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Insights of the Industry: Lexi Christou

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Lexi Christou is a facilities management expert, with experience ranging from corrective facilities, to corporate offices.

In November 2020, we sat down with Lexi to talk about her experience in the industry, including her experience in disaster recovery.

Can you tell us what it means to work in facilites management?

Working in facilities management means working in an industry (built environment) that provides opportunities across diverse skillsets, to deliver safe, functional buildings, with a focus on cost savings and creating awesome outcomes for the building owners.

Is such thing as a typical day in facilities management?

There’s a broad set of skills and tasks required across FM. However, most people will start their day checking work orders and emails. There’s usually a lot of following up on work orders.

You typically then move on to property inspections, contractor spot checking, hazard inspections, and lots of meetings with stakeholders.

You’ve also got to keep an eye on expenditure, and might need to write business cases for replacement or refurbishment of assets.

What's usually the response when telling people you work in facilities management?

A bit of curiosity, there are plenty of people who have no idea that the industry exists.

You also get those who are surprised to see a woman in an FM role, let alone one without a trade background.

Did you know what you were getting into, starting in facilities management?

I was one of those people who didn’t know the industry existed! Coming from residential real estate, I was very fresh, and started out in a call centre taking maintenance requests.

Once I got started, I noticed I only ever spoke to men. All the facilities managers, all the technicians, and most of the clients were men, so I got a sense that I was walking into a man’s world.

That initially made me think it would be hard to break into FM, but fortunately I was proven wrong.

Can you explain why facilities management is important for organisations

Buildings are at the heart of almost everything we do, from shopping, to working, to flying or even exercising.

Without facilities management, these buildings couldn’t exist as we know them.

Facilities management maintains and upgrades these sites, keeping them functional, safe, and staffed. We deliver hard and soft services, from AC and lighting to the “fluffier” stuff like concierge and touch point cleaning.

It’s a great opportunity for outsourced services to provide FM, so the business can focus on what they exist to do, knowing they can do so in a safe environment.

Can you tell us about your experience in major disaster recovery?

In 2015 I was working in a public private partnership at the Metropolitan Remand Centre in Victoria - a high-security, all-male prison. On the 1st of July 2015, the Government enacted a smoking ban. In response, the day before, the prisoners started rioting, which resulted in millions of dollars worth of damage.

What sort of damage did the facility incur?

Many fire panels and almost all cell windows were broken. The windows alone were extremely expensive to replace - we’re not talking regular residential glass, but thick, reinforced glass.

Some of the cell doors, which weigh hundreds of kilograms each, were also removed.

For weeks we had metal detection on site, to try to recover any tools stolen from the industry department that could have been buried with the intent to use them as weapons.

What did that mean for you, being in the facilities team?

At that point it was early in my FM career, but it was a turning point for me both professionally and personally.

Disaster recovery involved focussing on how stakeholders expect responses. Beyond the prisoners and employees, those stakeholders included the government, the media, and the general public.  

It was an incredible experience, but incredibly tough at the time. Looking back, it was such a pivotal moment in my career, where I built so much resilience, and learned to be adaptable.

It’s so important in FM to be adaptable because it really is ever-changing, it changes every single day, and every day something different happens.

We were working in areas where we were having faeces and urine thrown at us through broken windows.

In that environment, there’s a lot of communicable diseases. It was a tough position to be in. You don’t get training in things like biological hazards and dealing with these sorts of situations.

It was very high-pressure, but I built up a skillset not many people ever develop.

What did the recovery look like?

It was a really tough time, and a bit traumatic for everyone who worked there. Our workplace had very quickly turned into a worst-case scenario.

There was a lot of contractor management and complex logistics, being a maximum-security prison. We had prisoner movements for weeks afterwards because the property wasn’t secure.

Since the riot there’s been many changes rolled out across corrections Victoria, based on what we learned.

When you have over 600 prisoners working together, with all the time in the world and nothing to lose, extraordinary things will happen. It was a stressful time, with sleepless nights, tears, frustrations and difficulties.

How long did the riot and recovery go for?

The riot started just before lunch on Tuesday, and the facility was secured around 6am Wednesday. The initial recovery meant removing thousands of damaged and destroyed assets, all in amongst broken glass. We had around 30 skips go in and out in the first few days.  

It took a few weeks to get the facility to lockup, when prisoners could be moved back in.

The broader recovery took around two years, and after that there were strengthening projects, which are still going on.

 

How does working in corporate offices compare to the prisons?

In both corporate sites and prisons, there are a lot of compliance activities that have to happen before anybody can step on site. The major difference is the stringency of things like police and background checks.

Prisons are unique buildings. Everything is more secure, so managing protocols, even small ones, is very different.

However, working on corporate sites comes with its challenges. In prisons, you have a very clear idea of what needs to happen. But in a corporate site, that changes from one site to the next, depending on the stakeholders.

What are the critical skills needed for someone wanting a career in facilities management?

Being able to talk to people and really listen to their needs.  

Flexibility is also critical. You’re always on call, and things change at the drop of a hat, including client expectations.

Reactive maintenance is by nature, impossible to predict. You might have 50 things due by 5pm but then you get a burst pipe or something.

Being resilient and able to pivot is a skillset you really need, if you don’t have it, you need to learn it really quickly.

What have been the biggest changes you have seen in facilities management over your career?

We’ve moved away from a technical skillset, towards soft skills and admin. Facilities management used to be all about the building, but now client needs are at the forefront.

Facilities managers now deal with a huge number of stakeholders, from cleaners to CEO’s.

Rather than being in the basement, fixing things ourselves, we’re now in a client-facing corporate role.

You don’t need to know how the HVAC system works or read a line drawing, because trades are doing it for you as the subject matter experts. You need to be able to do the customer delivery and reporting side of things, while leaving the technical things to the technical specialists.

What have been some of the biggest challenges of your career so far?

Honestly, being a woman. I’ve had so many people doubt my ability to do the job well, because I’m not a man who was an electrician for 30 years, or someone who ran their own business.

I am a woman, I have a family, and I’ve had a lot of experiences, particularly at the start of my career, where that’s been a major problem.

I was told by one boss “You can’t go for the FM role, there’s no way would they’ll hire a woman, especially not one under 30.”

Two years later, I was on the same level as him.

What would your advice be to your pre-facilities manager self?

To be more forgiving of myself and give myself grace to make mistakes. It’s part of the learning journey, particularly when there’s so much reach across different business streams.

There are so many different business facets to deal with, you can’t expect to know it all straight away.

Why do you love working in facilities management?

This is an easy one, it’s fun!

Things change all the time, there’s always something happening, it’s never monotonous.  

Every day is different, and you develop great relationships with different people. You might be speaking to a cleaner about protocols, and ten minutes later be speaking with the CEO of a big four bank about the position of their desk.

How do you hope facilities management will change in the future?

A shift towards technology doing the work for you. The way we use data has already changed dramatically. At the prisons everything was on paper, in carbon copy books. In my role now, everything is automated.

Being able to utilise software to your advantage reduces the amount of time you spend at a desk, pulling reports or running analysis.

Facilities managers shouldn’t be on the computer, but rather focussing on the customer, the contractors, and compliance.

And I promise I didn’t tailor my response because I’m talking to you!

How have you personally changed over your career?

I’ve become a lot more resilient, patient and adaptable. The way I can communicate with people has developed so much.

I’ve been able to embrace change, and have established incredible relationships with people I never would have been exposed to before.

What do you see as the biggest risk or challenge for facilities management currently?

We are in a strange world now, the way we use buildings has changed dramatically with COVID. There’s a big shift towards working from home and hybrid working. For our clients, that means changing in the way they utilise spaces and buildings, and sometimes even divesting.

In COVID we saw a lot of work getting deferred and clients wanting to reduce their spend on their physical space. If things don’t shift back towards an in-office setup, the industry is going to need to pivot.