NeoCon and ThinkFM offer two different views of the facilities management elephant

This week sees two events taking place on opposite sides of the pond that should hold a mirror up to the way we currently design and manage workplaces. In Chicago, it’s time for NeoCon, the annual office furniture behemoth held in the vast Merchandise Mart and attracting some 40,000 visitors, while in London it’s the distinctly  low-key Think FM conference from the BIFM held at the Royal College of Physicians – for today only, as they say. While these are two very different events in terms of scale, content and format and both are nakedly commercial, only one strikes me as particularly meaningful. And even that is only about the meaning of one part of the facilities management elephant.

The BIFM event is themed ‘The Leadership Challenge: Raising our game, making our case – realising our value’ but it’s hard to see what they mean by ‘our’ when there appear to be conspicuously few  practicing FMs leading any of the listed sessions or participating in them. There are plenty of suppliers talking, which is fair enough if they’ve been given that opportunity, including a full five sessions from the event organisers Workplace Law but it would be refreshing to see people who actually do the job being given more of a platform rather than primarily the people who sell to them.

This seems particularly important not only because the BIFM is the UK’s representative body for facilities managers but also because one of the show’s stated themes is making the case for FM. For that you would hope to have facilities management professionals talking about all the bits of the elephant, rather than suppliers and consultants focussing largely on the bits that concern them. We know the preachers are there in abundance, but it will be interesting to see if the choir is there, never mind the congregation.

Meanwhile in Chicago, the organisers are fortunate that there are at least four groups of people with a commercial interest in what is on offer without having to bother facilities managers with it too much. The office furniture trade, its dealers as well as its customers in the form of architects and designers not only have a natural affinity with the products on show, they also have a vested interest in keeping up to date with what is available in the market.

That is not the case for end-users. The purchase of a workplace fit-out is still a comparatively rare experience for most facilities managers, so their need to keep tabs on products in the market is far less pressing.

This is a shame in some ways because the stuff we buy for our offices can tell us so much about the forces that are driving work and management. The ongoing evolution in the design of the places we work has much in common with evolution in the natural world. But whereas natural selection is dependent on the famous ‘Blind Watchmaker’ of evolutionary theory to shape creatures in response to the forces in their environment, workplace design is anything but blind – at least it is when done intelligently and with insight.

We’ll be looking back on both events later in the week. In the case of ThinkFM, it would be nice to be proved entirely wrong. In the case of NeoCon, designer David Fox will be helping us to map the office design genome for 2013.

by Mark Eltringham