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4 Steps to Culture Development in Facility Management

Note: The following article is in partnership with the Northwest Energy Efficiency Council (NEEC). NEEC is a business association of the energy efficiency and building decarbonization industry. NEEC’s mission is to remove all carbon emissions from building energy use through market-based thought leadership, education, and advocacy.

We humans are social beings and are influenced by culture. Different cultures influence how we feel, behave and work in various environments.

But what exactly is culture? The word culture originates from the Latin word “colere” and “cultura” and was used when talking about the ground/dirt in agriculture. According to the Baldridge Performance Excellence Program culture can be described as, “The shared beliefs, norms, and values that characterize your workforce and are demonstrated within your organization.”

Institutional structures like schools, families, and clubs all have their own individual cultures. Cultures influence how we feel, think, and how we make our decisions. The way we are treated and supported has an influence on how motivated and productive we are. Needless to say, corporate culture matters and influences the success of an organization.

Therefore organizations are intentionally putting an effort forward to shape their culture by identifying a vision, a mission, and holding cultural trainings for employees. But who is included in these trainings? Executives? Senior administrators? Program and Project Managers? What about the Operations and Facilities departments? A corporate culture training would most likely include supervisors, but what about the custodians and the maintenance staff?

 A school district’s mission is to educate our children and youth, to support and help them to achieve their best potential. Of course, cultures will vary from school to school and have their own identities. Culture can help to achieve the goal of student success. Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Ian Pumpian describe in their book, “How to Create a Culture of Achievement"  important components of school culture and how they can uplift and improve culture in schools to support a common goal: student success.

As one school district in the Pacific Northwest took this book to heart, the leadership team of Operations started their journey of working with their custodial and maintenance team by hosting workshops and trainings on these components of culture. The outcome has been amazing and any organization could benefit from starting its own journey down that path.

Culture as a part of communication

Culture influences how we communicate with each other, and it is important and helpful to teach awareness around that, especially in a diverse workforce. Cultural awareness and knowledge about different communication styles helps to create a better understanding of each other and can prevent misunderstandings.

The way employees communicate with each other within an organization is also a part of the culture. Does everything need to be communicated in writing for documentation purposes? Is it okay to send a text or an instant message? Is it acceptable to stop by at the desk for a quick personal chat or is that frowned upon? 

The 5 pillars of creating a culture of achievement, as outlined by Fisher, Frey, and Pumpian:
  1. Welcome
  2. Do no harm
  3. Choice of words
  4. It’s never too late to learn
  5. Best school in the universe 

How can these 5 pillars be transferred into a non-academic context such as facility operation?

The following are parts of the 5 pillars and some other aspects that can loosely be transferred into facility operation and general workforce development.

1. Creating a welcoming atmosphere

The concept of the “experience economy” shows us how important customer service and our experiences are to the sustainability and success of a business. It is the component that can set a business apart from its competitors. One component to create a prime customer experience, internal or external, is to create a welcoming atmosphere. Simple acts like greeting everyone with a smile and eye contact, walking people unfamiliar with the facility to their destination, mutual respect, and accountability, and saying “thank you” can go a long way.

Bigger companies have staffed receptions to welcome and guide external customers. But how does your staff interact internally with each other? Are office doors open and do employees feel welcome when they step into your office? Are they being greeted with a smile and eye contact when they approach the supervisor with a question or concern? Not making eye contact with your employee and not taking a pause to intentionally listen to their concerns could make them feel as if their concerns do not matter and are not valued. Do they feel like they are being listened to, heard and supported in their work?

Welcoming practices should be valued by everybody in the organization, including the maintenance and custodial staff as a basic interpersonal skill.

Scenario 1:

John works for an apartment complex and is in the breezeway changing out a broken light fixture. A lost new tenant is walking by trying to find the fitness room. The tenant asks John for directions and John briefly describes to the tenant where to find the fitness center.

Scenario 2:

John works for an apartment complex and is in the breezeway changing out a broken light fixture. A lost new tenant is walking by trying to find the fitness room. The tenant asks John for directions. John interrupts his work and walks the new tenant to the fitness center showing him the way.

Most likely, scenario 2 will make the new tenant feel more welcome and add to a positive customer experience. But leadership will have to model behavior like this and allow John the time to take actions like this. 

2. Do no harm 

Do no harm seems to be such a logical and easy ask. But it is a deeper subject than it initially appears to be. Harm can be done intentionally and unintentionally, physically or by actions or words. Intention is separate from impact. A lot of companies have regulations and procedures to educate their employees about what is acceptable and what is not. But simple compliance is not the desired result. Understanding the reasons why a certain behavior is preferable over another is the far better outcome. That requires conversations, asking questions and stimulating staff to think about certain values which are expressed through the corporate vision and mission.  Prevention of harm is the goal.

Albert Bandera identified two components making humans unique:

  1. Observational learning through attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation
  2. Self-regulation by self-observation, judgment of one’s own actions, and self-response.

The book “How to Create a Culture of Achievement” defines a standard to develop the capacity to self-regulate to prevent harm:

  1. Take care of yourself (make sure you seek help when needed)
  2. Take care of each other (offer help when you see someone struggling)
  3. Feel free to accept help when it is offered
  4. Politely decline help if you want to try a little longer

3. Language and choice of words

The way we speak to our children matters. Parents' voices become children’s internal voices and will influence how they will speak to themselves and whether they will believe in themselves to be able to accomplish a task or not.

Adults are no exception. Our choices of words can make a person feel supported, demotivated, empowered, etc.  

Sarcasm oftentimes is used in an attempt to be funny and to joke around. We know that sarcasm can be hurtful to kids and young adults, affecting the way they learn and thrive. But how about adults? Undoubtedly, the way we speak and the words we choose affect the people around us and our relationships. Sarcasm can greatly influence how people are thinking about themselves, it can influence what they believe they are capable of and what they can achieve personally and professionally.

Further, some words like “but” and “just” are limiting and often discredit a previous positive statement. For example: “John, you worked hard on the lighting retrofit project, but there is a mistake in the energy analysis.” This wording directs John’s attention to the error he made instead of focusing on the positive recognition he received. A different, non-discounting way of phrasing this could be: “John, you worked hard on the lighting retrofit project. There is an error in the energy analysis which needs to be corrected.”

Find ways to compliment employees’ work as often as you provide criticism. Highlight the positive aspects of their intention, even if the outcome wasn’t what was desired. Utilize the practice of a “critique sandwich” by providing a compliment, offering the critique, and then giving another compliment or reiterating the original compliment. For example, “I really appreciate your eagerness to get your work done quickly. In this case, you missed an important detail, so it may be helpful to slow down a little and make sure you haven’t missed anything. I’m confident that you can continue to be highly productive while also paying more attention to the details.”

Build up employees and ensure they do not take feedback and constructive criticism personally. Model taking accountability for your own mistakes, and learning from them. For example, using language like “You made a mistake, but that’s okay, that’s how we learn” or “I once made a similar mistake and this is what I learned” can help solidify an employee’s resolve to grow instead of feeling discouraged.

Good communication isn’t always about the language you use; it also involves actively listening. Invite employees to share feedback or input they may have, and reinforce that invitation with welcoming body language such as eye contact, an open posture (for example, open palms instead of arms crossed in front of you), and nodding to acknowledge you understand what they are saying. A smile can go a long way too. Wait until they seem finished with what they are trying to express before responding.

4. Learning – It is never too late

In the book, this pillar encourages the reader to examine their views on how they see student learning and challenges the reader to assume competency of all the students. That does not imply that all the students will reach the same skill set in the same timeframe. Transferring this to the workforce opens so many growth opportunities for employees and society as a whole. Presuming competence and ability in a person also changes what kind of opportunities employees are given. Provide opportunities for learning, and model lifelong learning by engaging in your own personal development.

This pillar is also important to keep in mind when it comes to change. It can be expected that not everybody is able to accept change with the same ease. But everybody can learn. Some folks may just need a little bit more time to either accept the change or come to the conclusion that the new culture is not for them.  

A retirement wave and shortage of skilled employees are anticipated for the maintenance and building operator staff in the built environment in the coming years. Workforce education programs are key, and elevating awareness of the profession as a viable, fulfilling career is also needed.

Providing opportunities internally for staff to advance can help fill gaps within an organization. Custodial staff is often underestimated and overlooked. But they are the on-the-ground eyes and ears of a building, often knowing the building inside out, during both occupied and unoccupied hours. What if they were given the opportunity for some professional development?   


Summarizing the above, it really comes down to treating each other with respect and how to build meaningful relationships with each other. People who have meaningful relationships are more likely to support each other when needed, which is crucial for high-performing, collaborative teams.  


Change management is a challenge. Change is not easy and often creates an uncomfortable situation for some employees as they don’t know what to expect from a new situation. Communication, transparency, and exceptional leadership are required to guide employees through a period of change and transition.

Staff turnover and hiring practices are other common challenges. The organizational culture should be a part of any hiring process to ensure the new hire will be a good fit for the team and company.

Leadership skills and dedication are important traits that can help guide an organization through challenges. Building a culture and navigating change requires people skills, dedication, patience as well as endurance. 


Creating an inclusive, uplifting organizational culture takes time, resources, and dedication. A great culture builds relationships that matter and is a delicate part of an organization’s way of treating each other. Staff turnover and change in leadership can be challenging. New hires’ values need to match the organization’s values, and they need to learn about the culture and feel like they can fit in. Service cycles, procedures, continued training and modeling by leadership can keep a great culture alive. But it does not happen automatically. A well-established, positive culture requires continuous attention and maintenance or it will not last.