Maintenance & Operations (Managing the Physical Plant)

Occupational Hazards

We’ve all been there; on vacation with the family at a fancy resort far from the cares and woes of the daily grind. Immediately upon arrival you subconsciously scan the grounds, you catch a glimpse of a maintenance guy in a very well stocked utility cart, then you pull up to the entry where the valet greets you. The inspection has already begun. The grounds looked nice; the maintenance guy was in a crisp, clean uniform; then you notice a light out in the entry portico; there is an out-of-order sign on one of the automatic doors; it looks like they’ve just completed a renovation which looks great; the floors are clean and shiny… and then you arrive at the front desk! And so it goes, the secret, troubled life of a facilities manager.

It Begins in Your Neighborhood

Let’s start at home. If you are connected and involved in a professional facilities related organization (and if you aren’t, you should be… no facility or facility manager is an island!), you’ve certainly visited other campuses and you may have even hosted an event or two. When we go to another campus we are quick to critique the entire experience, but beware; you’ll certainly be on the receiving end yourself at some point. Depending on how good friends you are with the host you may share your critique, but remember, always deliver medicine with a spoonful of sugar; follow a good-natured zing with a compliment.

When visiting other campuses, don’t just critique; be sure to spend time admiring and inquiring. I see it as a privilege to travel and observe other schools and how they do things. Additionally, it is an honor to learn what successes other schools enjoy, and even more so for their leadership team to share their failures with you. This may help others avoid failures elsewhere. I have found that the more I admire a facility or system the more willing my host is to share with me about it. There are numerous examples of information I’ve taken away and been able to apply to my own campus. These range from larger takeaways such as issues concerning different methods of building construction, down to what plants works best in certain applications. Nothing should be considered too large or too small.

If It Makes You Wonder, Find Out

I believe that facilities folks are generally an inquisitive lot. When traveling around town, do you monitor the progress of a construction project? I constantly wonder when a structure will top out, or why there seems to be a delay in the progress of a project. I have never stopped to ask, but I have gone so far as to call contractors I know and inquire as to whether they might know anything about the project in question. I’ve also been known to pass a school that I previously had not known about, or did not know it was in a particular area, and look them up and call the facility manager to introduce myself. Beyond being inquisitive, this builds friendship and professional networks.

Back to our vacation example. If you are anything like me, you find yourself stopping to speak with maintenance workers, if for no other reason than to wish them a good day. But it’s more likely that you see them using a piece of equipment that is unique (that real nice utility cart you noticed on the way in to the resort), or you want to ask a question about any number of occupational-related items. I find myself asking about their staffing levels, including how many of each trade they may have on the crew, how they got into the business, how they like what they do, etc. I’m a sucker for systems control information. While I am far from an expert, it intrigues me to learn about building automation systems and the level of controls other facilities have over their buildings and systems.

Find a Balance

I am certain your family has had to nudge you along and remind you that they were was on the way to the park/pool/restaurant when you dropped off to “talk shop” with a maintenance person you’ve never met before, and will never see again. I tell my wife that we belong to a brotherhood and we all speak the same language when it comes to maintaining our facilities. With that in mind, always feel free to critique, admire and inquire. These are the ways in which we share and grow. Without that connection, we often do feel as if we are on an island.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael G. Steger is director, Physical Plant, for Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, FL. He can be reached at Stegemik@berkeleyprep.org.

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