A Hands-On Approach to Sustainable FM at Greenpeace UK

Episode 8

Facilities Management Podcast


About this episode

Christopher Ali shares his views on to-do lists, calendars, and daily building walkarounds as he explains how to "put your ego aside" when it comes to sustainably-led decision-making in his role as Facilities Manager at Greenpeace UK.


Matt (Host): Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the Comparesoft Podcast. Great to have you here as always. Today, our guest is Christopher [Ali], and he is the Facilities Manager at Greenpeace UK.

Greenpeace is a global campaigning network of 26 independent national and regional Greenpeace organisations. Greenpeace UK works on a range of campaigns to protect the global climate, ancient forests and the world’s oceans from the threats posed by human activities.

Christopher has progressed from a Facilities Assistant to the Facilities Manager at Greenpeace [UK] within four years. So, it’d be really interesting to get his take on facilities management.

Welcome to the show, Christopher. How are you?

Christopher Ali: I’m doing really well. Not too bad for a Friday. Thanks for having me.

Matt: Great. Well, we got the weekend coming up. So, we’re in that mood, right?

Christopher: Definitely.

Matt: There we go. All right, so let’s get started. The first question that we always ask is, how do you go about setting a good facilities management culture?

Christopher: For me, to set a good facilities management culture, it’s basically understanding two things; one, understanding what your role is, as a facilities manager and two, really becoming familiar with all the stakeholders that you’re working with. And in particular, the people that you hire, to help provide a good facilities management system.

In terms of my own role, and understanding, for me, it’s been like a conduit for people to come into your space or our space to work, and hopefully, get the most out of it. Our job is to basically allow that to happen for them through our facilities management services. You got to have like, a real willingness and a thirst to help people in that sense. I have a bit of a customer service background, with a lot of my jobs. It’s something that I really, really enjoy. It can be quite difficult when you work with your customers, which is essentially your end users in the office. I think understanding that your role is to help them make the most of their time working in your office space. I think that’s important.

And then it’s actually yeah, working with your service providers. I think it’s important to work with providers, rather than dictate to them exactly what it is that always want. I take a bit of a term from John Lewis, they tend to call people their partners. I like to generally call my service provider [my] service partner. I think that’s best applied. We’re just all people trying to get on with a job. For us to be able to come to a solution for which they can provide their services within our workspace, I think supports being able to show a level of openness and see them as an extension of your team. Because they’re the people that are going to be doing the work.

My work is literally just to arrange for other people to do their jobs and that includes my facility assistants and service providers. It doesn’t really serve me any purpose to be too demanding in a way that really doesn’t enable them to do the job as best they can. Just understanding who you’re working with, making sure that you work with the right people, and then getting the right value, I think is probably the best place to start inserting a good facilities management culture.

Matt: Awesome. Solid advice there. And then so what’s the best way to plan for facilities management activities?

Christopher: First of all, [it] is communication. Communication on all levels. So that’s working with the people that you’re working with. So, your end users, your staff in the office. Communication with all the contractors and providers that you’re going to be working with. Anyone that is probably going to have some kind of stake or invested interest in something that’s going to go on. And that includes building work, communicating, the fact that it’s probably going to be a bit disturbing in terms of noise or meeting rooms, spaces that aren’t going to be available to use. Being able to communicate that and be able to set expectations is key, as also communicating to other people what you expect from them in terms of being able to deliver any kind of activity that you want to do.

The second thing for me is around organisation and calendars. The calendars are huge. A lot of what we do is around organising activities and trying to make the right balance within a kind of work week, work month, or work year and scheduling things to not be interrupted by the organization’s main activities, staff, other work. Even for us, it comes down to simply parking spaces. How much space do you have for how many contractors that come into your building? Being able to communicate that to whoever’s interested in that.

And then lists, lists, lists, lists. Write everything down. Have it all written down. Have all your activities written down. To-do lists. List of people that are going to help you. List of people that you need to help. Just lists, lists, lists, I think is huge. That could just be a personal preference because my memory is gradually getting worse as I’m getting older.

Matt: Me too, don’t worry about it. We’re in it together.

Christopher: Now, well, there you go. Yeah, writing things down is huge.

Matt: Talking about appreciation for facilities management teams. We know that a lot of the time other people in the business are talking about facilities management, when something isn’t working, or when something needs to get fixed. No one really talks about how well the staff are working.

How do you think facilities management teams should go about driving appreciation for maintenance teams across the business? And particularly with top management?

Christopher: Out of all the questions, I think this is probably the best one because I think it’s a great struggle with facilities managers. When I did my course and I joined the IWFM, I think a lot of the conversations around trying to promote facilities management and get a good understanding of what it’s exactly we do. Because I often find that in the office, it’s kind of a running joke for me, where, whenever anyone asked me and my tag, even under my job is season stationery. Whenever anyone would come around and say, “If you ever need any teas and stationery, just ask Chris.” I tend to think that I do a bit more than provide some teas and stationery.

I guess for me, what I’ve tried to do, at least in an attempt to that. I think that when it comes to facilities managers, it’s almost like a point of pride to be able to get things done, regardless of the situation. I think it’s very important to be able to point out, not to be disagreeable, or to not find a solution to whatever it is that you’re trying to resolve. But at least make it clear to your managers and staff, as a whole, to understand that maybe you have personnel that aren’t available to help, maybe you haven’t got the capacity or the resources, and just make it clear as to why certain things aren’t being done in the times that you want them. Also, just making it clear on basically the situation that you’re currently working in.

One of the things I also do is advertise around the office our services. I have posters, and I’ve made notes and things to say, literally just like you would see probably in the tube. We are here to help. This is where you can contact us. Here’s a number to call. Do you need help with X, Y and Zed? Unsure who to ask? Ask the facilities teams. To try and really advertise our services within the office as if you would do kind of any shop, really.

Matt: It’s a great idea. Yeah.

Christopher: Another thing is to let them know actually what the work entails. It’s very good to sort of say when you’re unable to do something. But when you actually perform something and do a good job of it, I think it’s very good to be able to expand on what actually it took to get a new toilet fitted. Because some of these things seem easier than they are.

I worked on a water fountain for almost six months, which should have really been an off-the-shelf thing, which I could have just bought and been delivered within a few weeks. But it was an absolute nightmare to get it done. I just made sure that I’d kind of set those expectations with stuff and just constantly remind this is what’s happening. This is where I’m at with it. Apologies for not being able to deliver on this. Not just say, “Nope, it’s not here yet.” But a little bit of understanding as to why I think it’s quite important.

Yeah, just being able to say no, kind of alludes to the first one. You have to be able to say no, when you’re not able to perform within the constraints that you’re working in. Buildings and sites have different sizes, and different resources. I think it’s very important to be able to say what you can and cannot do. The reasons for that, not just because you can’t be bothered, but are there actual reasons why you’re not able to do what you can do? And bring those things to the attention of management, at the very least, and probably use that as a reason as to potentially ask for more resources, if that is the case.

Matt: Okay, when the waterfall finally arrived, and they give you the credit that you deserve? Did they enjoy it?

Christopher: The funny thing is, it took me a while to decide whether I wanted to get sparkling water for us, for the office. Because at Greenpeace, you have to be very considerate around some of the sustainable options or considerations that we need to have. Even something as small as a five-litre canister of CO2 can be quite controversial in my office. I went ahead and decided it’d be nice for the staff. As soon as we got it in, the co2 canister it was broken. As soon as it came in, it was more just complaints about how it wasn’t fizzy enough. So I spent six months trying to get it installed. And then basically, after a week, I had a cascade of– Not complaints, just suggestions about it not being fizzy enough.

Matt: Yeah, marvellous. What’s the best way than to implement an effective facilities management plan?

Christopher: The best thing first is just getting an understanding of the site that you’re working on and try not to be too deferential. I know that there are so many different facilities management outfits out there, that can offer a number of different things depending on scope. I work in an office where maybe it suits around 150 to 200 people. We got four floors and a warehouse. It’s not too difficult for me to be able to walk around and really get a first-hand understanding of my site. I’ve seen other sites where massive, massive sites. Thousands of people, maybe tens or hundreds of floors, it seems where they need to get facilities management companies to come in and work the site. With that, you become a bit more unfamiliar.

For me, based on what I’ve done is just, I just don’t see how you can apply a very good facilities management plan without having a good understanding. I don’t really like the idea of being too deferential with that. And if you do that, I think you’re probably going to run into some problems. It’s especially hard when you work with people, you may have different levels of knowledge or expertise than you because you might find yourself in a position where you differ too much. But in those instances, I think it’s good to ask questions like you said, at the beginning, I’ve gone from facilities assistant to facilities management quite quickly. There are reasons for that, the pandemic being one of them. I basically got thrown right into it and not having a great understanding. I really had to learn on the job. It was constantly just putting my ego aside and asking questions. If they’re using terminology that I don’t know, just be open and honest. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where you do understand. And then you can actually start applying your knowledge to the site that you’re working on.

Matt: The best way to learn, isn’t it? Being thrown in the deep end?

Christopher: If you’re up for it.

Matt: It’s not easy. It’s a steep learning curve, but a good learning curve.

Christopher: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I was quite ferocious in terms of really, really wanting to learn and to apply what it is that I– I feel like what I’d naturally have versus what the applied knowledge that I got from just working on it. I had a great deal of willingness to do that. Yeah, definitely wasn’t without its struggles, and certainly, wasn’t without its mistakes, but certainly made me learn much quicker than probably any other job. That’s for sure.

The second one is I think I mentioned earlier, just making sure you get the right contractors and providers. I think that’s probably about as essential as anything, because if you haven’t got the right people, and I’ve certainly worked with a lot of providers that have not done as we’ve agreed to or ask for or expect, and making sure that you’re willing to get the right value from the personnel that you’re choosing to work in your office. I think it’s huge, huge, huge. You make mistakes in that, you’re going to have a real tough time in having an effective facilities management plan, that’s for sure.

And then again, I’ll just repeat it just because it’s important. Just calendar. Schedules and reminders. Schedules and reminders. Because everything is always up for assessments throughout the year. Everything you do has to be assessed constantly, and reminding yourself to look at what your current situation is with any contract or agreement, and then making sure whether you’re getting the best value is huge with that. And the only way you can do that is through organising your own calendar.

Matt: Sure. And then so moving into the tech conversation. What do you think about software tools? Do you think they’re useful for managing facilities management activities?

Christopher: Do you know what? I’m very torn on this. I think your software tool kind of outlet, I don’t want to be too despondent on it. I’ve never been a huge techy guy. I can generally sweat out most TVs and microwaves, but outside of that I struggle.

For me, I think I absolutely think there’s a place for software tools. The thing that I probably push back on is how it’s applied. I think that you need to use it as a tool to assist you just like any other tool. But using it as a place where you’re going to get a lot of information to make key decisions, I think you have to be mindful around. I think having tools for reminders and alerts. We have our BMS system, which lets us know when certain things aren’t working right within our heating and lighting. And then we can respond to that. And that’s good. Because if although I do my walk around and I do my checks in the morning, anything could happen for the day. It’s very seldom that I go into the plant room, sporadically, and it’s not a place that you frequent often. Having things that remind you and will alert you to issues in and around your office space, I think huge.

But when you take information from the software tools that you have and don’t really have the other side of it, which is the tangible real-life experiences that you’re going to get from walking around your office. Talking to your staff, understanding the things that are actually in front of you rather than remote, in terms of what the technology will provide. I think just be careful about what you do with that data because I think it can be either misleading or it allows you to present something that probably isn’t the truth.

Matt: Okay, well, that’s an interesting take on the tech conversation. What about your take on using spreadsheets? Is that something that you still do? Do you think they still have a place? What’s your opinion on that?

Christopher: I think with spreadsheets, I think it certainly had a place and does have a place. Again, I’m talking about lists and dates and reminders and things of that nature. I think Excel sheets are fantastic for that. What I will say is that we started using Google Drive a number of years ago, and they have their own version of spreadsheets and that was a game changer. Having a spreadsheet where multiple people can have access and alter and change. A lot of what I do is translate information from one place to another, or from myself to other people. And when you have to duplicate that and when something has to change or someone else might see something that needs changing, and then they have to communicate to you that you need to change it. The more you communicate, the more that can get lost.

But if you have someone, a member of your team, a member of staff that can also look at the sheet and say, “Actually, these need changing.” And you don’t have to do that, and then it can be updated straight away. Having that ability is probably more beneficial to me, rather than just the sheets themselves, but sheets 100% have a place.

Matt: Okay. Well, moving on from that then. You’ve given us some amazing advice and some amazing insights so far.

Christopher: And now I wish I had someone to tell me these things.

Matt: That’s why we’re here. That’s what the podcast is for, right? Sharing all this incredible knowledge and information.

Moving on from that or continuing on from that, then what are your top three tips for our listeners on effective facilities management?

Christopher: Sure. My first tip is, don’t take things for granted. What I mean by that is that, as I said before, you work with a large number of different people. You work with your own staff that are in-house. You work with contractors, some that you obviously see monthly or annually regularly. And then some that you get for one-off jobs. I think you always have to do your due diligence in making sure that you set eyes on the work that’s been done, and not always accept what people say. I don’t know if that comes across as a bit pessimistic. I just know that I’ve certainly been burned a number of times based on the quality of work that’s been left. We’re all humans. We all work to different degrees.

Not everyone is a self-starter. Some people do quality work but need to be nudged. Some people don’t do good work at all. You just have to make sure that you stay on top of your staff. Stay on top of the people that work with you. Stay on top of the providers that come in and work on your site. Try not to be too on top of it with respect to micromanaging or standing directly over them. But just if someone comes in and fixes your sink, before they leave, just go back and have a look. Make sure that everything’s working in the way that it needs to and everything’s tidied up, and then say thank you very much. And let them on their way. Try not to take things for granted. It’s very easy to let that stuff slip. Trust me. I’m much more of a sit-down person than walk around person, but we need to walk around and have a look.

The second tip; ask questions. I said earlier. Definitely, definitely ask questions. Facilities managers or facilities management has such a wide range of activities, but also people. I think if you go out there on the job market and you have a look, there’s some jobs that demand you to have a bit more of a technical mindset towards your work and have a better understanding of it. And there are some that don’t, but you need to have an understanding of some of the things that you work within. You only get to know that just by asking questions. We’re not electricians. We’re not plumbers. We’re not builders. We’re not architects. But what we are is the person that’s going to put those things together. We have to be able to apply that, and the only way you can know that is to have a base level of understanding. And who better to ask than the people that sit in front of you, with the technical knowledge and all the experience that they know, rather than I guess, maybe Googling it when they come back and write down all the acronyms that they tend to use? Make sure that you ask questions. Some will try and make you feel a bit silly for asking questions, or maybe look down on you. But at the end of the day, you’ve got a job to do. You just need to make sure that that gets done. Put your ego aside.

Matt: Excellent advice there for everybody. Not just in FM management.

Christopher: In life. Life lessons here. The last one, and I’ve said it again. Write it down, but keep a record of everything. Everything you do has to be recorded. Every invoice, every piece of literature that someone might give you based on the work that they’ve done. Everything that you have has to be recorded because there needs to be a history. The demand of alterations and changes that happened to him to any given building or site is– I mean, I wouldn’t know how much in the year, but they have to be in the hundreds, if not thousands, sometimes I feel like. There’s always something that needs to be done. To be able to have that history is incredibly beneficial for any contractor, especially when you change a contractor.

I, unfortunately, when I got my job wasn’t really handed over much of anything. I had a lot to start from day one, which was bad in the sense that I had nothing to offer any new potential contractors. But it was good because at least I know from my own personal understanding that we basically started from fresh, and I have an understanding of, at least what I know, to a degree the contractors do. And then it’s also writing down and recording everything for your staff, people around the office. Yeah, I can’t say enough, write down and record everything.

Matt: And so, wrapping it up, then what’s your favourite saying or quote on FM?

Christopher: I don’t know if this is a bit of a cheeky answer, or if it’s not quite what you’re looking for.

Matt: We like cheeky answers.

Christopher: Because I did actually get this question before. Because I was like, well, where would you find that inspirational FM quote? Because as exciting as I find it’s talked to, I don’t know how inspiring it is for most people to hear. My favourite saying only because it always puts a smirk on my face is, when someone says to me, “Oh, yes, we can do anything that you want.” Because be mindful of the person that sells you anything that you want, and can do anything that you want. Because based on my experience, that’s probably far from the truth.

Everyone has their roles. Everyone has their job. I must say, I don’t have a huge experience working with these multifaceted FM companies. From my small understanding, if they’re good at one thing, they’re probably not going to be good at something else. If you have one of those all-in-ones, you just have to be mindful that there’s going to be some offset. There are going to be good things, and there are going to be bad things. I tend to prefer with my site to work with a number of different providers to provide just their speciality, what they’re good at. I try to stay clear from anyone that upsells me on being able to provide everything because if anyone can do that, none of us would be in the job. So that’s my favourite saying at least, which I hear more regularly than I’d like to know.

Matt: Considering that you work for Greenpeace, do you have to be more environmentally or sustainably focused in your job? How does that work?

Christopher: It’s definitely a larger consideration than you’d find in most places. What I’ve actually found is that in my role in this place, a lot of organisations tend to come and ask us. Because I think that through facilities management across the board in the sector, most people are really much more considerate around sustainability and the ethical nature of where you procure your items from. How your office is going to be set up?

I wouldn’t say there’s added pressure. In fact, it’s revelling in that because it makes things much more difficult, but it makes you do your due diligence that much more because you really have to understand the people that you work with. Greenwashing is a huge thing in the sustainable procurement area. You can have these companies that have been around for X amount of years that are humongous, and they will release a green version of something they already sell. From a sustainable standpoint, that doesn’t, for lack of a better term, wash very well here, because it isn’t just about the individual items. It’s about your business practices. It’s about your values. It’s about what you want to achieve through your business practices. Is it just profit? Or is it about trying to find alternatives to a world that actually we find quite challenging and trying to meet those measures?

What I will say is that, if anyone does offer you – and this is just from my experience in the amount of hours that I’ve spent in trying to find things like bathmats – if anyone promises to you that they have the answers when it comes to sustainability, there’s not a single provider out there that does it. Not that I can find. You have to make sure that it’s just basically a cost-benefit measurement. You’re not going to have something that’s going to give you all the answers. But is this as ethical as it can be across the board? Is the item measuring up to the ethical standards that you want? But most importantly, is the business that you’re buying it from measuring up to that? Always close to. And you also need to set your own expectations with that, because although there are pressures in this office to probably find the most sustainable stuff, it sounds very negative. It’s a virtual impossibility at the moment, but it is growing. I think companies like Greenpeace and others really need to promote that because there are certain items in my office, which I do promote, which are as close as you’re going to get. I think they need to be pushed more.

Like Ethical Stationery, for instance. They have a company that I started using from the stationery probably about two years ago. They are very open and honest about what they can deliver. They provide more service stationary than any other shop. But in turn to that, they look at how they actually deliver it to you and not just do trips every day. They try and put everything together. Make sure that their emissions when it comes to their vehicles or mitigated to as low as they can. Those are the areas that you look at, not just is this pen made out of bamboo?

Matt: Yeah. Well, that’s, again, a very interesting take. A very different way of looking at things on the show.

Christopher: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. Especially working at Greenpeace, I think certain people have an expectation around what the approach is going to be. I think getting this late into the day when it comes to facilities management, and not virtual from a personality standpoint. There’s nothing for me to shy away from in terms of my opinion about it. I think that it is particularly when it comes to sustainability. There’s so much posturing rather than, “All right, what is it that we’re actually going to do?” We’re also guilty of that in cases too. It’s just about just being honest around it. Set the expectations right, and then we can find a solution to it.

Matt: Amazing. Well, thanks so much for being on the show. Christopher, you’ve given us some really great insight and some fantastic information there. Thank you so much for being a guest.

Christopher: Thank you. I mean, an absolute pleasure. I mean, hopefully, someone finds this useful. At the very least, it was a nice conversation we had both. I appreciate it.

Matt: Well, I am absolutely convinced and sure that our listeners will find that useful. So, thanks again for being on, and thanks again to you guys for tuning in and listening to us again. It’s great to have you here and we’ll see you on the next show. Cheers.