Changing face of the cleaner in the digital world

4th of November 2016
Changing face of the cleaner in the digital world
Changing face of the cleaner in the digital world

As the industry becomes increasingly automated and digitalised, what types of skills are required of a cleaner today? And what new skills will tomorrow’s workforce need?

The digital world is changing everything. The way we communicate, the way we watch films, how we listen to music, how we read books, connect with friends – all of these everyday activities have been revolutionised since we first gained access to our own personal computer in our pocket.

On a wider scale, computers are now at the heart of almost everything we own from the cars we drive to the household appliances we use every day. Even our homes are becoming ‘connected’ and many of us now use our phones to turn up our heating or switch on our TV.

This digital shift has radically altered our day-to-day working lives as well as industrial processes become increasingly automated.

The cleaning sector has been relatively slow to adapt to the digital age. The logic has always been that a person with a mop and bucket or duster and vacuum who has the strength and energy to work for long periods of time is all that is required to complete the majority of cleaning tasks.

But we have recently witnessed the emergence of new technologies that can greatly improve the efficiency of cleaning while also taking the strain away from the cleaner. Vacuums, sweepers and scrubber dryers are becoming increasingly sophisticated while cleaning robots - relatively new entrants to the market – are now the hot topic for discussion. At the same time, near-field technology and smart software is enabling cleaners to anticipate cleaning needs and make better use of their time.

As a result, qualities such as a strong back, a painstaking approach and plenty of elbow grease are no longer the chief requirements of a cleaner. Today’s cleaning teams are just as likely to be equipped with a smartphone, tablet or remote control as a mop and bucket. As a consequence they often require new skills for operating robotic equipment and remotely checking on maintenance issues.

But how are cleaners reacting to these challenges? And how are companies introducing their workforce to the new skills they need? Head of cleaning at OCS Yvonne Taylor says the change
from traditional ways of working to the use of technology such as smartphones and PDAs can be a difficult transition for some cleaners.

“You will always encounter a certain amount of resistance when things are done differently,” she says.  “Our industry has a loyal and long-serving staff who have their own systems of working and it can sometimes be hard for them to see the benefits of change.”

The age of the operative is often a factor determining their willingness – or otherwise – to adapt to change, according to Taylor. “Younger people tend to be more accepting of new technology,” she said.  “However, a cleaner’s reaction to change very much depends on how it is sold to them. For instance, it is better to introduce small changes and demonstrate how technology can make the cleaner’s job easier while also providing them with future skills and knowledge. And when any change is being implemented you have to ensure that the operatives feel invested in the process right from the start.”

OCS operates a ‘buddy system’ whereby cleaners who are reluctant to change receive training and support from colleagues who embrace new ways of working.

Taylor believes the cleaner’s role is undoubtedly undergoing a fundamental change. “The demand for increased efficiency and added value has led to the introduction of systems such as automated dispensing, wifi, mobile devices and robotics,” she said.

“At the same time, the cleaner’s activity is being monitored more closely via the introduction of telematics, especially on large cleaning equipment such as scrubber dryers. This is usually put in place to assess the added value that investment in larger pieces of equipment brings and to find out when it was switched on, for how long and how much water was used.”

According to Taylor the introduction of technology enables cleaners to work more efficiently - even before they begin the actual task of cleaning. “For example, automated dispensing allows them to accurately measure the quantities of cleaning products required to precisely manage stock control,” she said. “This leads to reduced chemical use, fewer deliveries and a reduced need for storage space along with a lower carbon footprint.”

Real-time supplies information

Another way in which technology is aiding cleaners is by providing real-time information on supplies, she said. “This allows them to respond to peaks and troughs of customer demand,” said Taylor. “Some of their time could then be freed up for other FM tasks, such as logging photographic evidence of maintenance issues via their mobile phones.”

One company that has introduced a system offering real-time information for cleaners is SCA. The washroom hygiene manufacturer’s recently-launched Tork EasyCube allows janitorial staff to use their smartphone or tablet to check whether any hand towel, toilet roll or soap dispensers in the washrooms need refilling. Sensors in ‘connected’ Tork washroom dispensers transmit this information to the cleaner remotely.

According to the company, the system allows cleaners to use their time more effectively because they only need to visit those toilets where refilling tasks need to be carried out. Tork EasyCube has been welcomed with enthusiasm by many cleaners according to SCA’s global technical innovation manager Gunilla Himmelmann.

“Being entrusted with tablets and other digital equipment makes cleaners feel more valued,” she said. “They also claim to experience greater job satisfaction because the system enables them to provide a better quality service and focus on what is needed most.

Staff resistance

“However, this new solution is also a big step for those cleaners who have no interest in - or experience of - using tablets and smartphones. Those operatives would simply prefer to clean as they have always done.”

Julius Rutherfoord is a contract cleaning company that prides itself on using the latest equipment and technology at its customers’ premises. However operations director Chris Parkes admits to having encountered some staff resistance to new technology.

“This is a natural hesitancy and the uptake has been largely positive,” he adds. “Once the advantages of technology have been fully understood by staff we find that the transition goes fairly smoothly.”

Like Taylor, Parkes has noticed that staff feel more valued when entrusted with digital equipment and tablets. “Our operations teams now rely on their tablet devices and are certainly seeing benefits in productivity through this improvement in technology,” he said. “Once familiar with operating new devices and programmes - and once all the glitches have been ironed out - it is clear to everyone that technological advances make everyone’s lives easier.”

He agrees with Taylor that the cleaner’s role is changing in the light of the digital revolution. “With an increase in technology comes an increase in productivity and the expectation that more can be covered in the same amount of time,” he said.  “In addition, the availability of real time data allows problems to be identified and fixed rapidly, providing a much more responsive aspect to the cleaner’s role.”

Today’s cleaning equipment is constantly evolving to increase efficiency and productivity according to Parkes.

“It is true that a deeper understanding of how the machines work is needed,” he said. “However, once you are familiar with these machines they are mostly easy to work with.”

He claims that Julius Rutherfoord uses the most user-friendly equipment possible to aid its multicultural workforce. “To assist with this, our training is conducted in multiple languages - as is all our company literature,” he said. “We are constantly adapting our training itinerary to adhere to the latest British Institute of Cleaning Science (BICSc) procedures whilst ensuring that the latest technology is fully understood across the workforce.”

Meanwhile, TG Hylift has been introducing the workforce to new methods of cleaning high-rise windows, glass roofs and solar panels. The company’s semi-automatic HyCleaner Black Solar system is operated via a radio remote control. So instead of standing on an aerial platform and physically performing the cleaning operation, window cleaners now have an entirely different function.

“The cleaner is only involved in the operation of the aerial access platform,” said managing director Alfons Thihatmer. ”Some companies rent these access platforms and send along their own operators and in these cases, the window cleaner’s task is simply to open or close the water supply.”

He says minimal training is required when using the Hylift system. “It is advantageous if the cleaner has taken part in an operator training course for aerial access platforms,” he says. “But in any case, we and our partners always provide training with our newly-delivered machines to familiarise customers with the product and provide assistance during their first operation. We work on the ‘train the trainer’ principle.”

So, will the introduction of automation, digital solutions and robots mean that cleaning teams will need to become more skilled in future?

Management key

“Management will play an ever-increasing role in the cleaning industry,” predicts Julius Rutherfoord’s Chris Parkes. “With the automation of tasks and upgraded reporting procedures, the setting up
and running of automated cleaning equipment will become a more integral part of the cleaner’s role than manning the machines themselves.”

And OCS’s Yvonne Taylor points out that today’s cleaning operatives already need to be skilled. “They use chemicals that have the potential to cause harm; they need to be able to clean a wide variety of floor surfaces and they use large pieces of expensive and technical equipment,” she said.

“However, I believe these to be transferable skills and ones that will continue to develop as technology increasingly requires the cleaner to make more operational decisions.”


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