Successfully Managing Occupant Complaints Often Involves Determining Underlying Reasons For Complaints

It is much more palatable to think of complainers in a facility as simple cranks who are avoiding doing their real jobs, who get some sort of perverse joy out of filling out work orders. But there can be a lot of layers behind a complaint, especially one that looks frivolous on the surface. Successfully managing occupant complaints often requires digging deeper to find the underlying reasons.

Take this story, as told by Susan Mazur-Stommen, behavior and human dimensions program director, ACEEE, about a string of complaints that occurred at a new administrative building for a federal renewable energy laboratory. The facility was daylit and some of the people located near the windows started complaining about glare. But when they were offered cubicles away from the windows, the complaints disappeared.

“Their real issue was status,” Mazur-Stommen says, because in the new space they had lost their enclosed offices. But at some level they realized that HR was not going to be receptive to their perceived slight and instead tried to change their situation by complaining about glare, which is an ergonomics issue and must be treated seriously, she says.

When addressing complaints, it’s smart for facility managers to take a moment to try to peel back any additional layers, just so time and resources are being allocated properly, says Woodard. “In this business, sometimes we think we know the answer and can get the problem off our back quickly, but it turns out that wasn’t the problem,” she says. “There are times that you’re halfway done trying to solve it the way you would solve it, and you realize that’s not the problem at all. And now you’ve wasted all this energy and you have to start all over again.”

In understanding what is really going on, it’s also important to see who is involved and who is labeling the complaint as frivolous, says Mazur-Stommen. “Oftentimes, the building engineers are male and the complainants are female, and the situations get written into very gendered frames of reference,” she says.

Temperature wars are a place this comes to light. To paint it with a broad brush, men have set the standards for thermal comfort in commercial buildings, and cultural norms put men is a very standardized business uniform. “You have high summer and you have men wearing wool slacks, and undershirts, and socks, and closed-toed shoes,” Mazur-Stommen says. Meanwhile, women’s attire varies more to match the demands of the seasons. “To be specific, it’s cold in the building because we’re cooling men who are not dressed appropriately for the season. We’re spending a lot of money to let men wander around in wool slacks.”

When facility managers receive complaints they perceive to be frivolous, it would be ideal to take a step back and evaluate who is making the complaint and what else might be going on, as the individual might be trying to address feelings of lack of status, or low morale, or not being heard, by trying to control their environment. “It’s not the building engineer’s job to empower people,” Mazur-Stommen says, “But if you’re asking where these complaints are coming from, it’s a ‘kick the dog’ phenomenon.”

Frivolous is in the eyes of the beholder as well, she says. Ramps for ducklings might be the poster-child for a frivolous request, but only from a certain perspective. “Is it frivolous because it’s not about dollars and cents, and is instead about meaning and values and comfort?” Mazur-Stommen says. “Those are what makes us human. A building is more than just a building envelope and systems for heating and cooling. A building is a social structure, it is a community.”

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