Chairs upside down in a classroom

There is a strong belief in the Salt Lake City School District (Utah) that when it comes to creating a safe and healthy environment, the most important and sustainable asset is a well-trained, appreciated and valued group of employees. In fact, the Facility Services department puts special emphasis on prioritizing their people and making them feel valued and welcome.  

To accomplish this, the leadership team focuses on three main programs that are designed to result in a happy and sustainable work force. The programs include training, collaborative problem-solving, and professional development/employee appreciation.  


Facility Services has always placed a heavy emphasis on skill, policy and safety training, which is reflected in their program. Recently, though, the department decided to also prioritize training leadership, communication, and relationship-building for both supervisors and employees.  

As Facilities evaluated the custodial department, it became apparent that training in these particular areas would be necessary in order to improve day-to-day operations — for example, when the custodial department receives complaints from principals concerning the cleanliness of the school. Typically, when such complaints are passed along, the first thing that is done is a building inspection.  

Once the inspection is complete, the custodial team reviews their findings directly with the principal. Nine times out of 10 times, the inspection either meets or surpasses cleaning expectations, but reveals the real issue at hand — personality and communication differences. While the principal might have felt uncomfortable or hesitant to directly raise complaints with the head custodian, the problem has nevertheless been identified and work can now proceed on finding a solution.  

Communication and relationship-building training is the first step to better overall functionality. These training courses are conducted for the entire department, selected groups, and in one-on-one situations within the custodial department, as well as plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, grounds crew and carpenters.  

Overall, the courses have been beneficial. Prior to their availability, facilities managers noticed employees were struggling to make the jump up the ladder to supervisor, and the resulting uncertainty was causing issues. By supporting the new supervisors and helping them access training resources to improve their leadership tendencies, everyone can benefit from a better work environment.  

With guidance and support from Human Resources, the group tackled topics such as “Dealing with Difficult People”, “Critical Conversations”, “Model the Way” and “Building Relationships”. These 4-hour sessions took place once a month, and featured guest trainers, workshops, collaborative meetings and refresher training.  

All the education is developed with the goal of increasing the knowledge and skill sets of both employees and supervisors. The hope is that the training will help them perform their roles at a high level and prepare them to become future leaders, and excellent communicators who successfully maintain strong relationships.  

Collaborative Problem-Solving  

When the district conducted a survey of all employees about how Facilities can improve as an overall department, one of the key takeaways was that employees felt as if their knowledge was not valued when important decisions are being made or plans developed, and that they lacked proper input.  

This was an eye opener for the custodial department. For example, in 2020, the Salt Lake City School District Board approved a Sustainability Action Plan, the goal of which was to be carbon neutral by 2040, and to use 100 percent clean, renewable energy in its electricity sector by 2030. The first phase of the action plan involved replacing florescent lights with energy-efficient LED fixtures and updating toilets and urinals to reduce their demand for water. To reach these goals, the district planned to hire outside contractors, but as plumbing work began and issues were discovered, it became apparent that contractors weren’t the answer. District plumbers knew how to fix the issues, except they were not included in planning meetings or discussions. 

Once this reality was brought to the attention of leadership, the meetings became more inclusive. Once the plumbers felt like they were being listened to, and their input valued, the challenges were resolved.  

Additionally, while in the past the district didn’t always include employees in equipment purchasing decisions (and subsequently made poor choices, bought the wrong equipment, etc.), the problem-solving improved once workers were consulted on what they needed for the job. This dramatically reduced wasted time and saved money on repairs and replacements.  

When employees feel that management is not only listening, but implementing their feedback, everyone wins.  

Develop and Appreciate 

Facilities has a long-term training program in place for professional development, but they make a point to designate two days per year (one in January and one in July) where the entire department comes together to conduct training that staff has specifically requested. These two days are all about what the employees want. 

Each January, outside trainers are brought in to teach breakout classes that last approximately one hour each. Some of the popular requests have involved explanations of HR policies (FMLA, long-term leave, etc.). Employees also request career-specific training, like building strong resumes, conducting job interviews, working with financial advisors. When it comes to safety, employees want to know how to handle things during active shooter situations, emergency preparedness, slip-and-fall responses, ergonomics and more.  

In June, the day consists of half training and half celebration; it functions as the end-of-school year celebration and is a chance for Facilities to show their appreciation for the staff over the course of the year. Workers receive breakfast, hear from a keynote speaker, do some team building, and receive awards and prizes.  

One year, for example, the department took time together to assemble 50 mountain bikes that had been purchased for donation to low-income families. By dividing into groups of four or five, employees that usually didn’t work together spent some quality time getting to know each other.  

Not only did the employees have a better-than-expected time, but they also fostered communication and team unity among different sectors of the facility operations. It was a big hit, and now employees also play a role in determining what the subsequent projects will be. Afterwards, employees get lunch and the rest of the day off — a small cost for big gains.  

The facilities team keeps the good vibes rolling throughout the year by frequently providing breakfast, lunches or snacks, having giveaways, and engaging in acts of recognition on a regular basis.  

Taken together, the Facilities Department feels that these three programs form a strong foundation and help create a safe and sustainable environment for workers and supervisors. By establishing a program that generates good, positive employee morale, prepares workers for future leadership roles, and cultivates a strong collaborative work environment, they will be able to recruit, retain and sustain a strong work force.  

Ricky Martinez is the assistant director of facility services at the Salt Lake City School District, where he has 25 years of custodial experience. Martinez oversees all maintenance operations, including custodial, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, grounds, carpentry/maintenance repair and tech services. He is also a Committee Member for the Salt Lake City School District’s Sustainability Action Plan and supports the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges program.