Maintenance & Operations (Managing the Physical Plant)

How We Communicate

Working in education, maintenance managers often find themselves in an unfamiliar community of faculty and staff with a completely different mindset than their own. This group communicates in a way that is quite different than the maintenance team. Educators tend to be more of a congenial bunch; meaning they are polite, supportive, friendly and by nature quietly get along… that is, as long as they are allowed to do as they please without much outside influence. (Apologies for use of such an extreme example for this column’s purposes.)

Maintenance folks, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more outgoing and direct in how we manage, and therefore communicate. When we are asked a question or for input on a particular situation, we often tend to give our gut response and expect that to be OK. However, when we give that direct, to-the-point response, people outside our ranks sometimes take that as a bit harsh and wonder what set us off, even though we were simply offering up an opinion. (No apologies here, this is simply a statement of fact!)

Think Before You Speak

How we communicate with one another is obviously of significant importance no matter the setting. It is important that we remember with whom we are communicating. What may work for the guys back in the shop is different than how we present ourselves in a department directors’ meeting and different still on how we might communicate to a board of directors. We need to remember that the message should always be the same, and the delivery should be tailored for each specific situation and the audience. In addition, communication is a multistep process that also includes listening and affirming that what has been conveyed was properly received and understood.

Consider the Medium

However, the full communication circle isn’t always completed during the process of “getting stuff done” each day! We must be careful in using the various methods of communication available to us. Additionally, we should recognize that we need to tailor the form of delivery used to the situation, as one form or the other may not be the best for delivery of certain messages, especially if the topic is a critical or touchy situation. Never opt for an electronic form of communication when a face-to-face or phone conversation is necessary. Remember; tone, intensity, humor and sarcasm all work together when speaking in person with another, but are not always conveyed properly in a voice message, email or text.

What does this have to do with maintenance, you ask? Everything! We get our jobs done by communicating with others… be it giving or receiving instruction, gathering or sharing information, or simply wishing someone a good morning. Unfortunately, all too often we find a serious lack of communication among maintenance employees as well as between the maintenance department and the school as a whole.

Be Clear

As the faculty and staff work to serve our collective primary customer, the student, maintenance and education priorities often intersects in a (hopefully) common course of action. We are typically brought in to assist with setup and management of an event in support of the educational mission. Sometimes we are asked to provide a higher level of facilities support that may include building something, altering the way a mechanical system operates, or some other crazy thing I’ve not yet thought of! These are the times when we must be very clear in our communications.

Meetings for events such as these may have only a few participants, or there may be many participants and it will be up to the meeting organizer and us to ensure that things stay on track, ensuring the vision of the event is communicated effectively. It is times like these that we must dial in to who our audience is and deliver our information or response in a measured and appropriate tone… with the correct content as well. I always try to remember the adage “Be firm, be fair, be courteous” when working with everyone… especially faculty!

Sometimes you will need to say “no” to something, and there is skill to this. I often look at it somewhat as a negotiation. I never like to give a “no” without a “however,” and that “however” should include either an alternate solution or an apology!

All this may seem a bit fundamental, but we get caught up in our routines and from time to time need to remind our staff that how we communicate is as important as what we communicate, along with how well we perform our work in support of our institutions!

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 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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