When faced with a challenge, it’s sometimes best to stop and take a step back to look at the bigger picture. I was recently given that unique perspective after I retired from the day-to-day operations of running the custodial department. By stepping away from the daily tasks, I found myself able to spend more time studying custodial operations in various school facilities. 

Through my ongoing role with the Utah School Custodial Manager Association — an organization of school custodial managers throughout the state of Utah on both district and local facility levels — I’m able to connect with a larger variety of operations professionals, frontline staff, and the new generation of workers entering the workforce. Through these interactions, I’ve noticed a few trends. 

As restrictions lessen and schools return to more of their pre-pandemic routine, we find ourselves living with a heightened state of awareness in public buildings when it comes to infection control. As a result, there are several issues facing facility cleaning managers and the custodial operations of their schools. 

For example, standards for a healthy and clean building are higher than ever. This is a result of facility occupants' expectations to see what they believe to be appropriate levels of cleanliness at their facility. Meeting this expectation, though, comes with challenges. 

Challenge: Staffing 

The main hurdle facing facility managers seems to be filling staff vacancies. Low pay is traditionally the biggest obstacle when recruiting and attracting new applicants. Many school districts raised their base pay shortly before the pandemic, but with the inordinately high inflation rates, the wages are again far too low to attract new recruits.  

Unfortunately, compensation is not something most school facility managers have control over. It is usually a top-level decision that must be approved by a board.  

That said, it is still important for managers to advocate for their programs and educate decision makers on the challenges facing facilities, including the struggles of filling staff positions. Managers should not just give up and accept defeat. Wages for full-time employees must be raised in order to attract quality employees who are the frontline of defense in keeping schools healthy, clean and safe. 

Challenge: Retention 

Another common problem facing facility managers — employee morale and retention — can be dealt with on a management level. There are a couple of sayings that I applied in my career as a facility manager: "Treat employees as if they make a difference and they will," and “People don't quit jobs. They quit supervisors." 

Quite often we hear of the inability to find and develop quality employees with the right attitude, traits and skills. I believe the root of the problem lies in the lack of leadership experience in mid-level management and facility managers. Many are usually promoted due to their performance as a "technician" (someone who performs the cleaning operations) and not because of their ability to properly manage and motivate people, or because they understand the mechanics of cleaning operations.  

To be clear, most of the frontline staff, as well as supervisors and managers, are good people and want to do a good job. It is not their fault that they lack training and/or skills. Most, if not all, have received little-to-no training in employee relations or how to make the transition from co-worker to manager.    

Many young workers are, surprisingly enough, leaving jobs that they enjoy because they dislike the way they are treated by their supervisors. Most commonly, professionalism is lacking.  

The need is for a workplace culture of trust, empowerment and engagement. This includes a culture where people feel valued and feel that what they do is important. Workers must know that their leadership team supports them, helps to develop them, and always has their backs. 

Challenge: Operations 

Most managers only understand the cleaning operations they have implemented firsthand — they lack the knowledge or vision to explore other options. While many existing operations are very good, there are far too many that desperately require updates. Worse yet, few departmental managers know how their operations compare to other best-in-class facilities.  

Ask any facility cleaning manager how their program is running and they’ll likely say they are doing a good job. Many truly believe their operations are just as good, if not better, than other facilities throughout the country. Unfortunately, based on the number of school facilities with poor levels of clean, healthy and safe environments, there is an opportunity for significant improvement. 

Available Solutions 

There are some very good standards out there to help guide facility cleaning managers toward best practices. One of these — developed in partnership between Healthy Schools Campaign and Green Seal — is the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges Standard for K-12 School Districts and Higher Education Institutions. This standard is designed to educate facility- and district-level managers in best practices of cleaning operations, chemical use, protocols, procurement and policies, to name a few. It is one component of a larger program launching this summer that will also include an assessment for schools to measure themselves against the standard, resources, guidance and training, and a certification that schools can earn when they’ve succeeded in meeting the standard.  

Having a standard or a metric like this for determining how your department measures up to other programs is an important step in increasing morale and retention.  

For example, how does it make you feel if you and your leadership have failed at providing the highest levels of clean, healthy and safe environments to your students, teachers and support staff? Will you do nothing, assume all is good?  Or will you look for a way to conduct comprehensive and integrated assessments of your cleaning operation, comparing it to best-in-class in areas such as products, procedures, protocols and policies?  

The expectation has been raised to use more than just simple visual inspection to determine the result of the cleaning operation. People now expect that evidence-based verification and validation is being conducted to ensure the results of the cleaning process meet or exceed the stated objectives.   

Evidence-based data will ensure and validate that both the operations and results meet best-in-class. This is based on an integrated and comprehensive review of products, procedures, protocols and policies. Data should also outline the frontline workers’ quality, skills and attitude; and leaderships’ skills in driving constant improvement, as well as developing a culture of trust, empowerment and engagement, as it is critical in heightening morale and helping to retain experienced, quality employees. 

Departments continue to be impacted by this pandemic, and many believe there will be future health concerns to contend with. Without knowing when those will happen, how they will be transmitted, who will be most affected, or how contagious or deadly they will be, facility cleaning managers are left to fight the day-to-day battle of providing a healthy facility. The question is: Will you, your facility, our industry, be better prepared than we were for COVID-19?

Mervin Brewer served as the assistant custodial supervisor for the Salt Lake City School District. He is also a founding member of the Healthy Green Schools and Colleges leadership council and continues to support the Utah School Custodial Managers Association.