How I Got Here: JLL’s Divya Thaper is hopeful for a future of equal representation

by Helena Morgan
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Some people think facilities and operations managers just make sure the lifts are running and the lights are on. In reality, an FM wears many hats. From space management to sustainability and security in the built environment, responsibilities can vary from FM to FM. It’s a career full of opportunity that takes people down many different paths.

Facility Management’s ‘How I Got Here’ series chats to impressive people who have worked in the field to map out some of the paths taken and demystify this essential profession.

JLL facility manager Divya Thaper could be mistaken for being a guest actor on the recently rebooted Network Ten comedy improv show that prompts people to express gratitude to a higher celestial being when a person walks into a room. 

She has come to expect people to flash a smile and breathe a sigh of relief when she enters a room, and it’s not just because she bursts with an infectious warmth and energy. 

A chorus erupts when Thaper enters a room because she is generally attending to a maintenance issue or spreading news about an upcoming office-bonding event that may or may not involve knock-off drinks.

“Even though you are ‘behind the scenes’ in facility management, everybody knows you and appreciates you, which is a great feeling,” says Thaper. 

“People know when things malfunction, they’ll be seeing my face – they say, oh thank God you’re in office now!”

As with many facilities managers, she is committed to debunking the myth that the job is confined to office administration and maintenance tasks. 

“Facility management is so much more than admin – we can be responsible for the overall health of a workplace,” says Thaper.

An early love for cultural event management 

Thaper says her career in facility management was never strategic or calculated. She comes from cultural event management, where she gained an industry start in her home city of New Delhi, India. 

Studying French as a second language at university saw Thaper specialise in event management for French artists visiting New Delhi. While she remembers the job as intense and demanding due to donning many different hats, Thaper loved the thrilling nature of event management. 

She was also afforded the opportunity to work in France on an exchange program in cultural management. Thaper and her husband lived in South Korea for a period, yet she cited difficulties in finding employment, so she decided to volunteer for events in the cultural diaspora. 

A relocation to Melbourne in 2013 saw Thaper enter an extensive and onerous job-hunting phase wherein she confronted frankly disappointing cases of racial bias that left her feeling disheartened.

‘It was a very hard time for me,” she says. “I was told by recruiters to change my name so I could be picked up by a company.”

Thaper fell victim to not being deemed a priority or first-choice unless companies were looking to extend insincerity and tokenism or satisfy the diversity card. She reports that employers generally reach for “local experience” as opposed to someone who has moved from overseas and has a first language other than English.

Thaper and her team at JLL.

A case of getting facility management scouted

Thaper recalls feeling desperate, stagnant and just needing to “do something” yet coming up against roadblocks. She eventually secured a job working in office management for a film distribution company specialising in film festivals, however, the late nights prompted Thaper to find another job, as the hours were not conducive to family life.

A stint working at Deliveroo saw Thaper get facility management scouted, for lack of a better word. “Someone told me that I would be a good fit for facilities,” she says.

Unsure what the job entailed, Thaper recalls initially being a guilty culprit of surface level-judgements towards the industry. 

“I remember asking if it was office management, and the person said yes, but it extends so much beyond admin,” says Thaper.

She grins while recounting that after four countries and five cities – now living in Sydney  – she has found a rewarding career in facilities management.

A purposeful job of big and small thrills

Thaper is grateful to work in an inclusive and meaningful job, with people hailing from many different career backgrounds. She confirms the all-too-familiar trope in facility management of an ‘average day’ being a fallacy. Thaper and her small but hearty team of four at JLL have been known to refer to their days as either characterised by thrills, or an absence of thrills.

A day devoid of thrills generally involves meetings, office walkthroughs, cleaning inspections, financing and invoicing vendors. Thrill-less days also involve organising events for business units and ensuring clean, sufficiently stocked and well-presented conference or meeting rooms. 

Thaper is also in the business of future-proofing, through overseeing mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) works, so that “peaceful days” lie ahead for the team.

Whereas, a thrilling day entails electricity trips or technology malfunctions, and as much as it may cause disruptions to everyday proceedings, Thaper confesses a love for such “thrills.”

“The thrilling really helps, as sometimes it avoids a bigger problem because you’ve caught up with a smaller maintenance issue,” she says. The team are eager to minimise the splash zone and ensure the aftershocks aren’t too pronounced.

Future-proofing maintenance and finance

Preventative or ‘future-proofing’ maintenance is a regular fixture in Thaper’s days, alongside tasks that are government-authorised such as organising emergency procedure drills. Thaper also says finance is underrepresented as an essential part of a facilities manager’s day. 

“As you move up, you realise that operations actually depend on the money and how to get money,” she says. To attend to the needs of users of a space, you have to spend money. 

Unlike marketing or sales, the facilities management department doesn’t earn anything, so Thaper and her team have to justify spending, and guaranteeing immediate rewards – particularly when investing in greener and cleaner initiatives – can be tricky.

“We don’t earn any money like sales or marketing – we’re attending to lifecycle management,” she says.

Thaper and the FM team at JLL.

The health, real estate and aesthetics of a facility 

As aforementioned, if there is one stereotype that Thaper is keen to see the back of, it is that the industry is synonymous with administration. She surmises that this outdated stereotype is symptomatic of facility management as a full-time career still being a relatively new reality, and that language will change. 

The condition and state of a facility, whether it be a school, office or convention centre, is indebted to facilities – they hold a valued responsibility to make a space safe, comfortable and accessible. 

“I feel so proud when someone in my office says they love coming into the office,” says Thaper. 

A clean and presentable meeting room, functioning lifts, Thursday night knock-offs, mid-week coffees and sweet treats, seamless safety procedures, brand signage, artworks, first-aid courses – it’s all owed to Thaper and her team. 

“We are the health of the office, the real estate of the office – the looks, the aesthetics, the diversity,” she says. They contribute to office wellbeing, visual presentation and safety, and all behind-the-scenes, and often after hours. 

Thaper says facilities management can contribute to a sense of pride towards cultural diversity by suggesting certain meeting rooms be changed to local First Nations names, or including signage that celebrates a company’s makeup and composition.

She wants to see regular discourse surrounding the ever-evolving facilities management industry as that will hopefully spotlight the important and often misunderstood job. “The more we talk about it, the more people will notice our work,” says Thaper.

Equality of representation in facilities management 

The WGEA gender pay gap figures revealed in recent weeks sparked confusion and frustration at how and why pay inequity lingers, alongside prompting many to interrogate why some industries are male or female-dominated. 

Facilities management offers an interesting case study for the discussion on pay parity and equal representation, as the career fuses elements of construction and labour – traditionally a male-dominated industry – with administration and office management – traditionally deemed a female-dominated task. 

In the recently released International Facility Management Association (IFMA) report entitled “Factors impacting retention and advancement of women in facility management”, the global organisation confirmed women make up 20 percent of global facility management. 

The report also identified a retiring and ageing workforce, alongside attracting women and underrepresented minorities to facilities, as major future challenges.

Risks of ghettoisation 

Thaper acknowledges that despite a prevalence of men in the industry, and that every senior person she has reported to throughout her career has been a man, she has experienced no major barriers or hurdles in facility management. She is inspired by the evolving nature of the industry and is determined to hold a senior position ten years from now. 

“I think these things will happen with time,” she says. 

Thaper is critical of the ghettoisation that can develop from misguided efforts to satisfy the diversity and intersectionality card. She wants to be valued as a great facility manager, not a great female facilities manager. 

“I don’t necessarily want someone to pick me up for a FM position just because I’m a woman, or because they need more women at their company or organisation,” she says.

“Equal gender representation should be a criteria, but not the only criteria.”

Why don’t you try something that’s better for your family?

While Thaper reports minimal instances of roadblocks that make her feel as if she can’t aim high, there is one incident from her career as a facility manager that begs the question society is tired of asking – would someone suggest the same thing to a man?

“I am the mum of a toddler, and I was recently offered a job that was a little under a senior position that would require much more of my time and attention,” says Thaper.

One of her managers advised against Thaper accepting this position, and instead suggested she should opt for a less senior role in the name of “doing what’s best for the family.”

“He said that I consider something easier as a young mum as it will allow me to work better,” she says. 

While possibly well-intentioned as a suggestion for Thaper to be mindful of her wellbeing, it is these micro-aggressions of sexism and the failure to offer support that contributes to women falling short of senior and decision-making roles.

“He was coming from a reasonable place, and wanted me to not be stressed about work, as facility management demands you to be on your phone – if something goes wrong in the office, you have to be available to come in,” says Thaper.

However, she feels like she wasn’t even given a chance by her manager to try and secure a work-life balance. 

“In hindsight, I was thinking why didn’t he say that he was there to support me, and offer flexibility to find a balance, and suggest just trying it out,” says Thaper. She was steamrolled into abandoning ambitions to aim high. The workplace should be adapting to the needs of women, not the other way around.

Ongoing challenges and hurdles in facilities management

Meetings are an essential fixture in the life of a facilities manager, however, Thaper is occasionally fatigued by the constant check-ins as they detract from actually implementing changes.

“I feel that we spend way too much time on check-ins instead of operations and making it work,” she says. 

Thaper maintains that facilities management would be improved by the greater embrace of innovative and efficient technologies, and refrain from relying on Excel spreadsheets.

She cites vendor management as an ongoing thorn in a facility manager’s side, particularly in an Australian market limited by a smaller population and greater monopoly of vendors. “Our urgency is not their urgency and our definition of timeliness is not their definition of timeliness.” 

Additionally, at a global company such as JLL, Thaper wants to see more region-specific and nuanced approaches to facility management, as opposed to having to abide by global guidelines and inflexible one-size-fits-all guidelines. 

“Just because it’s happening in one office doesn’t mean it needs to happen here,” she says.

“I need a little more freedom to have creativity and not just follow offices in other countries.”

Environmentally and socially responsible facility management 

Thaper rejoices in the major leap in efficiency at JLL through the implementation of Corrigo, a system that manages facility management work orders without needing to send 20 emails. 

“We can schedule all maintenance that we want to do with our vendors and they are notified in time,” she says. Deadlines are met and reports are consolidated in one place.

Thaper is inspired by the wider embrace of sustainability and the drive to find ecologically responsible solutions in carbon-heavy buildings. She is proud to work in an office that also promotes social sustainability, with the JLL space in Barangaroo boasting convenient access to public transport and office-bonding activities that Thaper plays a role in delivering. 

“The appreciation from the team keeps us going – people commend us for creating an inclusive space,” she says.

Flexible and socially vibrant office spaces 

Thaper looks forward to noticing people using the well-maintained office rooms for a moment of solitude and peace or robust catch-ups. 

She relishes developing a nourishing office culture, possibly owed to her background in “thrilling” cultural event management. This task of creating memorable and unique office culture holds even more value and importance against the backdrop of the heated return-to-office debate.

“Everyone enjoys a good work-life balance,” says Thaper. “The flexibility to manage home priorities such as school drop offs and pickups, cooking and errands on weekdays is very convenient.”

The pursuit towards securing a healthy and sustainable work-life balance means people are looking to come into the office for more than just a meeting.

“You really need to make sure that an office is keeping up with what people want, through introducing features such as a massage chair or arranging knock-off drinks,” says Thaper.

Offices should aim to create a vibrant atmosphere that still lends itself to productivity, discipline and diligence. Thaper believes workplaces can have the best of both worlds.

“If you can get creative with facility management, it really does make a difference for people.”

Photography supplied by Divya Thaper.

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