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5 Characteristics Custodial Leaders Need Right Now

“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” — John Kenneth Galbraith

Connections. We break them when we clean and disinfect surfaces throughout a building, breaking the chain of infection. Yet as a business leader, it’s also essential we build and maintain connections—particularly with the people on your team.

With so much uncertainty and disruption, many people around the globe are looking for guidance and stability. Childcare, concern of an elderly family member, personal health—these are just a few of the concerns clouding our minds right now, including the people on your team.

This presents an amazing opportunity for custodial managers to inspire and lead. 

According to leadership expert Nancy Koehn, “…real leaders are not born; the ability to help others triumph over adversity is not written into their genetic code. They are, instead, made. They are forged in crisis. Leaders become ‘real’ when they practice a few key behaviors that girls and inspire people through difficult times.” 

As we look to help our teams look beyond the shadows, what characteristics can effective leaders reveal to encourage those around us to see a future opportunity?

1. VISION

Jim Hagemann Snabe, Chairman at Siemens AG suggests that when business leaders consider a post COVID world, they should look at it as a “renewal, not a return.” 

What would a renewal of your cleaning operation look like? If you received additional budget to staff, train and supply your department, what would you want to add and why? Would you do a better job of standardizing your processes? Measuring cleaning performance? Providing additional training?

Facilities managers and custodial professionals can expect to play a bigger role in business operations following the pandemic as leaders will have a much greater appreciation for their expertise. Prepare a vision for the role of your team in a post pandemic environment and how you can improve the service you deliver. Being able to clearly communicate this vision will to only inspire your team, but also the leadership. 

2. FLEXIBILITY

Martial arts master Bruce Lee is coined with saying: “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” 

Due to the nature of the work, flexibility is a characteristic many custodial professionals already demonstrate, but this is increasingly important during a crisis. From inventory to staff, schedules to moods, almost everything is in a state of flux. Demonstrating flexibility and a growth mindset will help you better adapt and “bend with the wind.” 

3. AUTHENTICITY

When COVID first hit, Marriott President and CEO Arne Sorenson responded less than a week later in a message to Marriott employees. His message was honest, immediately tackling several sensitive topics including his personal health and the impact of COVID on their business. 

“I can tell you that I have never had a more difficult moment than this one. There is simply nothing worse than telling highly valued associates—people who are the very heart of this company—that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control,” he said.

Employees watch their leaders carefully. Don’t hesitate to keep it real with your employees. This will help you earn their respect. 

4. RESILIENCY

Setbacks are inevitable. This applies to life in general, but particularly when you’re leading others during a crisis. Being resilient not only means having a plan in place to protect your team from the impact of a pandemic, but also recovering quickly when setbacks occur. 

Forbes Magazine identifies these key steps to becoming a more resilient leader: communicate powerfully, be coachable, build positive and trusting relationships, embrace risk, develop others, champion change and act decisively.  

Resiliency means creating balance by accepting the things we can’t change and creating meaningful change where we are able. 

5. INCLUSIVITY

Custodial teams are often one of the most diverse groups within a business. Building an environment where everyone on your team feels that they are accepted and belong should be a top priority for every custodial professional right now. 

According to Harvard Business Review, “what leaders say and do makes up to a 70 percent difference as to whether an individual reports feeling included.”

Recognizing biases, demonstrating cultural intelligence, collaboration and humility are just a few of the key traits inclusive leaders possess. Within a custodial operation, these attributes can inspire greater productivity than any new piece of equipment. 

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Cleaning is in the spotlight right now. From profiles highlighting the safety risks to janitors to features of cleaning processes, there’s a lot of dialogue happening around how buildings are cleaned.

By setting a vision for your team and leading them through the other side of this thing, you can help ensure that everyone emerges stronger. 

The Future of Cleaning and Hygiene

Cleaning professionals, start your engines. 

We’re at the starting line of one of the most important races of our lives. Never before have people paid so much attention to how cleaning is performed. As a profession, we’re stepping out of the shadows and onto the stage as people start to understand that cleanliness isn’t just about what you see, but also about what you don’t see. 

In “Science, Cleaning and the Built Environment,” cleaning scientist Dr. Michael Berry stated, “Effective cleaning is not widely recognized as a form of insurance or that ineffective cleaning has a high cost in the long term.”

With the coronavirus and this pandemic, that has changed. People now see the critical importance of effective cleaning, because public health safety is at stake.

Whether you’re an (OS1) user or someone who stumbled on this blog post looking for ideas on how to better clean your facility, you can bet that once we get through this pandemic, people will be asking a lot more questions about your cleaning program. As we stated in this post, the business case for better cleaning has never been stronger; and evidence of this paradigm shift is popping up all around us. 

Cleaning Takes the Stage

Last week, Delta Airlines introduced “Delta Clean”—their “new standard of airline cleanliness—now and always.” In a video announcing the initiative, Delta’s Chief Customer Experience Officer Bill Lentsch discusses the various steps Delta plans to take to improve the cleanliness of its planes. 

Delta rolls out “Delta Clean” a new standard of cleanliness.

A recent article in National Geographic suggested that to fight germs wherever you go, you  should ask about “cleaning practices” at hotels. 

“Before you book a hotel or a vacation rental, ask about the cleaning process. Often, the answer will give you a clear idea of whether or not this is a place you want to stay.” – Jason Tetro, microbiologist and author of the book The Germ Code.

Singapore has developed a stamp that helps visitors and locals easily identify hotels and other businesses that achieved a standard level of cleanliness. The “SG Clean” stamp is placed prominently at the entrance of an establishment and designed to give people “peace of mind,” says Keith Tan, CEO of the Singapore Tourism Board. They aim to eventually certify more than 37,000 establishments. 

On April 9, the Google Doodle (the fun logo updates you can find on the Google homepage used to commemorate holidays and special occasions) was changed to a person holding a mop and bucket to recognize cleaning workers—this feels like a moment, right?

The Future of Cleaning

Products. Processes. Training. Measurement. These four key critical pieces of EVERY cleaning program will be the subject of scrutiny once buildings start to reopen. People will need peace of mind that they can step into buildings without concern of contamination. 

This is good news for (OS1) users! There’s a good chance you can speak to each of these elements better than you can recall certain family members’ birthdays. From training to annual audits, the (OS1) System ensures that people understand not only HOW to clean, but WHY we clean. 

If you’re not an (OS1) user, you need to be prepared to speak to cleaning processes, products, training and measurement protocols. 

People will want to know what products and processes are used, and how cleaning performance is measured. Are you ready for that challenge? 

The Single Most Important Thing You Can Do to Attract and Retain Custodial Workers

What do employees what in a job, anyway? Custodial managers often ask themselves this question when assembling a new team or filling a position opening. Finding good staff is difficult, because even in tough labor markets, turnover in the commercial cleaning industry is notoriously high—as much as 200 percent in some operations.  

In Facility Cleaning Decision’s 2018 Reader Survey, staffing challenges were one of respondents’ top areas of concerns. While respondents cited an average turnover rate of 15 percent, they identified numerous reasons for people leaving the department, including opportunities for better pay, limited advancement opportunities and the physical nature of the work. 

Stop for a minute and imagine that you just found out that several people on your team were currently looking for a new job. Would you do anything to help dissuade them from leaving? If so, what? As custodial managers, we can’t often set perks such as benefit programs or 401k plans, but there are a few carrots we can extend team members to incentivize and retain them.

To be clear, we’re not talking about Silicon Valley office style carrots either. Giving employees a place to take a nap or play video games isn’t a likely possibility in most custodial environments. But take Bain & Company, Gassdoor’s top place to work in 2019, as voted on by their employees. The one thing their employees say makes working at Bain so great? 

Its employee-focused culture. 

“The people are what make [Bain] special,” said one Bain employee. “Throughout my career, I can point to people who invested in me, helping me to grow and develop.”

What incentives do you have in place to keep your team motivated? Certifications, recognition programs and opportunities for advancements can incentivize workers.

An employee-focused culture means developing an environment that helps employees evolve both personally and professionally. It means thinking about how the work impacts them. It’s about not viewing them as cogs in the wheel, but as the wheel itself—necessary to move forward.

How can you create an employee-focused culture? It’s not as hard as you might think.

  1. Offer frequent training and certification. LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Learning Report revealed that a shocking 93 percent of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their careers. Training is one of the top ways to retain custodial workers, but it can also be one of the most difficult due to the diversity of our industry. Languages, disabilities and ages can all present barriers when training employees. Training programs that accommodate a variety of learning styles can help workers understand not just HOW to do the job, but why their jobs are important. Help them understand how to protect themselves during work and demonstrate a culture of safety. Consider offering a stipend for other training and/or certification offered beyond your organization, and think about micro learning opportunities, which do not require the time or commitment of traditional certifications.
  2. Provide opportunities for advancement.  Custodial work is often looked at as a transition position. “I’ll work as a custodian until I can get another job,” people say, or maybe they pick up custodial work as a second job to earn extra income in evening hours. What too many employees don’t realize is that they can have a great career—that pays well—in the cleaning industry. Through mentorship and managerial shadowing programs, you can give frontline employees a lens into some of the opportunities available in the field. Provide a clear outline of advancement opportunities so they understand what they need to do to get to where they want to go.
  3. Give Recognition. Frequently. From housekeepers week to environmental services week, National Custodian Day (Oct. 2, 2019) to Thank Your Cleaner Day  (Oct. 16, 2019), there are plenty of recognized events to recognize cleaning workers. But you don’t have to wait for an official day to give staff an applause for a job well done—something simple like presenting a star award for outstanding performance or highlighting a “worker of the month” can help workers feel seen and appreciated.
  4. Balance workloads. It’s easy to give the faster, younger people on your team additional work that comes from a call-off or event, but that can create resentment over time. Employ a system to fairly divide work so that no one person or team bear the brunt of additional responsibilities. 
  5. Show you care. Sometimes, it’s the small things that go the furthest with your team. Remembering an anniversary, details of an upcoming vacation or checking in with them to see how their child is doing in school shows your team that you’re listening, and that you care. Encourage your team to share ideas and create opportunities for connection at the beginning and end of each shift so you have time to talk with one another.

Automotive mogul Lee Iacocca once said, “Start with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees, motivate them and reward them. If you do all those things effectively, you can’t miss.”

Is There Such a Thing as “Too Clean”?

A report released earlier this week by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), a London-based independent, multi-disciplinary charity dedicated to the improvement of the public’s health and wellbeing, affirmed that the there is no such thing as being “too clean.” According to an article in the Telegraph, the report came after organizers of a prominent festival encouraged attendees to conduct “strip washes” rather than take full showers in order to reduce the environmental impact of the festival. 

So, is there such a thing as being “too clean”? A lot of this goes back to the British epidemiologist David Strachan, who, in the late 1980s, developed what was called the “Hygiene Hypothesis.” His hypothesis suggested that exposure to infections during childhood would amplify defenses against allergies as the child grew older. In short, the dirtier the environment growing up, the better chance the child stood later in life to ward off allergies. 

It’s easy to see why there’s some pushback—the business of “clean” is a booming industry. The most recent data available forecasts that the household cleaning products generates more than $61 billion each year. We’re continually being sold on hand sanitizers and all-in-one products that promise to “kill 99.9% of germs and bacteria.” 

While some see that as more of a marketing strategy than reality, readers of this blog know that cleaning — and hygiene — are critical to controlling the spread of dirt, bacteria and infectious diseases.

Professor Sally Bloomfield, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that much confusion exists as to the difference between cleaning and hygiene—cleaning your hands after touching a dog or pet is different than cleaning out the pet’s living areas.

“Whereas cleaning means removing dirt and microbes, hygiene means cleaning in the places and times that matter—in the right way—to break the chain of infection whilst preparing food, using the toilet, etc.”

Professor Sally Bloomfield, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

So is there such a thing as “too clean?” The answer is no—the reality is quite the opposite. The absence of thorough and proper cleaning can have catastrophic results under the right conditions.

According to the World Health Organization, infectious diseases kill more than 17 million people a year. And the Texas Biomedical Research Institute reports that 30 new diseases have emerged in the last 20 years. 

So not only is the act of cleaning important, but HOW we clean and disinfect is equally as important in helping improve health outcomes for both cleaning workers and building occupants. There are different levels of cleanliness, and it when it comes to protecting people who live, work and visit buildings, one cannot be “too clean.” 

We’ll dig more into the importance of microbiology training for cleaning workers in our next post, but for now, here are the 27 of the Most Common Diseases Related to Cleaning:

Amebiasis

Botulism

Campylobacter

Chickenpox

Cholera

Cryptosporidiosis

Diphtheria

E.Coli

Hantavirus

Hepatitis

HIV/AIDS

Influenza

Legionellosis

Malaria

Measles

Meningitis

Meningococcal

Pertussis

Plague

Polio

Tuberculosis

Rotavirus

Rubella

Salmonellosis

Staph/MRSA

Streptocucucua

Typhoid Fever

Want to learn more about training workers on microbiology fundamentals? Check out our comprehensive reference guide “Microbiology for Cleaning Workers Simplified” by John Walker and Jeffery Campbell, Ph.D. 

Further Reading: If you’re interested in how cleaning has shaped modern culture, you might want to check out “Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness” by Suellen Hoy.


7 Deadly “Muda” or Wastes in a Cleaning Department

Toyota is often looked to set a standard in manufacturing, as it has long embraced lean management principles to develop automobiles across the globe. A large part of its success is due to its innovative approach to production, which can be attributed to Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System. While lean management originally started with Henry Ford’s assembly line, Ohno further integrated these principles into the Toyota Production System, which formed the basis for lean manufacturing as we know it today.

A central tenant of the Toyota Production System and lean manufacturing is minimizing “muda” —or waste—without sacrificing productivity. From uneven workloads to consumption of materials, limiting waste within an operation is one of the best ways to improve its profitability. 

In their paper, “Cleaning as an Engineered Process: Lean Principles for a Neglected Industry,” authors Dr. Jeffrey Campbell and Kathleen Campbell look specifically at how Lean Management Principles can be used within a cleaning department to improve efficiency.

“Lean is implemented by first understanding the activities and practices that are considered wasteful and do not add value to the process. It then looks at the process and identifies what creates value in the process stream and what is wasteful. A culture of continual improvement must be set up so that those who are in the day-to-day work-flow are comfortable with approaching management with new ideas on how to improve processes. Each area also needs to be cleaned and organized so that everything is in its place. With the preceding steps in place, waste can be eliminated or mitigated, and the process can become more Lean.’ The process should be re-evaluated often as new ideas or improvement emerge.” 

The “Seven Wastes” model is commonly used in lean and quality management systems such as ISO 9000 and Six Sigma. The wastes Ohno identified include:

  1. Transportation: The movement of resources or materials without adding value to your product.
  2. Inventory: Maintaining more product than you need for a given period. 
  3. Motion: Unnecessary movement of employees which may cause injury or are unnecessary.
  4. Waiting: The absence of movement for goods or tasks (e.g. waiting for items to be fixed, delivered). 
  5. Overproduction:  Producing more than you need to meet the customer’s demand or expectation.
  6. Over-processing: Performing work that doesn’t bring value to the organization or customer. 
  7. Defects: Production of a faulty or defective product. 

While a custodial department doesn’t necessarily manufacture a product, they do provide a service and one can easily draw parallels between Ohno’s seven wastes and potential sources of waste in a custodial department. 

Consider the seven deadly wastes when applied to a cleaning department: 

1. Transportation: How do custodial workers move throughout the building/buildings? Do they have defined routes or are they left to move throughout the building as needed? Are they kitted with everything they need (e.g. vacuums, chemical, PPE) to complete their tasks or do they need to go to other locations to retrieve items? 

2. Inventory: What does your janitorial closet look like? Is it filled with old equipment and expired chemicals? Do you purchase extra inventory “just in case” you need it, which contributes to accumulation overtime? 

3. Motion: Janitorial is one of the toughest jobs, which leads to high injury rates (one of the leading occupations for injuries, in fact). Injury from over-exertion is one of the most common to custodial workers. 

Ongoing training and on-the-job observation helps cleaning workers keep safe strategies top of mind for common tasks like lifting, reaching high areas, bending, etc. 

4. Waiting: How much time does it take cleaners to complete their task? Is there idle time? What happens when a space is occupied? Using our 99 Workloading Times and 612 Cleaning Times Book can help you identify how much time it should take your team to complete work assignments. 

5. Over-production: Is there such as thing as “too clean”? No, but there are routine tasks in a cleaning operation that might not need to be completed as often as they are. For example, a low-traffic restroom does not to be cleaned more than once a day unless there’s a specific issue to be addressed. The same goes for floor maintenance activities such as extracting a carpet or finishing a hard floor.

6. Over-processing: Because the cleaning industry currently lacks any standard for cleanliness, cleaning organizations must work with building occupants and customers to identify desired levels of cleanliness. 

In their paper, the Campbell’s discuss APPA’s five levels of appearance in its Custodial Staffing Guidelines book, which can be used a baseline for this discussion. Alan Bigger identifies them in his article “Operational Guidelines for Educational Facilities – Custodial.” 

7. Defects: Problems arise in a cleaning operation when employees lack the necessary training to do their work. In some instances, this can create a PR nightmare, as was the case at a Burger King restaurant in Fruit Cove, Florida when an employee used a floor mop to clean tables in the play area. 

In addition to complaints, the absence of a proper training program can cause injuries and result in inefficient cleaning processes. 

How lean is your custodial operation? Are there areas of muda or waste you could reduce? Consider talking to one of our consultants to learn more about how an engineered approach to cleaning could help! 

The Importance of Time in a Cleaning Operation

“Time is more precious than gold, more precious than diamonds, more precious than oil or any valuable treasures. It is time that we do not have enough of; it is time that causes war within our hearts, and so we must spend it wisely.” 

— Cecelia Ahern, The Gift

Over the years, we’ve spoken with hundreds of facility managers and experts in our industry. One thing that often separates the people who run relatively smooth operations from those routinely plagued with issues is great time management skills. At the front of any great cleaning operation is an individual who not only does a great job of managing his or her own time, but also the time of the custodial team. They equip custodial workers with a toolkit that includes the equipment and products to do the job, along with the ability to make their own decisions and effectively manage their own time. 

Why is time management so important? For starters, because labor accounts for approximately 90 percent of a cleaning budget. The remaining 10 percent goes to supplies, equipment and consumables such as toilet paper, paper towels, etc. As an industry, we typically focus on that 10 percent (e.g. “what’s the cost of auto scrubber A compared to auto scrubber B?”). However, a lot of our business at ManageMen is built around how we can do a better job of managing the other 90 percent.

Enter workloading. Workloading is the term used to describe how labor is managed in a cleaning operation. It details the goals, describes the jobs and projects outcomes for every position within the department. While many facility managers find work loading to be a near impossible task, it’s core to the (OS1) System. Without even distribution of responsibilities, clearly defined tasks and outlined outcomes, too many variables can enter the equation. An operation that has been workloaded is focused and makes the best use of time. 

Take Maria, for example. Maria has a set of specific tasks outlined on a checklist for her to complete in her 8-hour shift. As she’s vacuuming the hallway, she receives a call that someone needs help setting up a conference room. In this situation, Maria has been trained to say “no.” She understands that her checklist is the priority and that if she has time at the end of her shift, she can help setup later. 

We all have the same 24-hours in a day and 8-10 hours a day at work. So what strategies can you use to make the most of time in your custodial operation?

  1. Conduct an audit of how you currently use your time. Do you spend an hour each day responding to email? Dealing with personnel issues? Track your time for a week and see where you spend your time.
  2. Create a list of priorities. This can be divided up into a list of daily, weekly or monthly tasks. Include steps you need to take to achieve larger goals, along with regular responsibilities. 
  3. Establish a set time to complete each task. This is where our Cleaning Times book can be an extremely effective tool: look at the time referenced in our book and conduct your own analysis of the time it takes a cleaning worker to complete the task and compare the two. Having a set time to complete the job will help keep your team focused and on task.
  4. Plan ahead. It’s one thing to complete your list of things to do, but you should also be thinking about what’s next. This can be done either the night before, or first thing in the morning – establish your MIT or Most Important Thing. 
  5. Give yourself time. While it seems counter-intuitive to effective time management, it’s important to allocate extra time between tasks and meetings. Cramming too many activities back-to-back will reduce your effectiveness. Studies have shown that the human brain can only focus for approximately 90-minutes at a time. Give yourself a few extra minutes to take a walk, drink a glass of water or just take a few deep breaths between tasks. 
  6. Keep the Pareto Principle in mind. Italian philosopher and economist Vilfredo Paredo once observed that 20 percent of the pea plants in his garden generated 80 percent of the healthy pods. This led him to think about uneven distribution in other areas, and he found that, in numerous industries, 80 percent of the production came from about 20 percent of the companies. This led to the generalization that 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the action—or the 80/20 rule. As a manager, focus your time on the 20 percent of the tasks that will lead to the biggest return. Delegate what tasks do not align with these goals. 

As motivational speaker Zig Ziglar says, “Time can be an ally or an enemy. What it becomes depends entirely upon you, your goals, and your determination to use every available minute.” 

The Good Fight

Note: Each month, Ben Walker shares his monthly musings for our e-Newsletter, Cleaning Matters. April’s column is located here. If you aren’t subscribed to Cleaning Matters, you can do so by clicking here.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to present during the Clean Buildings Expo, which is sponsored in part by Trade Press Media Group, the publishing company for FCD. No question it was a career highlight, as I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting so many of the people who have read my columns over the years. There were a few times when I had to pinch myself because I felt like a celebrity! People stood in long lines to have me sign copies of their Cleaning Times books and to say hello.

Ben Walker speaks to a packed house of facility and cleaning management professionals during the recent Clean Buildings Expo.

One of the people who stood in the line following my session asked if I would have time over the next few days to speak with her further. She owned a contract cleaning business and was looking to improve some of the processes in place. I told her I’d sit down with her the next morning for coffee and we’d talk. Just talk, no consulting fees, no selling—just talking through some of her issues ,sharing ideas to help her make her business more efficient. 

I don’t tell you this to pat myself on the back. I share it because the high from last week’s event was still fresh on my mind when I started digging through my email this morning and came across this expose just published by Variety magazine, a weekly entertainment guide: “How America’s Biggest Theater Chains are Exploiting Their Janitors.”

Please take the time to read through the article and share it with your peers. It’s important that we support publications that bring the labor issues that run so rampant in our industry to light. It’s a story we all know too well—when cleaning is treated as a commodity, cleaning workers ultimately lose.

The article shares details of children of janitor’s being brought to work, sleeping on the floor or theater seats. Janitors going unpaid or receiving $350-$400 a week after working eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I don’t know what Hell is like, but I think it would be like that,” one cleaner told the reporter. “Sometimes I was crying because my feet couldn’t take it anymore. My back couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t know how I could finish the work I had to do.”

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There are so many cleaning companies that play in this arena who exploit the people performing the work for their profit. However, there are also a lot of companies out there trying to doing the right thing, like the woman I met during the Clean Buildings Expo last week. 

As an industry, we have so much work to do. 

Professionalism. Integrity. Standards. 

By standing on these principles, we will continue driving the industry forward. 

When we don’t, we only hurt ourselves and the people around us. And we enable conditions like those described in this article to continue thriving. 

Thank you for joining us in this fight.

Ben.

A Sneak Peek at Janitor University 2019

We kicked off our first Janitor University (JU) of 2019 yesterday with a sold-out group! Held at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City, this event is a professional development course for cleaning executives, including facility directors, managers, CEOs of BSCs. In this class, we are excited to host several new faces from prominent academic institutions!

Ben Walker shares the benefits of a systematic approach to cleaning with attendees to the March 2019 Janitor University.

In the first day of JU, much of our focus is on data—or rather, the lack of data with many conversations that happen in the professional cleaning industry.

Ben Walker, instructor, discusses the importance of using data in any cleaning operation.

After a series of exercises, attendees to JU quickly learn the importance of data, and that it’s tough to argue with numbers!


Want to Reduce Turnover and Improve Productivity? Start by Listening.

We’ve been talking to a lot of (OS1) users recently, gathering input on what they experience on a day-to-day basis so we can improve our training. At Symposium, we speak with leaders of organizations like Sandia National Labs, University of Texas at Austin, Los Angeles Habilitation House, Michigan State University and others to identify best practices, but what about the people actually doing the cleaning? What ideas do the janitor—(OS1) specialists—have for improvement?

A common concern we’ve heard is regarding the general absence of meaningful communication between custodial workers and their department leaders. This is an issue in organizations everywhere—not just (OS1) organizations, cleaning organizations, big corporations or small start-ups. 

As business leaders, we tend to get so caught up in the day-to-day that we don’t take the time to engage our teams. Meaning, we’re the ones doing most of the talking and don’t take much time to listen. Dr. Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People said, “If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Fun fact: The average person has an eight-second attention span. Listening is a learned skill that takes practice, but when done well, can create more productive teams.

But listening isn’t something that comes easily to many of us. We spend years learning how to write and speak, but listening isn’t often (ever?) taught in school. It’s an adapted skill that we learn and refine (or not!) over the course of time. Have you ever taken a listening class? If you’re like us, there’s a good chance that answer is “no.” 

A leading consulting firm found that organizations that communicate regularly with their staff — and do a good job of listening — are likely to have lower turnover. This isn’t surprising, because communication helps eliminate the opportunities for misunderstanding so that everyone is on the same page. But the average human has an eight-second attention span, so we could all probably use some room for improvement.

So how can you become a become a better listener? Here are a few ideas: 

  1. Just listen. A lot of listening is just that—truly listening. When someone takes the time to speak, focus your mind on what that person is saying rather than that list of “to-do” items sitting on your desk. Don’t interrupt or attempt to offer solutions as the person is talking, just listen. 
  2. Put the phone away. Let the employee know that they are your immediate priority when you are speaking to them. Your phone might buzz or ring, but by disregarding the impulse to pick it up, you’re showing the employee that they have your full attention and are truly listening to what they are saying. 
  3. Check your preconceived notions at the door. If you think you know what the other person is going to say before you go into a conversation with them, you’re already halfway down the path of not listening. Clear your mind so you are truly open to what they have to say.
  4. Consider timing. It’s hard to be a good listener if the other person isn’t willing to talk. If this is the case, try catching members of your team while they are working. Custodial workers spend a lot of time with their thoughts because they often work alone, so by making it a priority to check in with your team when they are working, you may catch them in their comfort zone and get a better understanding of what’s on their mind.
  5. Ask more questions. A lot of times, we want to help offer solutions or solve problems for people on our team. Rather than responding with an answer right away, ask more questions. This can help create a safer space for the employee and encourage them to speak more. 
  6. Summarize what was said. Active listening is a common communication tool people use to let the other person know that they heard what was said. In addition to validating that you are listening, repeating a summary of someone’s statements back to them helps clear up any miscommunication that may have occurred. 
  7. Silence your inner interrupter. When we think we know what the other person is saying, we can have a tendency to jump into the conversation and respond before the person is done speaking. This can be detrimental to the conversation, not only causing the person to shut down, but also possibly shifting the speaker’s intent in another direction. It can be extremely difficult in some situations, but it’s a best practice to always wait until the other person is finished speaking.

When Was the Last Time You Sharpened Your Ax?

You may have heard the story about the man who works hard chopping wood, but never sharpens his ax? In the tale, a man goes to work for a local timber company. The job pays well and the management is friendly, so he wants to do his best so he can keep the job. The first day, he manages to cut down 18 trees. Proud of his accomplishment, he goes out the next day with the goal of chopping down even more trees, but it turns out that he’s only able to chop 15. With each day that passes, the man cuts down fewer and fewer trees. Feeling defeated, he goes to his boss for advice on what he could be doing wrong. 

The boss looks at the man and says, “You are one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, but did you ever take a moment to sharpen your ax?”

When is the last time you took a minute to stop and sharpen your ax? This anecdote can be applied to a custodial operation in a couple of different ways:

1. Maintaining good care for your tools and equipment.

How can we clean faster with dirty tools and equipment? 

A lot of organizations come to us looking to improve cleaning efficiencies and make their operation more productive. And not surprisingly— “improving staff performance/cleaning times” was the top priority cited by respondents to this year’s Facility Cleaning Decision’s Reader Survey.  So when we go into a business, one of the first things we do is take a look at the custodial closet. Why? Because it gives us clues into the way the custodial department is managed. 

A lot of times, we find that custodial workers aren’t “sharpening their axes”—or keeping their tools and equipment clean. We see mop buckets filled with black water, soiled cloths, cob-web covered dusters—the list goes on. How can a janitor possibly “clean” if the tools that he or she uses are dirty? 

If you were an artist, would you paint with dirty brushes? 

Aside from obvious cross-contamination issues, if we don’t take the time to care for our cleaning tools, they will generally degrade over time and become less effective. This applies to everything from cleaning cloths to large capital investments like auto-scrubbers or carpet extractors. Every productive, efficient cleaning organization will have a program in place to make sure tools are regularly cleaned and a preventative maintenance program is in place to keep cleaning equipment in top condition.

2. Maintaining good care of our mental and professional health.

How can we be our best if we don’t take the time to refresh our own professional development? 

The metaphor of “sharpening your axe” can also be applied to continuing your own professional training and education. Studies show that organizations that invest in training are often higher performing (you may want to check out this post, where we identified 10 reasons why you should make continuing education a priority.). 

We use the term “training” loosely here, as it can mean anything from reading industry publications to stay up-to-date on custodial management best practices, to participating in webinars, in-person training programs and industry trade shows. 

However, professional development is only part of the equation. Finding ways to improve your mental health is an important way to sharpen your ax. According to the American Psychological Association, 58 percent of Americans say that work is a significant source of stress.

Some people go golfing, fishing, running or kayaking to decompress from the rigors of work and life demands. Others practice mindfulness, yoga or spend time writing or reading. Whatever your outlet, make sure you take time to step away in order to best care for your own mental well-being. 

In the ever-present push to clean faster and better, we need to take a minute to make sure we’re sharpening our axes. Otherwise, we’ll never get anywhere.