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The FM Family: How Facilities’ HR Managers Cope with COVID

Anita Blumenthal

September / October 2020

This article is based on discussions with three facilities management (FM) human resource professionals about how they have tailored their managerial techniques to deal with today’s unprecedented pandemic conditions—and how the pandemic has shaped some new approaches as well. Interviewed were Jenna Elmer, the University of Arizona’s director of human resources, facilities management; Michelle Frederick, American University’s senior director of talent development; and Jamie Gayer, Indiana University’s assistant vice president, business services.

Communication—It’s Never “One and Done”

 Effective communication is crucial, continuous, and not always easy. Frederick of American University (AU) notes that sometimes an office has a “one and done” approach and communicates only through email. But communications often need to be repeated, explained, and disseminated through more than one mode of delivery. 

At the university-wide level, Indiana University (IU) Communications sends out its announcements and directives by email every Friday. But Gayer realized that she needed to send her team a more focused email by the following Monday or Tuesday, aimed specifically at the team and filling in any gaps. While her team reviews their emails daily, Gayer says, not everyone gets email directly, particularly custodians and landscape staff. She asks frontline supervisors to print the communications and place them next to the time clock to ensure everyone is aware of them. 

Gayer IU

Fall foliage is seen near the Student Building at Indiana University Bloomington. Jamie Gayer, assistant vice president, business services.

Don’t assume that guidance from the top is always received by the frontline staff, Gayer says. Although IU Communications sent out guidance on masks early in the pandemic, in July, Gayer saw an employee on campus wearing a bandana. When she told him that bandanas were not considered an appropriate face covering, the employee replied that he thought they were. A crucial message had got lost on the way to the front line. So Gayer emailed to all capital planning and facilities staff a specific announcement about masks highlighting the exact information in the policy that staff needed to understand to comply with appropriate face coverings. She also asked senior leadership to follow up orally with their management teams to be sure that all staff understood. 

Another facet of communication involves language and tone. Frederick warned that it is important to be aware of how your message sounds to your team. “Sometimes, what you believe to be a considerate, thoughtful, protective approach could be seen as being paternalistic and presumptuous,” she says. “Instead of not wanting to worry people (out of kindness), it gives people the feeling that you’re hiding something. Let us be our own filters and decide what is important to us—we’re all adults.” Frederick added that, when communications are sent out, “there should be follow-up channels for questions so the staffer does not feel that ‘it’s just being done to me’ and can ask questions that affect that staffer personally.” 

Transparency is crucial, especially if there might be some bad news. At AU, Frederick says, “We have had to deal with reduced benefits. The possibility of losing benefits was communicated early on, so we were not blindsided. Also, we were told when they might be restarted. All the criteria for the change were clearly laid out. Although we have not had furloughs, it has been stated as a possibility—one that the university wants to avoid. Again, criteria have been laid out as well as a timeline for letting us know if furloughs need to happen. There should be no surprises,” Frederick says. “I think one way you retain a level of morale is with transparency and timeliness of information.”

Accepting and Managing Vulnerability, Uncertainty

 “For the first time in my career, I have had to suspend my need to know everything,” says Elmer of the University of Arizona (UA). Everything has been subject to change, sometimes within hours, and “that has to be okay; we have to be adaptable and flexible,” she says. That includes trying to widen her focus. For example, when she contacts other departments, her need to work through changes with them might seem immediate to her, “but on other plates, it might seem minor,” she says. “It is important to be okay with that. I must also be willing to make mistakes and to be forgiving of other people. We need to show grace to everyone we deal with,” she says, “and recognize we may not be their top priority, that we may not know all the answers.”

Recognizing and admitting our own vulnerability—or humanity—is important, Gayer says. “I have to able to acknowledge to everyone if I’m struggling or having a bad day. Being vulnerable as a leader of a facilities-focused function is not easy. It’s a tough, get-it-done crowd, project-focused, practical, and driven by data. But when people hear me acknowledge my own difficulties, it opens the door for them to admit theirs,” she says. “It does not say that I am not competent or capable, but that I am real. It doesn’t mean I cannot lead. A bigger divide is created if we always seem to have it together. Our team will become stronger, more productive, more effective when we can be very real in our own vulnerability.”

Teleworking Calls for Flexibility and Trust

Teleworking represents a huge change for both supervisors and staff in the university environment. “Moving staff to teleworking freed up more space for people who had to remain on campus,” Gayer explains. “but for those who remained on campus, the teleworkers did not ‘appear’ to be working. One way to build trust among staff is to spotlight the teleworkers and show what they are doing to support the department.”

Fredericks AU

The American University campus in Washington, D.C.  Michelle Frederick is AU’s senior director of talent development.

As for supervising team members working from home, Frederick says it is important to understand their family situation. Some supervisors have a rigid approach and insist on traditional work time frames. But it may not really matter when the work is done as long as the goals are met. If the staffers feel they have options for how to do their work, it could ease their domestic tensions. Nevertheless, “you have to set clear expectations about productivity and accessibility,” says Frederick.

Gayer gave an example of the new flexibility. When decisions were made about who would have to stay on campus in person, the employees in some of those positions met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) qualifications for “area of concern” (age, underlying medical condition, etc.). Strictly speaking, the position required those employees to be on campus. “For the first time,” Gayer says, “We stopped and asked, Does the job really require being onsite? Let the employee say how they can be successful from home and meet expectations.” Telework had never been part of the job, but the pandemic has changed that. It has forced management to rethink their impulse to say “no” upfront, Gayer says. “Now we need to learn how to say ‘yes’ and engage the employee on how to try it, saying, for example, ‘Let’s try it for two weeks and work through tension points.’ We need to learn to be aware of the employee level of accountability. The arrangement can work if we are flexible.” In this case, Gayer reported that volunteers from the team were willing to go on campus and do the task that had to be done onsite. In other cases, someone from a different division already present on campus could do that job. “This trial-and-error process has not been used previously,” she says, “but it is now.” 

Teleworking and flexibility demand an element of trust, since we are not physically present, says Gayer.  “Managers want to believe our staff can do the job we want them to do. COVID means that trust is given upfront.”

Listening and Hearing

Managers know the importance of purposeful, intentional listening, especially during this pandemic. When this practice starts at the top, it resonates farther down in the organization. For example, Elmer described a senior FM leadership meeting where the assistant vice president of FM went around the virtual room asking how people were doing, saying, “Let’s talk about mental health” and recognizing how hard the group was working. This moved Elmer to call each of her team after the meeting to personally check in.

Elmer University AZ

The University of Arizona’s Historic Old Main and Fountain.  Jenna Elmer is UA’s facilities management director of human resources.

“We need to listen to what is going on with our staff,” Gayer says. “If you do not understand what is driving their concerns, you can overlook what is driving their responses. Fear is a part of life now. Through listening, you can understand: Is fear driving their questions?”

“The virus is an invisible problem creating fear and anxiety,” Elmer says. “Listen to the fears of essential workers. Help them feel active. Ensure that there is enough personal protective equipment (PPE). Modify their work practice so they can feel active in fighting this invisible thing.” Initiate dialogue, and trust what the workers are saying about their health and family and their needs, Elmer says. And be sure they are aware of all the resources that the university offers for assistance and support. 

People have to feel safe in approaching managers with their concerns. Managers need to provide a safe space to hear them. That doesn’t necessarily mean saying yes; it allows someone to be heard, even if the answer is no. 

Especially for teleworkers, AU’s Frederick says, “Some staff might feel isolated; sometimes they cannot articulate that. Take time to say, ‘I notice, I care.’ It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m here if you need me.’ You need to ask more directly, ‘Are you okay? What is happening in your world? Do you need anything?’ Or, more specifically, ‘Tell me what you need to help you in your work.’”

Offering Professional Development

These months of enforced separation have not stopped universities from offering professional development opportunities—and in fact have given them a new direction or impetus. IU is increasing its training related to diversity and inclusion. It is also offering trainings from its central services (IT, procurement, human resources, etc.) and has provided LinkedIn learning opportunities. Also, Gayer reported, “I am making sure to keep staff aware of all the free opportunities APPA is offering, as well as those offered by EAB (Education Advisory Board).” 

At AU, Frederick has been able to redirect staff to access AU’s free, online self-paced training. “We have seen many people taking advantage of the time to explore,” she said. Fall training will address how to work effectively in a remote environment. At the University of Arizona, with its planned August reopening, staff development had been limited to training on safety. Although Elmer plans to address how to conduct training in the new safety environment, she admitted that it’s a challenge to provide training to people who are physically on campus because they cannot be brought together into a training room as in the past, nor are they accustomed to sitting for hours in front of a computer.

Thanking Staff, Boosting Morale

All the news seems to be news of problems. “We have got to find ways to share other stories and thank you’s,” Gayer says. Citing one example, she recalls, “Our tech team collaborated on creating a university-wide storeroom for PPE, and our tech group and procurement group had a role in managing all of IU’s PPE orders.” She emphasizes that “we need to share this with the whole group and beyond. We need to say, ‘Here’s what the staff members working at home are doing to keep you functioning.’” 

“The hardest thing right now,” Gayer continues, “is that we don’t have the ability to reward extra workload with temporary pay, which was a previous practice.” Instead, she talks directly to the team member to learn other motivators: time off, training, cross training, new opportunities, etc. “It’s critical to know your team members’ motivators, as it increases their productivity and overall commitment to the organization,” she says. “Retaining and engaging facility-focused employees is the most important thing leaders can do right now to keep their organizations open and functioning.” 

There’s no line item limiting thanks. At AU, a staffer volunteered to work overtime on a quick turnaround project supplying the voiceover for a video. When it was completed, she received a note of thanks and praise directly from the president of the university. 

A blockbuster of a morale booster for the entire FM division at UA began when Elmer and several other employees took photos of campus workers and teleworkers in May. The series of photos became a video that showed every category of staff performing their normal work as well as special projects, such as Team Germbusters in charge of enhanced COVID care on campus and FM volunteers in dorm rooms helping to pack students’ belongings left there before spring break. But it was the soundtrack that brought it all together. Mark Insley, a UA carpenter who is also a country western singer/songwriter, performed a song he had composed just for the video, “The FM Working Blues.” Here’s the hyperlink:

UA-frontline-workers-movieAnd here’s an excerpt:

Well, we’re Arizona’s finest, 

The FM family.

Ain’t no coronavirus

Gonna bring us to our knees.

No, we’ll keep on keep on workin’,

Come Monday morning we’re right back with the crew.

And we might drink a little beer in the evening,

And sing a little bit of these FM Workin’ Blues.

It’s that sense of family and working together that motivates Elmer in her work. As she will tell you, the reason she loves her job is “because of the people I can support.” 

Anita Blumenthal is a writer based in Potomac, MD; she can be reached at [email protected]. The inspiration for this article was “8 Ways to Engage Staff During Pandemic,” an article by Ron Jooss on a presentation by Matt Monge of On the Mark Strategies at a program offered by the Credit Union National Association. The article can be found at