What determines quality in professional cleaning?

30th of November 2023
What determines quality in professional cleaning?
What determines quality in professional cleaning?

What defines quality of cleaning, what do we want to achieve by cleaning and what exactly determines cleaning quality? Paul Harleman, global application manager for Vileda Professional, addresses these key questions.

We need to clean the world we live in. Since humans have settled down and are not, like animals in the wild, moving from one spot to the other every day, the need to clean the places where we live, work and relax is there. That is basically the origin of the need for cleaning. Whether we do it ourselves or have it done by others, we have to keep our habitat clean in order to survive on the long term. And the quality of the cleaning should be good. How good depends on the risks that are involved if we don’t do it as well as it should be.

That, by the way, also determines to a large degree the amount of money we are willing to spend on cleaning. A cleanroom environment needs to be perfectly clean or else there will be very costly failures. Medicines will be polluted and people might die or, electronic parts like microchips are damaged with dust and must be thrown away. On the opposite side, if we do a bad cleaning job in an office, it will be annoying but not create disasters.

What is cleaning quality?

I looked for definitions and the one I like most is “the level of the desired cleanliness achieved but also the effectiveness of a cleaning process”. So cleaning quality relates to the result and the operation of cleaning itself. When we clean, we remove unwanted substances like dust and stains from the surface (aesthetic cleaning). But what we also want to remove or reduce are micro-organisms, specifically those that are pathogenic (hygienic cleaning). Sometimes there is even the need for killing the germs. In that case the main purpose is not cleaning but disinfecting, two terms that are often mixed up. Surprisingly also by professionals.

What do we want to achieve?

There are a several reasons why we clean our environment, and it is not only about making it look nice again. Without having the intention to have a complete list, I would say:

• To keep the environment and objects visually attractive (aesthetic cleanliness)

• To prevent rapid deterioration of surfaces and objects (eg, sand on wooden floors causes severe damage)

• To get rid of a bad smell

• To reduce the load of micro-organisms on the surface (hygienic cleanliness). Fewer pathogenic micro-organisms means less contamination risk. Also think about removing biofilms. Sometimes, after cleaning, disinfection is prescribed

• To prevent a rapid increase of the dirt level. A dirty environment tends to become dirtier at a faster rate. Although the rate of dirt accumulation may be complex and influenced by various factors there are some theories backed up with scientific research that explain this phenomenon: “The broken windows theory” (visible signs of disorder can signal a lack of social control and encourage further disorder), “Normalisation of dirt” (the presence of dirt can act as a social cue, normalising untidiness and reducing the inclination to clean) and “Diffusion of responsibility” (Multiple people using the environment may assume that someone else will take care of the cleaning which can lead to neglect and dirt accumulation).

• To reduce negative psychological impacts on health and well-being. A clean environment reduces stress and anxiety, improves focus and productivity, enhances mood and well-being, increases motivation and goal-setting and improves a health and hygiene perception. Remember, for example, how it feels when you come home and your cleaning person has made everything clean and tidy. It feels good, sort of relaxing.

What determines cleaning quality

There are many variables that determine the quality of cleaning. Let’s start with the basic ones.
Time - If a cleaner does not get the time to do the job, the quality of the cleaning will be lower. It is as simple as that. A child can tell you. But still, we see that cleaners have to clean a patient room in just a couple of minutes which of course can never deliver the result that we would like to have.

Cleaning chemicals - In many situations cleaning with high quality microfibre and water only is good enough. However, there are also situations where a sufficient chemical is needed or delivering the extra mile in the cleaning result. And of course using the right chemical for the job, not just what is available at the location.

Equipment - Machines and utensils are needed to clean properly. Not just anything you can buy but good quality, professional equipment. In order to reduce costs, I see professional cleaners working with household products too many times. Household products are good, but not designed for professional cleaning. Think about durability, sustainability, ergonomics, easy to work with, safe in use and the kind of variables that determine what is good and what is just acceptable.

Temperature - Temperature can influence the quality of cleaning but it can also have a negative impact. If you try to remove blood stains with hot water the result will be bad because blood contains proteins that solidify due to heat. Another common mistake is also that cleaners use hot water solutions to clean floors and interior surfaces. The effect of the heat is instantly reduced to almost zero the moment the mop or cloth touches the cold surface. Plus the fact that bacteria generally reproduce faster in warm, wet conditions. Something we don’t want, specifically not in healthcare environments.

The the perceptive reader has seen that the above four factors represent the Sinner’s Circle(1).  But there are more.

Education - Everybody can clean but not everybody can clean professionally. That needs education. And not once, but repetitive, something that is very often neglected. Besides that, I am very much in favour of “evidence based cleaning”. What you do and what you teach should be independently proven to be the best. Many times I run into practices where I doubt if it is really the best way to do it. Professional cleaning has a lot of “this is how it should be done because we have always done it this way”. Experience is good but evidence is better.

Compliance with up-to-date guidelines and standards - Guidelines and standards help to achieve a desired cleaning quality in a uniform way. They should clearly mention what the desired output should be, how to execute it and the frequency. Not generally, but in detail.

Behaviour - This is a very interesting element influencing cleaning quality. The percentage of labour costs typically account for a significant portion of the total costs, often ranging from 50 per cent to 80 per cent. Clearly it means that human influence is important. And that not only counts for the influence on total costs of a cleaning activity, but also dominates the quality.

Behaviour makes the difference

The behaviour of cleaning staff, operators and supervisors, is crucial for achieving and maintaining cleaning quality. Attitude, true involvement and work ethic significantly impact the overall cleanliness of an environment. That is for sure a very important insight to realise. In the first place, behaviour is of course influenced by the other drivers. If there is no time to clean, no education, low quality equipment and guidelines are not available, the cleaner will suffer. And when people suffer, they will behave differently. If management “don’ care”, then why should they care?

Cleaning is a very interesting and challenging industry, but for those who actually have to clean it might not be as interesting and exiting as we want to believe. Dr Jorcho van Vlijmen from the Netherlands did some interesting scientific research (Ik zie, ik zie, wat jij niet ziet/I see, I see, what you don’t see, 2017). Main insights taken away from this research influencing behaviour are:

“Cleaners are suffering from the fact that they are invisible. This invisibility sometimes means that cleaners literally are not seen by others, and often this invisibility comes down to a lack of recognition.” Drawing upon Hegel’s concept of recognition(2) this invisibility is defined as not being seen in a literal sense or not being recognised for who you are and what you do.

Little attention

Invisibility results from the way cleaning generally is organised in organisations and society. The cleaning sector has always focused on efficiency and invisibility helps to achieve this. Cleaning is Dirty Work (Hughes 1951, Ashford & Kreiner 1999). “Dirty work is work that needs to be done, but which, for some reason, is not popular. Society therefore stigmatises the dirty worker. The dirty work stigma contributes to keeping the dirty worker at a distance; by doing so society manages its dirty work.”

In addition, organisations tend to pay relatively little attention and resources to cleaning work because it does not contribute directly to the success of the organisation (Morgan,1992). In a recent interview I had with an American EVS (Environmental Services) manager, this issue also came up. Her response to management was that while cleaning does not contribute to profitability, you should realise that poor cleaning can negatively impact profitability. Very true if you realise what the costs of outbreaks in hospitals are.

Many more things can be said about the importance of human behaviour and the variables that influence behaviour. It looks like behaviour is the most important variable and therefore deserves more attention and research if we want to improve and maintain the quality of cleaning.

When AI, quantum computers and other upcoming technologies become more and more integrated, professional cleaning will be seriously affected as well. We only just started with robots in cleaning but who knows what will happen in the future? However, as long as humans are heavily involved in the cleaning operation, it is worthwhile considering to invest in tools that positively motivate people to do what they have to do in a way that is professional and proven to be effective.

(1) Sinner circle: https://orapiasia.com/role-of-sinners-circle-in-cleaning-performance/
(2) Hegel’s concept of recognition: https://philpapers.org/archive/IKHHCO.pdf


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