Information technology is changing the way businesses and organizations operate. Yet, many housekeeping professionals face an uphill battle in justifying their need for technical tools. A fair number of the financial types who hold organizations’ purse strings view housekeeping as an expense item, and focus on holding down costs, says John Johnson, senior vice president with TMA Systems, a Tulsa, Okla.-based provider of software solutions for facilities management. “They ask, ‘How much impact will technology [in housekeeping] have on the bottom line?’”

Quite a bit, say those who have seen the benefits information technology can offer housekeeping departments.

“The more precise and detailed the information you have on a facility, the lower your costs to clean it will be,” says Vince Elliott, president with Elliott Affiliates, Ltd., a facilities management consulting firm in Hunt Valley, Md. For instance, in the typical building, about 15 percent of the gross square footage can’t be cleaned, as it consists of mechanical rooms, stairwells and the like. Housekeeping decision makers who don’t have accurate information regarding their facility’s size are apt to spend too much money cleaning the building.

Savvy housekeeping and environmental-services professionals are finding ways to obtain the information technology tools they need to more effectively do their jobs. Some are able to share tools with other departments, or use devices that other areas no longer need. Others are making the most of the basic software programs that come pre-loaded on most computers. Sometimes vendors of custodial or maintenance supplies can provide useful applications.

When housekeeping professionals invest in new information technology tools for their departments, most are able to show how it will contribute to the bottom line. That makes it easier to justify the investment.

Sharing technology
One way housekeeping professionals can gain access to information technology even when their own budgets are tight is by working with systems that are available to other departments within their organization. At the University of Maryland, Harry Teabout, director of building and landscape services, can use the CAD (computer-aided design) software available in the University’s facilities planning office. Teabout supervises an in-house staff of about 170 employees; they are responsible for about 7 million square feet of space.

The University is in the midst of a $500 million, three-year construction program. Teabout uses the CAD program to help him forecast cleaning costs for the new facilities. “The program allows us to set up work schedules based on how the building is laid out and the number of stairwells, elevators and rest rooms,” he says. The program also helps Teabout more accurately order supplies and materials. For instance, he can review the drawing of a new building, and see exactly how many entrance mats it requires.

Many facilities directors also are using their organization’s intranets to communicate easily with employees in and outside of the housekeeping departments. At Honeywell International Inc.’s campus in Seattle, the facilities department has its own section on the corporate intranet, says Don Warner, director of facilities and environmental health services. There, they post such information as the recycling policy and tips employees can use to help keep their own areas clean.

At the Brooklyn Public Library in Brooklyn, N.Y., Harry Yarwood, manager of building operations, uses the library’s intranet, the B-Line, to post job openings and custodial policies and procedures. For instance, custodians can go to the intranet to find the proper way to empty gas tanks in the snow blowers.

Honeywell and the Brooklyn Library also have placed their work-order systems online. Employees can complete the online work order request in a manner of seconds, and then go online to check its status.

“It takes just 30 seconds,” says Warner. In contrast, the typical manual work order system involves an employee calling the facilities area and filling out a paper form to request that something be done.

An online work order system also helps the housekeeping department track its work, says Yarwood. In the past, many employees would ask custodians for help — for instance, with a room set-up — without recording it. Now, either the employee or custodian can write up the request in a matter of seconds. “Information technology makes it easier to track and record our history of non-standard work,” says Yarwood.

Maximizing software
Another way that housekeeping supervisors get more from their information technology budgets is by fully utilizing the basic software programs that come already loaded on many PCs. While any number of software programs are specifically tailored to the housekeeping industry, spreadsheets, contact management and word processing tools also can be quite useful.

Just ask Daniel Knight, manager of custodial and grounds department at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City. Knight has been using an Excel spreadsheet program to track the costs to clean the buildings. The program contains information on the number of fixtures and square footage to be cleaned each night. Every day, Knight or one of his supervisors takes a few minutes to enter the number of people who worked, along with their pay rates.

The spreadsheet does the arithmetic, letting Knight know just how much was spent on housekeeping for the previous 24-hour period. He then can set his budget with greater accuracy. When the facility is rented for a specific event, Knight can calculate the estimated cost to clean it with great precision. “We can say, ‘You'll be using this many fixtures, and that’s how we calculated the costs.’”

Online purchasing
A number of facilities professionals have begun taking advantage of the Internet to shop electronically. In some cases, vendors are providing the programs that let housekeeping decision makers place orders electronically. For instance, Joseph Castaldo, director of environmental services with John C. Lincoln Hospital in Phoenix, is using software provided by Waxie Sanitary Supply to order janitorial products online.

The benefits? Ordering takes less time, and Castaldo can easily track what he’s spending. In addition, Castaldo keeps the purchase orders online, making it easy for him to analyze them when budgeting time comes around. “I can’t say if costs have gone down, but it’s more controllable,” he says.

Steve Gaski, director of buildings and special services at Miami University of Ohio also has turned to his materials vendors to gain access to information technology. The University is using a new program, CompuClean, provided by Spartan Chemical.

CompuClean’s software tracks inventory levels of the cleaning supplies and equipment in each building each week, based on orders placed. That way, Gaski can see how much in supplies each building is consuming.

“We can find out the cost per square foot in each building.” The price of the program was built into the overall contract with Spartan, says Gaski.

Even when housekeeping professionals don’t purchase online, they can use the Internet to research purchases. Knight at the Delta Center recently used the Internet to research steam cleaners. He was able to find one priced at $1,300, versus the $2,200 his local distributor was requesting.

Getting a return on investment
At times, software and hardware that is specific to housekeeping can provide fairly rapid payoffs, making it easier for housekeeping personnel to justify the investment. The experience of Frances Kaniewski, director of environmental services at the University of Miami Hospital and Clinics, is one example.

Until last spring, Kaniewski was spending about $20,000 annually to replace emergency room scrubs. Doctors often would inadvertently keep the scrubs, even as they headed to other hospitals. To better manage the inventory, Kaniewski installed what essentially is a vending machine that dispenses scrubs. Doctors receive a smart card that they swipe through the machine to get a new set. However, they’re only allowed so many scrubs; before they can get a new one, they have to return their old ones in the receptacle next to the machine.

Since installing the $80,000 machine in May of 2001, Kaniewski has not had to purchase any scrubs. At this rate, the machine will pay for itself within four years. “It is true savings,” she says.

Even when a precise return on investment is difficult to calculate, a housekeeping director may be able to show how the new tool will streamline a process, which should reduce the amount of resources devoted to it. For instance, electronic purchasing of cleaning supplies means several people no longer have to shuffle purchase orders, says Gaski of Miami University.

“It seems that savings will be significant, because of the number of steps eliminated, and the number of people who have to touch the paper,” Gaski says.

The University of Miami has taken a slightly different approach to capital investment. Victor Atherton, associate vice president of facilities administration at the University of Miami, had his budget capped twelve years ago, at its 1989 level. Since then, he has been charged with using technology to do more with less. While that’s a tall order, Atherton is able to authorize investments in information technology that he’s confident will improve productivity.

For instance, Atherton currently is evaluating bids on a new order management system.

“I take my money seriously, but when it’s ready to be purchased, I don’ need approval to do it,” he says.

Effective housekeeping managers increasingly need to be familiar with both information technology, and the financial costs and benefits of investing in technical tools. “You need to justify the investment in finance terms,” says TMA’s Johnson. “CFOs want to see some return-on-investment analysis.”

Karen Kroll is a Minnetonka, Minn.-based writer who frequently covers the facilities industry.

Education Tip
• Tracking Costs
At many universities, professors working on research grants need to track their costs, including facility costs, in order to recover them. Jerry Nesmith, information technology manager with the facilities management department at Emory University in Atlanta, has begun using a space management system from Facility Information Systems, Inc., Camarillo, Calif., to help with this task.

Previously, Nesmith’s team would have to verify if CAD drawings of the research facilities were accurate by walking through the buildings.

“The space management system is key to our putting together indirect cost proposals that are accurate,” says Nesmith. That’s important, as the indirect costs can total $100 million every three to four years.

Healthcare Tip
• Recycling radios to speed up room readiness
Tracking the movement of patients in and out of rooms in a hospital can require numerous phone calls between housekeeping, admissions, and the medical and dietary staffs. Pagers help, but they require the recipient of the page to be near a phone to return the call. Hand-held devices are another way employees can stay in contact, but they're expensive.

To streamline the process without breaking the bank, Joseph Castaldo at John C. Lincoln Hospital in Phoenix put to work some two-way radios that the security staff no longer was using. The devices, which are similar to walkie-talkies, allow the staff to directly contact the nursing unit, and let them know a room is available for new patients. In the three months that the staff has been using the radios, they've been able to cut between 15 and 30 minutes from the time required to get a room ready for a new patient.