FM Frequency: Machines Don’t Clean Buildings…People Do: Part 1

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By Charles Carpenter
Published in the April 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

If you were asked to make a list of people who promise more than they deliver, the list might include car salesmen, political candidates, creepy dates from Match.com, and cleaning companies. For facility managers (fms), it should come as no surprise that the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) recently ranked poor janitorial service as the third highest office complaint.

What percentage of the population really enjoys physical cleaning? Take that small percentage of people who enjoy cleaning and see how many want to do it five days a week, 52 weeks a year—and then factor payment into the discussion.

So what’s left? The people who love to clean probably have full-time day jobs in homes or hotels where they can find pay with benefits. Even McDonald’s prides itself on the fact that people can rise from entry worker to store manager over time. (It is also said one in eight Americans has worked for the franchise at some point.) Flipping burgers suddenly looks better than scrubbing toilets.

The majority of office space is cleaned at night (this is not an article about day cleaning versus night cleaning). Those willing to work nights are part of an even smaller pool. They may already have worked an exhausting eight hour day (or longer) before starting on your facility (and possibly only earning minimum wage for cleaning). Or they may be home all day with children while a spouse works (to save on childcare) before they set out for what amounts to a second work day. It may be the only job they can get or the job they take until something better comes along. These people, as Francois Truffaut has said, are “doing a thankless, daily but necessary job.”

As an fm, you have probably had one or two exceptional cleaners but possibly more unexceptional cleaning companies. If you find a good person, you might make it the responsibility of the new cleaning contractor to hire that person (as long as the cost is not more than you are willing to pay).

Odds are, the majority of fms look at price first when collecting cleaning quotes. Like any contractor, cleaning can only offer so much value-added services, and it’s harder for one cleaning company to distinguish itself from another. The cleaning industry is a low bid environment, even for fms who realize you get what you pay for.

Cleaning companies want to make a profit, and labor is typically their highest expense. There seem to be two models of compensation for cleaning staff—pay them an hourly wage or pay them as contractors. The hourly wage is probably low at first, given the high turnover of employees, but it increases for the productive, tenured workers. The contractors get a flat fee to do the job, which might mean they could bring in anyone.

What happens next? These overburdened, poorly compensated workers are turned loose in your facility. For the hourly workers, they might find that they will only get paid for specific number of hours, so if they are not done cleaning when the time is up, parts of your facility get cleaned less frequently than specified or skipped until someone complains. For the contract worker, if they are getting paid a flat fee to clean, there could be the temptation to get in and out in two, three, or four hours instead of the four, six, or eight hours needed.

What keeps everything on the straight and narrow? Supervision. Not only should the cleaning company be supervising or grading its workers, it needs to train them. And then the fm must supervise the contractor in some fashion.

The cleaning company might have a dedicated supervisor for your facility; however, if you have gone the low bid route, that supervisor might be in charge of eight buildings in a nine-mile radius or might be expected to complete cleaning tasks during the set hours that s/he will only get paid.

To avoid the cleaning company carousel, you may make the decision to bring cleaning in-house. This strategy can work well for larger companies with a dedicated cleaning supervisory staff; however, for smaller facilities, one quickly learns that something gets in the way: life.

People miss work for illnesses, vacations, or tomfoolery. When in-house cleaning staff miss work, there are few options to replace them (most companies tend to have a rule about employees sitting around doing nothing). Short of temp agencies, you could end up doing the work yourself or delegating it to a person with other responsibilities.

You can have the best equipment, the greenest chemicals, or the most straightforward specs. That said, you have to remember that people ultimately clean the building, and only certain people are even willing to try it.

See part two of this column here.

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