention the phrase ‘disabled access’ and I sometimes notice a sense of dread from the FM. Have they complied with accessibility standards? Does the design comply with legal requirements? In reality, no amount of legislation substitutes for one-to-one input from disabled users, or any type of user for that matter. One of the greatest skills possessed by an FM is the ability to listen. This often involves unearthing ideas from the less vocal and less powerful. Given that many of us will experience some form of disability during our working life, getting accessibility ‘right’ is in all of our interests.