Cleaners and smart technology - working hand in hand?

27th of June 2022
Cleaners and smart technology - working hand in hand?

Cleaners are becoming increasingly used to digital systems in their day-to-day work. Or are they? Are smart solutions making life easier for staff, or simply adding to their stress? ECJ looks at the evolving relationship between cleaners and technology.

CLEANING HAS ALWAYS BEEN a difficult job. It requires physical strength, thoroughness, hard work and attention to detail. And it can be time-consuming, exhausting and repetitive.

And then along came the cavalry.

High-tech solutions in the form of robots, sensor systems and digital equipment have emerged on the market over recent years with the aim of lightening the cleaner’s load.

But altering one’s working practices overnight can be a struggle. Staff have had to relearn their jobs and interact with complicated new technological solutions. So, how are cleaners reacting to the changes? Are they embracing the technology, or are they treating it with wariness and suspicion?

Some operatives struggle to accept technological changes, admits Churchill Group operations director Raphael Sagula. “It can be easy to assume that just because everyone has a smartphone, they will quickly adapt to new apps and digital solutions,” he said. “But this is not the case. Everyone has a different comfort level with technology and it’s the employer’s role to ensure they receive the right training.”

According to Sagula, cleaners can be reluctant to alter their habitual working practices. “Operatives have a fixed routine and some are concerned that the use of technology will add to their workload,” he said. “But it’s simply a question of readjusting their mindset and once the tech has been implemented, they start to embrace it and even enjoy the new level of variety to their days.”

He believes cleaners in general are becoming more comfortable with technology. “We’re seeing this particularly with PRISM, our workplace hygiene programme,” he said. “Some training is required but we’ve put a lot of thought into making it user-friendly.”

Introducing technology to cleaners is not always plain sailing according to LionsBot ceo Dylan Ng Terntzer. “Some employees are overwhelmed by hard-to-use features and are uncertain about the cleaning performance and reliability of robots,” he said. “They may also be sceptical about how the machines can help them, particularly when previous generations of robots have not fulfilled their promise.”

He says many cleaners initially assume they will need a high level of technical skill to operate the new equipment. “They are also concerned about the burden of figuring out how to use the technology on top of their already strenuous workload,” he continued.

LionsBot robots are designed with the user in mind, according to Ng Terntzer. “When robots are easy to use, cleaners quickly warm up to them and realise the immediate productivity gains that can be made,” he said. “Most cleaners are comfortable with them within two weeks.”

The human touch

He says human cleaners are still required to operate LionsBot robots, but are able to do more with less. “For example, a single cleaner can operate multiple cleaning robots at once, offloading the repetitive floor cleaning duties and focusing instead on the more detailed tasks that robots are currently unable to fulfil,” he explained.

A common fear among cleaners is that robots will eventually take over their jobs according to Kärcher’s robotics competence centre product manager Thilo Ehrentreich. “Many also worry that the digital systems designed to record cleaning performance will demonstrate that robots can work more quickly and effectively than they can,” he said. “And the use of digital solutions can have an impact on the cleaner’s independence and a negative effect on their motivation.”

Job security fears

He says the value of human cleaners needs to be clearly communicated. “When humans and robots work together they upgrade the profile of the cleaner, making the job more attractive and reducing the total cost of cleaning,” he said.

“And while the robot takes over the monotonous task of large-scale floor cleaning, staff members can concentrate on more complicated tasks.Meanwhile, the reputation of cleaners is enhanced by the fact that they’re working with state-of-the-art technology, and this in turn increases their motivation.”

The fact most people have learned how to use a smartphone puts app-based cleaning solutions within reach of almost everyone, he says. But he adds all technology should be intuitive and available in multiple languages. “This will immensely lower the fear factor and inhibition threshold,” he said. Kärcher robots are said to be user-friendly and intuitive, and incorporate in-app language translations.

Sasse managing director Benny Wunderlic says some of his staff were initially fearful about the introduction of robots. “However, these fears around job security were quickly replaced by the realisation that robotics are a collaboration between autonomous cleaning and humans,” he said.

“These machines facilitate greater productivity and allow our staff to focus on high value tasks such as touchpoint cleaning, disinfection and washroom cleaning – none of which cannot be completed with robotics.”

According to Wunderlic, younger workers are typically more ready to accept digital solutions than senior staff members. “Technology has advanced at rates they would never have expected in their lifetime, and its evolution speeds up every year,” he said. “This can make it difficult for older generations to keep up with the latest technologies, particularly when these have not been a part of their lives from a young age.”

He adds that most staff members quickly learn the benefits of technological advances and soon find them invaluable. “By providing ongoing training and support we break down the walls between paper and digital solutions and our employees feel increasingly empowered,” he said. “Few would go back to hours of scrubbing floors or manually recording every detail of the working day via paperwork.”
Sasse uses cobotics and has its own Sasse Service app which keeps cleaners informed about cleaning and washroom needs via a smartphone.

Like other companies, ICE has faced challenges when introducing technology according to marketing manager Ellen Gasson. “These have included fears that operatives will be replaced by machines to concerns about how they will keep up with the technology,” she said. “And there’s been a general lack of readiness for the next step in innovation. However, the last two years have been pivotal.”

Does the tech work?

She believes the key to successful integration is to collaborate with cleaners on site. “In this way the machines become part of the team and are not seen as a threat or a separate function,” she said. “This requires the full involvement of all front-line operators so that they can gauge the real value of the machines.”

ICE’s cobotics equipment is designed to carry out repetitive tasks, leaving operators to focus on hygiene and sanitising activities. “Our models are extremely intelligent and can be fully operated, controlled and managed by the teams on site,” said Gasson.

Cleaners understand the benefits of smart solutions – but only when the technology works, says Principle Cleaning’s operations director David Saville. “If the tech is simple to use and offers clear benefits, staff members will quickly become comfortable using it,” he said.

“For example, a simple app for signing off of PPE inspections and risk assessments can be highly beneficial compared with the old system of creating a paper trail. But these benefits are negated if the app doesn’t work or is hard to use.”

Part of daily life

Like other commentators, he has found that some cleaners are resistant to using technology. “However, the drive for data is inescapable and tech is becoming increasingly part of our daily lives,” he said. Principle Cleaning offers full training on the use of technology in cleaning.

Essity also encountered an early reluctance to adopt new technology according to communications director Renée Remijnse. “There was an initial perception that working with digital cleaning plans
via a tablet would be more time-consuming,” she said. “Some cleaners fear change and are intimidated by having to learn something new. But when they are properly trained they quickly realise that these tools are there to help them, not replace them.”

The company’s Tork Vision Cleaning enables cleaners to check on cleaning needs via a smartphone or tablet. “The technology makes their lives easier because it reduces the need for unnecessary dispenser checks and allows them to get ahead of any complaints,” said Remijnse. “They no longer have to stop what they are doing to replenish supplies in the washroom, and their working day is more balanced as a result.”

Cleaners are generally becoming more comfortable with smart solutions, according to Remijnse. “Everyone these days uses a computer, tablet or smartphone and this makes the user experience familiar to most cleaners.”

So, how will relationship between humans and technological solutions progress? LionsBot’s Ng Terntzer believes it will become closer and more intertwined. “Humans will increasingly carry out the tasks that are best suited to them and leave the more repetitive work to robots,” he said. “This will become the new way of working and personal robot cleaning assistants will become indispensable to every cleaner.”

The Churchill Group’s Raphael Sagula thinks digital solutions will be introduced into more sectors of the cleaning industry. “Advancements in technology will complement the user role and make it more effective,” he said.

Principle Cleaning’s David Saville also believes the role of technology will grow.  “Whether robots will replace humans altogether is unclear, but the drive towards greater efficiencies will continue,” he said. “However, I think the human contribution is likely to remain significant.”

Unique partnership

The need for higher levels of productivity and lower costs will drive the industry in the future, says ICE’s Ellen Gasson. “Facilities service providers need to achieve more without compromising financial budgets, so investment in automated cleaning will be essential for future cleaning,” she said.

Kärcher’s Thilo Ehrentreich says humans and robots will continue to co-operate. “The human cleaner sees a room, recognises the need for action, breaks it down into work steps and finds solutions for unforeseen problems – something that machines cannot do,” he said. “The machine therefore complements human labour rather than replacing it, and in future this cooperation will simply become more collaborative.”

And Sasse’s Benny Wunderlic says cleaners need not fear being replaced by robots. “Autonomous cleaning still requires human input for effective judgement and use,” he said. “Problems can be identified by robotics, but human input is required to reach a resolution. So we believe humans and AI will continue to develop together with their strengths and weaknesses fine-tuned to realise the true potential of this unique and effective partnership.”


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