In a complex industry like facility management we need to call a ‘spade’ a ‘spade’ don’t we? Today we have an unambiguous definition for the profession using robust words including ‘integration’ and ‘functionality’. But sometimes a definition doesn’t tell the whole story. It says what we do but not how we do it.

Have you ever tried to explain your occupation as a facility manager at a dinner party? People’s eyes seem to glaze over. Even amongst other design team professionals, the concept of facility management is often misunderstood. Architects like to see themselves as ‘yes, and…’ thinkers able to draw on their creative juices. Pitched against them, the facility manager is often perceived as the less creative ‘yes, but…’ thinker that has boundless reasons why something does not pass health and safety regulations. Why are words so important? Not only do they influence the way that others see us – they crucially affect how we see ourselves in the job.

Metaphors can transform our understanding of a profession. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. The right metaphor can provide a powerful way of explaining a difficult concept in a rich insightful way. The wrong one can suffocate our self-understanding and those of others.

A metaphor for facility management

The master of metaphor, William Shakespeare, in his play “As You Like It” (1599) suggested that the world is a stage and humans are actors that enter and exit the stage. Nearly four hundred years later, the same metaphor was adapted by one of the founders of facility management, Frank Duffy. His ingenious portrayal of modern-day facility management relied on the ‘scenography’ metaphor with the artefacts of ‘shell, services, scenery and sets’ – each with their distinctive lifecycles [1]. It’s revealing to see how metaphor rather than industry definitions have opened our eyes to an understanding of facility management.

There are good metaphors and misleading ones. When Oppenheim wrote his book explaining the art of questionnaire design, he noted:

“Some people still design questions as if the process of interviewing or filling out a questionnaire were rather like unloading a ship, with every item of cargo labelled according to its contents and marked with a specific destination, so that it can be lifted out of the hold and set down as and when required. In reality, questioning people is more like trying to catch a particularly elusive fish, by casting different kinds of bait, at different depths, without knowing what is going on at the surface.” [2, pp. 120–121]

Facility management is about asking the right questions. Stakeholders are always keen to provide a long list of wants at the programming (briefing) stage. Translating these wants into real needs can be challenging. Similarly, at the post-occupancy stage, the facilities manager has to adopt an almost forensic approach to uncovering issues and successes. Trying to catch a fish almost seems like child’s play in comparison.


Perhaps a workplace metaphor might be found in the world of ‘parenting’. In a recent book ‘The Gardener and the Carpenter’ [3] the US developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, suggests that modern parenting is all wrong. We try to do too much for our children and do not give them the freedom they need. In one experiment she describes how two groups of children were provided with two very different play environments. One group was instructed by the teacher about how to use the toys available. In the other ‘accidental’ group, the children were encouraged to experiment. Children that had been taught how to use toys by the teacher, tended to play in a repetitive and un-exploratory way. In contrast, the ‘accidental’ group that were allowed to play freely with toys were able to discover many novel and unforeseen possibilities.

As parents, we feel under tremendous pressure to do the right thing so that everything turns out alright in the end. The carpenter metaphor describes the parent that seeks to mould the child by relentlessly chiselling away with a particular outcome in mind. In contrast, the gardener does not believe that they are single-handedly capable of creating the ideal flowers or vegetables. Instead, the gardener works hard to create the right growing conditions: they accept that their plans may not be realised. Rather than trying to mould, the parent that is like a gardener will seek to create a safe space in which the child can flourish.

Should facility managers be more like carpenters or gardeners (metaphorically speaking)?  The carpenter describes the more traditional facility manager. Just like in the parenting model, the traditional facility manager is assumed to be active, whilst the building user is always passive. They seek to create order from the chaos that users inevitably bring to the workplace (promoting lean 5s tools or office etiquette). The workspace is simply a tool, enabling users to complete a succession of tasks. Success is measured in terms of output and satisfaction.

In the modern workplace, managed by the ‘gardener’, it is no longer about fulfilling predictable tasks – but is instead about allowing the interplay of activities, rather like a dance (if you don’t mind mixing the metaphor). It has more ‘agile’ rather than ‘lean’ characteristics. Evolvability is the outcome of a ‘messy’ environment akin to the process of natural selection. Variable environments produce variable employees (neurodiversity).

Reverting to type

From the time that building users enter an unfamiliar office environment, they engage in sense-making. They pick up cues about who they are and how they fit in an organisation just by immersing themselves in a space. With the advent of New Ways of Working (NWoW) the office environment presents many diverse choices for the user: choices about where to work, when to work and with who. The introduction of Activity-Based Working (ABW) has exploded the choice of work settings available to office users. The diversity of work environments in ABW offices enables users to migrate from one setting to another during the course of the day – matching their current workplace needs to their task. These choices are both liberating and bewildering. When presented with multiple settings with different technical and physical attributes, building users may demonstrate an initial willingness to try out unfamiliar settings. But over time, users often go back to their old ways. The frequency of switching to different settings becomes minimal, despite the evident productivity gains from matching task to setting [4].

In this complex ecosystem, the role of facility manager as gardener becomes more evident. Rather than instructing, the facility manager takes on a nurturing role. They use physical artefacts in the work environment to ‘nudge’ users to vary their behaviour. An illustration of this is the use of Sit-Stand Desks (SSDs). In a study in the Netherlands [5], a simple intervention involving returning the desks to a standing position at the end of each day, encouraged users to ‘mindfully’ consider both the sitting and standing options when returning to work in the morning. As a result, the switching frequency rose significantly in the subsequent study period.

Emotional traction

The way in which people, place, process and technology combine in the modern office is remarkably different from the past. Organisations do not want a ‘plug and play’ solution – based on ‘mutual indifference’ with co-workers (we’ve all done it – avoiding eye contact). Instead, organisations want to provide ‘emotional traction’. This allows employees to understand their role in an organisation and to find personal identity. Organisations are haemorrhaging good staff due to a lack of trust, loyalty and learning opportunities. The design of the workplace can redress this imbalance. Rather than look to the intelligent building as a saviour, the emotionally intelligent building may have some answers.

An emotionally intelligent building describes “the sum of emotional feedback that can be perceived, discovered, or learned as a result of being in and engaging with a work setting – both individually and as groups. This intelligence enables sensemaking as a result of interaction with space and artefacts within the space, using one of three dimensions: instrumentality, symbolism or aesthetics.” [6]

In our book, ‘Creating emotionally intelligent workspaces’ [6], we wanted to find out whether the contemporary office was more than simply an instrumental tool? Could it be used to enhance our emotional intelligence – the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others. We listened to leading practitioners in the UK and Australia and examined current research in relevant areas (e.g. environment-behavior, psychology, linguistics and anthropology). We looked at three key dimensions – with a particular focus on the more intangible non-instrumental concepts:

  • instrumental
  • aesthetic
  • symbolic


An instrumental view of the workplace considers it as simply a tool for getting the job done. Success is measured in terms of interchangeability, productivity and compliance. Standards, service level agreements and measurement tools provide the necessary armoury to ensure requirements are met.


Workplace aesthetics allow us to engage people’s senses. The ‘look and feel’ of the workplace affects our everyday well-being and decision-making. Unlike the static experience of visiting an art gallery, aesthetics in the workplace involves dynamic interaction and interplay. Developments in neuroscience and specialist research in neuro-architecture and neuro-aesthetics are providing fresh ideas about our interaction with the workplace at the biological level. We are starting to understand the significance of ‘naturalness’ in our surroundings – allowing us to find emotional traction (biophilia suggests that we all have an innate and genetically determined liking for natural things).


We can think of a symbol as “something that stands for something else”. Unlike a sign, a symbol has meaning at several different levels. Organisations use symbols as a branding device in the work environment in order to foster organisational identity. But symbolism is also important at the individual level – as a means of self-expression. Personal artefacts are often used by employees as symbolic identity markers – family photos or keepsakes on the desk.  Symbols evoke emotions and meaning that are culturally learnt. We attach meaning and memories to surroundings. The hot-desking environment and the clear desk policy often prohibit personalisation, but employees continue to find ingenious ways to express themselves in the workplace by the use of unsanctioned symbols.

Providing a protected space

The relationship between the modern-day facility manager with users and stakeholders has to be “more thoughtful and less divisive, more complex and less tortured, more nuanced and less simplistic” [3] (quoting the observations by Gopnik on parenting). The gardening metaphor serves a useful purpose. Relying solely on the instrumental approach to workplace management is unlikely to offer the freedom for employees to flourish. Nor will it encourage the creative ‘yes… and’ talents of the facility manager.  Understanding how the physical environment can create emotional traction will be the challenge in forthcoming decades. More than ever, the workplace “provides the next generation with a protected space in which they can produce new ways of thinking and acting that… are entirely unlike any that we would have anticipated beforehand” [3].


[1]          F. Duffy, ‘Measuring building performance’, Facilities, vol. 8, no. 5, pp. 17–20, May 1990.

[2]          A. N. Oppenheim, Questionnaire Design, Interviewing and Attitude Measurement. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000.

[3]          A. Gopnik, The gardener and carpenter. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux., 2016.

[4]          J. G. Hoendervanger, C. J. Albers, M. P. Mobach, N. W. Van Yperen, and I. De Been, ‘Flexibility in use: Switching behaviour and satisfaction in activity-based work environments’, J. Corp. Real Estate, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 48–62, Apr. 2016.

[5]          S. Wilks, M. Mortimer, and P. Nylén, ‘The introduction of sit–stand worktables; aspects of attitudes, compliance and satisfaction’, Appl. Ergon., vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 359–365, May 2006.

[6]          E. Finch, and G. Aranda-Mena, Creating Emotionally Intelligent Workspaces : A design guide to office chemistry. Routledge, 2019.


Eddy Finch is co-author of Creating Emotionally Intelligent Workspaces : A design guide to office chemistry that is published in October 2019.  He obtained his PhD from the University of Reading in 1989 and was full Professor in Facilities Management at Salford University, UK (2008-2011). He acted as editor-in-chief of the academic journal Facilities for fifteen years.