Working the night shift is killer — literally. A string of studies have shown a link between late-shift work and increased cancer risk, so it’s no surprise when a housekeeping manager can’t find enough quality workers to form a nighttime cleaning crew. Even in tough economic times, working nights is the option of last resort for most employees.

“We invented the current nighttime cleaning system in 1900 when there was a wonderful market of people who needed to earn extra money to make ends meet,” says Ian Greig, CEO of Daniels Associates, Inc. in Phoenix, Ariz. “We’re still trying to push a 1900s system in the year 2009 when people don’t want to work nights. They just work nights until a day shift comes along.”

While janitorial work has traditionally been done after business hours, a growing number in the industry are thinking outside the box and switching to daytime cleaning. Advocates of day cleaning claim the method has numerous benefits.

For instance, it is more cost efficient. Cleaning during the day is 15 to 25 percent less costly than cleaning at night, advocates say. Labor savings can be 5 to 10 percent, thanks to the elimination of day porter positions and the increased efficiency of workers who are watched more closely. Daytime cleaning can also net 10 to 15 percent in energy savings when lights are turned off at night.

“You are going to save energy and that’s where the big bucks come in,” says Steve Spencer, facility specialist for State Farm Insurance in Bloomington, Ind. “With what most people pay for a 400,000 square foot building, 10 percent is going to be several hundred thousand dollars a year. You’ll also save on heating and air.”

Day cleaning can also result in lower turnover rates. Day shifts attract a larger, more enthusiastic crop of workers who aren’t willing to work nights (retirees and stay-at-home parents, for example). Offering daytime shifts makes it easier to find employees who enjoy their work and are likely to stick around.

Since making the switch to day cleaning 9 years ago, State Farm’s janitorial turnover rate is only about 10 percent — exceptional in an industry known for annual turnover of 100 percent or more. Housekeeping managers know that low turnover is good for the budget because it saves on recruitment and training costs.

Daytime work also generates fewer complaints. Working during the day creates a bond between janitor and building occupant because the two parties see each other often and perhaps even know each other’s names. If an occupant has a cleaning issue, he’s apt to go to the janitor for help, rather than calling the housekeeping manager to complain. He’s also less likely to accuse the janitor of theft, which becomes less probable if the janitor lacks access and anonymity.

“Cleaning departments tend to be somewhat invisible,” says Allen Rathey, president of InstructionLink/JanTrain, Inc. in Boise, Idaho. “Daytime cleaning affords the opportunity to create a public relations connection with other departments. If the cleaning department is well designed and crafted, it can be a tremendous form of goodwill.”

Product Placement

Daytime cleaning isn’t simply nighttime cleaning done during the day, says Greig. It requires several changes, starting with the equipment and chemicals used.

Noise isn’t a problem at night when no one but the janitor is in the building. During the day, however, a loud vacuum can disrupt business. Battery-powered machines, which are now flooding the industry, can keep a janitor’s decibel level under 68, which is also the average noise level in an office building. Battery equipment also eliminated trip hazards and improves safety.

Labor can also be dollars saved if departments choose more efficient machines, such as wide-area, ride-on or cart-based vacuums with hoses that allow for quick cubicle cleaning.

“When I started in the 1970s, janitorial cleaning times were 2,000 square feet an hour,” Greig says. “Now it’s closer to 10,000 square feet an hour. We’re going from the most labor-intense field in the world to one where equipment costs more than labor.”

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is another concern with day cleaning. To reduce contaminants floating in the air and upsetting workers in the area, janitors should not use dust mops or hand-held dusters. Instead, hard-surfaces should be vacuumed or cleaned with microfiber mops or wipes.

Chemical choices also affect IAQ. Microfiber can reduce chemical usage but it is important to go a step further and choose low-odor, no-VOC products. This is an easy task thanks to the recent movement toward environmentally preferable purchasing. Whenever possible, the safest bet is to use only neutral cleaners and water.

“It runs parallel with what’s happening with green cleaning,” Rathey says. “You must invest in some equipment but those are investments you should be making anyway.”

To offset the capital investment needed for day cleaning, Spencer says housekeeping managers must educate building management about the long-term savings. That includes lobbying to get credit (and budget consideration) for the utility savings.

A New Approach

Even more important to the success of daytime cleaning than new equipment and chemicals is updating how cleaning is performed. At night, janitors have the run of a building but during the day, they can’t interfere with business operations. For day cleaning to work, planning is everything.

“You have to take your whole cleaning operation apart, component by component, and put it back together so that you understand what every part of the system is for,” Rathey says.

A housekeeping manager moving from night to daytime cleaning must schedule every task like clockwork. Cleaning cannot interrupt building occupants and janitors must be kept busy. In a school, for example, classroom cleaning might be scheduled for the lunch period while hallways are swept with a low-decibel vacuum during classes.

To make it all work, some tasks may need to be performed before or after business hours (calling it daytime cleaning is a bit of a misnomer). For example, work that requires an area to be closed off for a length of time, such as stripping and refinishing floors, is probably best performed after building occupants leave.

“Light cleaning can be done fairly well during the day shift but sometimes deep cleaning needs to be done when people aren’t around, both for convenience and safety reasons,” says Bill Griffin, owner of Cleaning Consultants in Seattle, Wash. “Even though we call it day cleaning and a lot of the cleaning is done during the day shift, a certain percentage is going to be done outside the day hours.”

To devise State Farm’s daytime cleaning plan, Spencer first determined which areas were open to the public and therefore needed to be cleaned before business hours. Next, he worked with building occupants to decide the best way to clean other areas in a non-intrusive way.

The result? The lobby and human resources office are cleaned before the doors open to the public at 8 a.m. Same-sex janitors clean restrooms throughout the day. Cubicles are dusted and vacuumed on weekends but trash is picked up daily if the cubicle worker places it in the hall.

“If you’re not organized, daytime cleaning is not for you,” Spencer says. “To do it, you need to wipe your slate clean and start over. You have to step back, look at the building and how they do business, and then figure out how to staff it. It’s a whole new approach.”

Attitude Adjustment

Daytime cleaning also requires personnel adjustments beyond a shift change. Unlike night cleaning, when janitors are invisible to the building’s occupants, day cleaning puts cleaning crews on display. While housekeeping managers can provide their crews with clean uniforms and tidy carts, they can’t furnish sparkling personalities or communication skills.

“Not all the people on your staff will be appropriate for the day shift,” Griffin says. “Their personal hygiene or demeanor may not sit well with the crowd they’ll be working around.”

Communication is much more critical with day cleaning because janitors’ decisions affect building occupants. When cleaning will create an interruption or eyesore, the difference between compliments and complaints is communication. For example, something as simple as posting a clock with a reopening time will placate most occupants when a restroom is closed for cleaning.

“How you speak with occupants makes all the difference in the success of your program,” Rathey says. “That means management has to do a lot of work schooling the staff on how they are going to communicate with the customer.”

Proceed With Caution

Before jumping on the day cleaning bandwagon, a manager needs to make an honest self-assessment. Are employees right for daytime cleaning and if not, is management willing and able to find workers who are? Is the system sophisticated enough to handle the organization required for daytime cleaning?

“To go from the Dark Ages to the Space Age is a big transition and I wouldn’t recommend you do it overnight,” Rathey says. “Do a pilot program rather than rolling out the whole building to daytime cleaning at once. The key is to start small. Try it in a given area where you can build some confidence that you can do it.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based near DesMoines, Iowa.