"People are our most important asset." This is a quote often used by custodial operations across the country. But in an industry dismissed by some as nothing more than cleaning toilets, walking the talk is sometimes difficult to do.

Ada Baldwin, R.E.H., assistant director of housekeeping services at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), is one industry professional who truly does keep her people top of mind.

"Housekeeping is not just a mop, bucket, broom and vacuum cleaner. It is a business," she says. "And my staff is more than just a mop, bucket, broom and vacuum cleaner. They help the world."

Baldwin makes a point to block out stereotypes in favor of watching her staff grow. And it is this mindset that has propelled her department forward and revealed expectations that haven't gone unnoticed.

Earlier this year, Baldwin received the UNCG Business Affairs Betty Hardin award, an honor bestowed upon individuals providing superior leadership, exhibiting a positive and constructive attitude with high standards, and rendering a service above and beyond the call of duty.

A short time later, the UNCG Facilities Services department and Baldwin, who serves on the Chancellor's Advisory Committee for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, received the 2012 Employer of the Year Award from the Greensboro Mayor's Committee for Persons with Disabilities and the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce.

But comments from the UNCG Facilities Services team say more than any award ever could.

Morgan Mesar, who came to the university as a building environmental services technician, says he once hopped from job to job, explaining each job was nothing but a solo act where no one cared or made an effort to work as a team.

"I found a job here as a housekeeper and saw the value of being a part of a team and the importance in putting time and effort into a job I really cared about," says Mesar, who received the UNCG 2012 Safety Award for his work.

Leroy Arrington, who has worked as a general utility technician and floor care team leader since 2007, says UNCG housekeepers work well together because they have a strong leader in Baldwin.

"We have someone setting the example," he says, explaining her leadership sets the standard for the entire staff. "When someone sets the example, your team comes together and becomes stronger, and one that everyone can depend on."

Focus On The Staff

This team is the reason UNCG leads the way in cleaning for health and greening the cleaning process. In fact, they represent one of the first departments in the University of North Carolina system to implement a green cleaning program. But Baldwin says none of this would have been possible without a committed and well-trained staff that values the contributions they make.

With a staff of 120 maintaining 60 buildings that include academic and athletic facilities, Baldwin admits that cleaning on campus is both challenging and important. Facility cleanliness is often one of the first things people notice when they visit. If visitors see a dirty lobby or unkempt restroom, they may opt to look elsewhere for their education.

"What we do here can affect funding and attendance at the university," says Baldwin.

The current economic climate has presented some challenges to that regard, she adds. Budgets cuts have made it necessary for the staff to perform the same jobs with fewer resources.

"We've had to reassign square footage, giving more to each employee. There is a void where no one is cleaning between 1:30 and 4 p.m.," she says. "Then there is the question of how to maintain a campus that is open 24 hours a day. You have to maneuver around whatever is going on in that area."

Maintaining an athletic area that students use all hours of the day or night, or a facility students use to study in the early morning or evening hours can seem an impossible and never-ending chore. Couple that with asking employees to tackle more with less and it can be challenging to keep morale high and help staff realize they're providing an important — and valued — service, according to Baldwin.

As custodial assistant director at UNCG for 12 years, Baldwin's put considerable emphasis on honoring her team for a job well done. For instance, it might have been easy to save money by discontinuing the annual staff recognition celebration, but Baldwin's made a point of keeping this tradition — started by her predecessor — alive.

"But we also honor staff more than once a year. In fact, I try to recognize staff every single day," she says. "Showing our appreciation helps boost morale. I think it's important because when you do a job that's routine day in and day out, what's your motivation to keep doing it? We need to show our employees they are appreciated and they are valued."

That sense of value is exactly what the staff feels. Take, for example, John Tinnin (JT). Tinnin has won numerous awards since he came on board as a general utility technician in 2006, including the 2007-2008 Outstanding Floor Care Award, Housekeeper of the Month in November 2011, the Unsung Hero Award in 2008, and the Staff Stars Award in 2011-2012.  He says the awards set the tone for what is overall a very positive environment that provides everyone with a chance to shine.

"Everyone comes to work on time and is eager to get started," he says. "People here take their jobs very seriously. They are very dedicated."

Baldwin's positive attitude and appreciation for a job well done is infectious among the staff.

Tools Of The Trade

Providing cutting-edge tools, chemicals and training to help employees do their jobs efficiently, effectively and safely is another way Baldwin keeps employees top of mind.

In 2008, UNCG became the first state university to adopt the Green Seal chemicals offered on the state contract. This, in turn, led to UNCG's green cleaning program, and put the university well ahead of the curve; the state's Healthier and Greener Schools Act mandating green and sustainable cleaning didn't go into effect until 2011.

Before the university began its green cleaning program, the plethora of chemicals on hand cost roughly $3.07 per gallon. Switching to Green Seal-certified chemicals brought the cost down to an estimated 25 cents per gallon, and reduced chemical usage by 75 percent, according to Baldwin.

The university also uses microfiber cloths and mops; backpack vacuums designed to protect workers' backs; and an automatic floor scrubber that removes finish from floors without chemicals.

"This saves significant time and labor, and eliminates the use of corrosive and hazardous floor strippers," Baldwin says.

The department also uses chemical dispensing units, toilet tissue and paper towels with recycled content, automatic towel dispensers, and employ integrated pest management. But these were not changes the staff bought into overnight, Baldwin says.

"We had to change everyone's mindsets," she recalls. "They'd say: ‘Why can't we use bleach anymore?' Or ‘We used to smell ammonia, now we don't smell anything.'"

"We had to help them understand that this equipment is better for your health," she continues. "But getting that mindset to change is really hard."

They began by getting buy-in among housekeeping supervisors, who were educated on the new chemical dispensing units, product use, MSDS (material safety data sheets) and green cleaning processes. These individuals helped train the rest of the staff on the dispensing units, proper use of Green Seal products, safety issues, and the university's Healthy High Performance Green Cleaning Program.

Hands-on training and encouraging staff input as new technology or chemicals are adopted has been key to the program's success, notes Baldwin. She encourages staff members to attend trade shows, training opportunities, and even brings trade shows and equipment demos to them.

"They are encouraged to go, go, go, and get educated," she says. "I want them to buy in. If I can get them to buy in to new equipment, it's not going to sit in a closet. They are going to use it."

The process begins with a pilot program, where a single area or floor uses the new technology or chemical to see how it works. This testing program considers the pros and cons of the product or equipment and looks at everything from the return on investment to its safety to how it might impact the university's LEED certification points. Baldwin gives the staff testing the products ample opportunities to comment on their effectiveness.

"They look for our feedback. They want our feedback. And if we don't give it, they ask for our feedback," says Arrington.

In some cases, this process has found the technology or chemical wasn't worth bringing in. But more often than not it's proven that going green works. In fact, Arrington says he appreciates the new technology the university has added in recent years.

"I was used to the old mop style (to apply floor finish)," he says. "But that's hard on your back. The new technology preserves our health and saves the university money. We used to do a 30 foot by 20 foot room with five gallons of wax, but with the new equipment we might use one gallon of wax."

Continually providing employees with opportunities to grow and learn has become a means of creating a staff that values what they do. Baldwin teams with other areas of the university to provide such opportunities, including training in health and lifestyle choices. Health workshops that provide health screenings and discuss the prevention of musculoskeletal injuries arm staff with the tools needed to do their jobs in a healthy way that minimizes injuries and illness.

"We try to provide as much training as we can," she says.

Mesar adds continual training is one thing he really appreciates, explaining that when he came to the university he feared using machines to do the job.

"I was afraid of messing up," he explains. "But my supervisors showed me how to use the technology and guided me to make sure I was OK with using the equipment on my own."

Arrington adds that as a team leader he spends a lot of time helping his team increase their knowledge.
"But I'm working for them. They are always adding to my knowledge and I'm always adding to theirs," he says.

The Customer Is King

Tools and chemicals aren't what get the job done, however. That, again, comes back to the employees and the mindset that the customer is king.

"Our goal is to provide excellent customer service," Baldwin says.

Work orders come in via e-mail, phone or online and it's the supervisors' job for that area to ensure the appropriate staff are notified to correct the problem.

"When personal complaints come in, we try to resolve them within 24 to 48 hours," she says.

Knowing how employees are doing in their given areas is also an important means to an end. Baldwin surveys areas annually to learn how housekeepers are performing and identify areas for improvement. She also maintains contact monthly to keep tabs throughout the year.

But most importantly, she assigns housekeepers specific areas to maintain. Typically that's a floor in a building but it may be specific areas in a couple of buildings, too. She makes sure the building contact knows who the housekeepers and the supervisor are for that building.

"This helps housekeepers become familiar with their customer," she says. "When housekeepers work in a specific area day after day, it becomes more personal. They develop personal relationships that strengthen their work relationships."

That emphasis on employees is one that puts the UNCG custodial crew at the forefront in the cleaning industry.
"People used to look down on housekeeping as a career," says Arrington. "But there are a lot of changes in housekeeping today and you need to keep learning."

What better place to do this than at an institution for higher learning where employees truly come first?  

Ronnie Garrett is a freelancer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis., and frequent contributor to Housekeeping Solutions.