Getting people to accept and embrace change—how to become an FM leader by facilitating dynamic conversations

Create meetings where people can’t wait to show up and where all voices are heard

by Lisa Whited, Advanced Workplace Associates — August 2019 — Your role as an FM leader is needed today more than ever before. Our life expectancy is in the longest sustained decline in a century, not seen in the U.S. since the four years from 1915 through 1918, which included World War I and a flu pandemic that killed 675,000 people in the US. Deaths due to suicide and drug overdoses continue to rise at alarming rates (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Suicide and drug overdose deaths continue to climb at an alarming rate.

People are spending more time at work, leaving less time for community involvement and volunteerism.[i] Work has become people’s community (Figure 2). You, as a Facility Manager, are also serving as a community leader at work and you have the power to make positive change for many people. But it may require doing something out of your comfort zone or counter to how things are currently done in your organization.

Figure 2: People are spending more time together at work. The workplace has become people’s community. (© Melissa Mullen Photography)

Would you be willing to get uncomfortable if doing so could have a positive impact on U.S. life expectancies? How much are you willing to stretch yourself to introduce a method that could save your organization time and money, while also creating authentic connections between employees? How would it feel to have your colleagues actually look forward to attending one of your meetings? How would you feel if, because of something you do differently, a depressed and isolated employee is lifted and feels less alone in the world?

Current State

Most physical workplace change happens because of reaction: A department is adding (or letting go) heads, and the space needs to align with the business changes. This change is typically conveyed via a CFO/COO to the FM. Speed and budget are priorities. You talk to managers to see what they want/need, interface with an architecture and design team to lay it out, then have meeting after meeting after meeting as the plans are scrutinized, second-guessed, revised and finally approved. Regrettably, the approved plans are second-guessed again when under construction, which leads to change-orders, which totally stresses you out because they impact both your budget and your deadline.

The people directly impacted by the change – the employees themselves – are not part of the conversation – and for good reason. We know how fearful they will be about any change; talking to them about it will promote even more anxiety and then, who will manage their expectations? Plus, talking to them will add more time to a project that already has a tight timeline. It is wise to minimize the number of people we talk to when considering a change…. isn’t it?

Although facility management departments have implemented change in a similar way for decades, there is a different way. You can save time by using a meeting facilitation method where all voices are heard, and authentic connections are created among participants. This process leads to the work community flourishing and can save time on second-guessed changes during construction.

Different State

This alternative method, which I have used successfully for several years and with thousands of employees, is a tightly facilitated discussion where all voices are invited into a conversation. Technology exists that allows this type of discussion to be done in an efficient manner – and in a more interactive way than simply issuing an anonymous survey.

You are already an excellent Facility Manager. You can also become known as a leader who knows how to facilitate meetings. Trust me, your colleagues will be grateful beyond measure to sit in one of your meetings where everyone has a voice, things start and stop on time, and stuff gets done.


Let’s use a scenario of a business unit wishing to make improvements to its space because of problems with attraction and retention. The business leader has indicated that in recent exit interviews, employees have expressed unhappiness with slow responsiveness to IT issues, not having enough meeting spaces, and lack of areas to concentrate. There are 290 current employees and the business unit has 15 open seats they are hoping to fill within the next 7 months. A decision has been made to invest money into upgrading the space to respond to business concerns.

Kick-Off Meeting

Organize a 45-minute meeting with the CFO/COO, designated leaders of IT and HR, the impacted business leader and his Directors/VPs. Schedule the meeting for no more and no less than 45 minutes. Let the participants know that this will be an interactive session and they will need to bring their phone, iPad or another device to the meeting.

Start the meeting on time. Open the meeting by telling the group that you will be facilitating the session in a different manner than you typically do (if this is, in fact, a different way than you typically run a meeting). If you are nervous about it, tell the group; let them know that you are trying something new and appreciate their patience and open-mindedness with this meeting. Let them know that your goals with the meeting are to end on time, to ensure everyone participates in the discussion, and to have people talk with a different person for each question. This last point is important; let them know ahead of time that they need to move around the room to talk with others when directed.

Give them a brief (5-7 minute) overview of your understanding of the project. In this example you would use the description in the opening scenario, perhaps adding known challenges – that the space will be renovated while it is occupied, or other important considerations.

Three Questions

Ask each participant to talk with the person next to him or her and answer this question, “What is the ideal outcome you hope to see with this project?” (Or, phrased a different way, “What does success look like for you on this project?”) Set your phone timer for 2 minutes and tell them they are to only talk one-on-one with the person next to them.

After the time is up, ask them to remember what they talked about, but not to say anything. Have them use their phones to log into the online meeting platform you chose. (MeetingSift is what I use – but there are other platforms. You will need your laptop connected to a monitor and will need WiFi. I suggest a trial run with family members or friends beforehand – play around with the online platform a bit to be more comfortable when you are conducting the kick-off meeting.)

Meeting attendees enter the sentence/phrases/words that capture highlights of their discussions into their devices. The comments will show up on the screen as they are entered. Think of this as a very efficient flip chart process – you are using technology instead of markers and a flip chart, and you don’t have the added time of people stating out loud what they talked about.

Review the comments on the screen together. Don’t spend more than a couple minutes looking at the list on the screen. Keep things moving so no one person dominates the airwaves with extraneous comments.

Then, ask them to talk with a different person for 2 minutes and answer this question, “At this point in time, what is the number one business priority from your point of view?” Same scenario – you set your timer, they chat with a partner, then enter highlights of their discussion into their device. Review the comments quickly – spending only 1-2 minutes.

Third question with a different person: “What are the concerns you have with this project/initiative?” They talk with their partner for 2 minutes, then input their words into the device. Review the comments on the screen and chat for a couple minutes about the concerns that have been raised.

At this point you will be about 25 minutes into the meeting with 20 minutes to go. Ask the attendees to write as many questions that they may have regarding the project. They can input all of the questions into your online meeting platform. Review them together on the screen, answering quickly what you can in the moment and acknowledging that some of the questions will need further research to answer (for example, specifics on schedules, budgets, amount of disruption, etc.)

Inviting All Voices

Pause the meeting here and tell the group that this very method that you have been using in the meeting is a method you would like to use with the employees who will be impacted by this change. You will conduct a tightly facilitated workshop, with the online platform, and will spend no more than 45 minutes with the employees, asking them three or four pre-determined questions and having them talk one-on-one for 2 minutes with a different partner for each question. (This may mean you need to do several sessions – but, if space allows, this method can be successfully used with 100+ employees at one time.)

The timing of the employee workshop is important. It should occur very early in the planning process, ideally before any plans have been drawn.

Partnering with HR

You can hone this method yourself and you also have an opportunity to partner with the organization’s HR department. HR professionals often facilitate employee discussions and workshops. If you approach your HR leader with this tried-and-true method you can find yet another opportunity to build cross-departmental connections and awareness, creating a positive workplace experience for all employees.

Inviting the voices of all employees impacted by change is not typically done by the FM leader. However, employee ownership of the conversation about their workspace leads to their investment in it. Employees will fear change whether you talk to them or not; conversations accelerate acceptance of change. Talking about potential change will alleviate some of their concerns, and if you encourage one-on-one conversations, can also build authentic connections between people. (Note, I used to facilitate small group discussions with 5-6 people, but after reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in A World That Can’t Stop Talking, I realized that even in a group of five, an introvert might not participate. I much prefer the heightened participation, engagement and connection I see when people talk one-on-one in workshops.)

What to Do with Meeting Output

Using this facilitation method from the beginning of a project – first with the leadership team and then with groups of employees – brings everyone along on the change journey. Of course, there are questions or things employees may hope for that won’t fly, but at least they know they were heard.

As you continue with the project, issue updates to all staff that show how employee input is being considered or implemented. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you couldn’t do (due to budget or other constraints) and acknowledge great ideas that you can implement.

Positive Results

When you provide opportunities for employee input, initial anxiety and trepidation about change will turn to excitement and anticipation. When you combine technology to support an efficient meeting along with old-fashioned face-to-face, one-on-one discussion, you will see people engage and connect in ways that can be surprising and rewarding. When you have people connect with a different person – even for a couple of minutes – empathy and connection increase, which leads to a stronger community.

The opportunity you have in your role is to lead your organization into a different way of doing things by confidently engaging leaders and employees in the change process through facilitated conversations.

With people spending more time than ever at the office, you have the opportunity to build true community at work and even turn the tide on the life expectancy in the U.S. Are you willing to try something different? I hope you say, “Yes!”

About the Author

Lisa Whited is a trained facilitator, mediator, certified interior designer and workplace strategist who is driven to make a dent in the abysmal Gallup statistic that 70% of people are disengaged at work. Her work focuses on ensuring all voices are heard in a change process. Lisa is a Senior Associate with Advanced Workplace Associates.


Workplace Evolutionaries’ (WE’s) mission is to “change the world one workplace at a time.” It’s a global community of over a thousand professionals who care deeply about the world of work and where it’s going. Among its members are workplace strategists, change managers, facilities managers, architects, designers, HR professionals, IT managers, academics, and product and service providers. WE members enjoy three conferences a year, monthly WEbinars with thought leaders from around the world, a monthly round-up of the best workplace research and news, white papers, and a vehicle for connecting with fellow evolutionaries around the world. WE is a global Community of Practice within the International Facility Management Association.