A key challenge of any Estates Director is to understand what your options are in relation to your existing or your potential estate. Of course, the starting place shouldn’t be the buildings and sites but should always be the activity. Why do you need facilities in the first place? Can you manage without as many buildings if a different service model is applied? Would that be a more efficient response? Of course, this can be a difficult pill for many boards to swallow, particularly when buildings have an emotional connection with their locality, such as historic buildings, politically charged agendas (older people facilities, children’s facilities) or buildings funded by public subscription.

However, what you do need to ensure is that you are thinking clearly, logically and laterally about your options, and produce an options appraisal which is balanced and brings new ideas to the table and doesn’t just serve back the obvious. This isn’t always easy to do when you have pressure from your board, services, local councillors, the media and local people.  We use a number of techniques and you might find some of these helpful:

Step 1 – Be clear about what the end goal is: Whether you are trying to find new premises for a new service, future proof a service, trying to relocate services or close facilities, you need to be crystal clear about expectations. If there is any uncertainty about the brief, this will undo all your calculations later. If you can, set your assessment criteria now. You will need to review them later but push your client to set them now to help them to think through what would be a deal breaker. Ask the right questions at this stage and you can save a lot of time. Be sure to ask the right people too. We have been caught out on occasion by client representatives giving our team a brief that proves to be undercooked and this is frustrating for all sides. Ask, ask and ask again until you are clear that everyone is on the same page before you do any more work!

Step 2 – Get your facts straight: Rumour and folklore can, unfortunately, get in the way of a good options appraisal. Make sure you know what you are talking about as early as possible in the process by doing your research. Don’t take anything for granted, whether it’s a comment about a restrictive covenant on a site or its planning status. Check it out for yourself.

Step 3 – Start with a blank piece of paper: You will, of course, be under pressure from people who will lobby you to include their preferred option but you must be balanced and ensure you think your options through from all sides. There is usually pressure to simply re-provide what currently exists but a bit bigger! Your mission is to find out what is actually needed, not what the perceived need is based on custom and practice. Do you need a building? If you do, what existing estate could be re-purposed? Have partners got space and could this lead to other options for joint working (if so, go back to Step 1!). What properties are on the market? Which sites are not on the market but are in the right geography? Is a new build out of the question? An early financial appraisal should be able to establish whether it’s affordable, but is it politically acceptable? My personal tip is to use Edward De Bono’s 6 Hats tool to help you think laterally if you are struggling to be creative. Also, talk it through with colleagues – If your office doesn’t have someone who is a creative thinker, seek one out from your wider network. Never forgetting that ‘do nothing’ is always an option…

Step 4 – Understand the options: From a desktop exercise, produce a long list and you must visit the properties and walk the sites. Unless you do this, you will not understand the risks or the opportunities. Great options on paper have very quickly been discounted when you work out who your next door neighbours might be. Use your eyes, ears and nose – and investigate!  Also, it’s vital you do the maths at this point.  Ensure you are looking at whole life costings and not just the obvious costs. My checklist would include rent, debt repayments, unitary charges, lease plus payments, depreciation/accounting-related charges, service charges (building/estate), management charges, business rates, car parking costs, utilities, lifecycle allowance, hard and soft FM costs, along with anything peculiar to that building. Consider Net Present Value (NPV) of investment and any borrowings/allowances which will need to be made.

Step 5 – Keep a learning log: You will also find other interesting points out during the process about the buildings you have reviewed. Keep a learning log throughout the process so you don’t lose these (e.g: buildings where a rent review is imminent, buildings where you are concerned about backlog or health and safety matters).

Step 6 – Share your learning with your client: Reflect on the assessment criteria, the long list and re-calibrate before pulling together your report. Have any of the stakeholder’s requirements changed during the process? Use as an engagement session to whittle the list down to a shortlist if you can. The more people who buy in at this point, the better. We have experience of some clients requiring only a tightly-managed feedback session with 1 or 2 people. These are always the clients who have problems delivering the report once our work is complete because they haven’t got the confidence of their team/board in the methodology and outputs. They may even be working outside of their own brief!

Step 7 – Draft your report: You will fully understand the sensitivities at this point, so now is a good time to ensure you reflect these in a subtle way in the report. Who will see the report? Beware of using the wrong language/tone for the audience. Road test with your peers/colleagues to ensure you haven’t missed anything before issuing as a draft to your client. Be wary of silly mistakes – They can damage the credibility of your report dearly. Ensure your financial assessment is spot on – that is always the area which gets the most attention.

Step 8 – Presentation: Present your report to your client in the format(s) required. Be aware of any media interest if you are presenting in a public forum. My top tip would be to assume that wherever you are presenting it, it may well become public despite your best efforts so always ensure that you have a reactive press release prepared which explains the situation in the way you/your organisation would prefer. Don’t leave this to chance. The news is bound to break on a Friday afternoon when your boss is on their holidays and you can’t get hold of the communications team.  Be prepared.

Step 9 – Review delivery progress:  Follow your report up to ensure the next steps are not lost. Be proactive.