As the national unemployment rate nears a staggering 10 percent, housekeeping managers across the country are feeling the heat. Attrition and layoffs have left most departments with noticeable staffing shortages. Getting by with less means finding creative ways to make the remaining staff more productive.

Trying to increase productivity can feel like squeezing blood from a turnip — janitors are already cleaning far more square footage per hour than they did in decades past. To become even more efficient, managers are using workloading software and new products and procedures. Unfortunately, deep cuts may also force managers to adjust priorities and sacrifice services or standards.

“I am looking at the names of 32 people whose employment with our department will end next week as a direct result of the tough economy,” says Brandon Baswell, building service manager for custodial services at Michigan State University. “Many valuable services will have to be terminated, too. Less staff means that fewer people will do more work and ultimately less work will be done.”

Software Solutions

Production rates are complicated to understand because they include many variables.

The square footage of a room, the types of surfaces to be cleaned and traffic volumes can all affect a janitor’s speed. The size and speed of equipment and the quality of chemicals also make a difference. Other issues include whether preventative measures (walk-off mats, for example) are used, how far the janitor must travel to dispose of trash or pick up supplies, how many breaks are allotted per shift and much more.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that many housekeeping managers find it difficult to accurately assess how staffing cuts will affect cleaning standards.

“Without accurate information you are flying by the seat of your pants,” Baswell says. “Knowing where your time is being spent is essential.”

Industry associations (ISSA, APPA and BSCAI, for example) usually track cleaning times for specific tasks or square footage. These numbers, however, are only averages and cannot account for a specific building’s particular circumstances. For a more accurate measure of staffing needs, many housekeeping managers use workloading software.

Gene Woodard, director of the custodial service division at the University of Washington relies on this type of software after losing 45 positions in the last year to layoffs and a hiring freeze (about 10 percent of his total staff). He plugs a variety of data into the database and can then run specific reports that paint an accurate picture of his production rates.

With the push of a button, Woodard can see exactly how many labor hours are needed to maintain hallway floors at different appearance levels. Or, he can quickly compare the cleaning rates of his 300-plus custodians. The software also includes a quality-control program that objectively illustrates training needs.

“It’s a great tool that we use in analyzing and developing our work assignments,” Woodard says. “In this day and age, if you can’t manage information and use it to tell your story to administrators who wouldn’t otherwise have the slightest idea of what you do, you’re missing the boat.”

Products And Procedures

Another important benefit of workloading software is its ability to evaluate the efficacy of various equipment and chemicals. It can quickly calculate the time required to clean 1,000 square feet with a mop versus a ride-on scrubber, for example. This function is invaluable when trying to justify big expenditures during an economic downturn.

“You can calculate what you spend to do a job using current equipment, and then do a calculation showing what cost savings you would procure in labor reduction if you purchase new equipment,” says Ron Bailey, interim director of custodial services at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Bailey’s department started its workloading efforts with hand-written notes on a floor plan before later creating one Excel spreadsheet per building (115 total). Two years ago, the school hired a programmer to streamline the system by creating custom software that calculates full-time employee requirements based on the university’s acceptable frequencies and service levels, as well as ISSA time standards.

Workloading programs have helped Bailey to justify the purchase of nearly 30 autoscrubbers over the last two decades. He has also made improvements in efficiency with the purchase of ride-on, battery-operated and wide-area carpet extractors. Microfiber cleaning cloths, dust mops and wet mops have also proven to clean better and quicker. Standardizing chemical lines has also streamlined efficiencies by reducing the number of decisions a custodian must make.

“At some point, human beings reach a limit of what they can do,” Bailey says. “It’s going to be the advancement in equipment that will improve efficiencies and productivity.”

When it comes to humans, there are some changes managers can make to improve efficiency. Switching custodians from swing- or night-shift work to daytime and team cleaning can increase productivity.

The University of Washington was able to increase its custodians’ workload from 34,000 square feet to 40,000 when it shifted workers to days.

“Most of our swing-shift workers are busy with other jobs or taking care of family members during the day,” Woodard says. “When they report to work in the late afternoon, they’ve already spent an entire day working.”

More energy helps daytime workers, as does the ability to better see what they are cleaning. Custodians also take more pride in their work when they get to know the people they are servicing.

Converting from traditional to team cleaning also helped the University of Washington boost productivity. Staff is now divided into eight teams, each with its own manager and supervisor. Rotating tasks among team members creates happier, faster workers.

“Staff aren’t stopping and starting tasks. They perform one task for a longer period of time and become more efficient,” Woodard says. “And because they rotate jobs, we think it is a more equitable way to assign work.”

The best system is one that is flexible. Managers of large facilities, for example, may need to employ several different cleaning methods to boost overall productivity.

“No two buildings are the same or should be cleaned the same way,” Bailey says. “We have areas where we use team cleaning, but there are other areas where security is an issue and we use zone cleaning. You have to be open to whatever system works best.”

Re-evaluate Priorities

Unfortunately, there are times when personnel cuts are so severe that no amount of product or procedural upgrades can offset the drop in productivity. In these situations, housekeeping managers must make difficult decisions about what is sacrificed.

“We’ve already done what we can do to increase our productivity with the purchase of equipment and chemicals and through training,” Bailey says. “When our labor pool dwindles, we have to reprioritize. We make a judgment of what we have to do and what we may be able to skip.”

In most cases, housekeeping managers prefer to reduce frequencies rather than lower cleaning standards.

“Cleaning tasks are prioritized so we know what to give up first,” says Willy Suter, director of facilities management at American University in Washington, D.C. “Tasks with the highest frequency become the target for reduced frequency, rather than stopping something all together.”

While high-priority areas like restrooms are typically unaffected, less-public spaces like offices may be cleaned weekly or monthly. Some managers even allow their custodians to make on-the-spot decisions about cleaning priorities. For example, they can judge whether a carpet can go another day or week without cleaning.

This approach allows the housekeeping department to recuperate more quickly when staffing levels return to normal. A carpet that’s been ignored can be restored; the reputation damage caused by filthy public spaces may be irreparable.

Sadly, some managers are now dealing with cuts so severe that they have no option but to sacrifice quality.

The University of Washington follows APPA’s five levels of clean. Normally, the housekeeping department strives for Level 1 (orderly spotlessness) in all spaces. After losing 10 percent of its staff, however, it now hopes for Level 2 (ordinary tidiness), but expects some areas will fall as low as Level 4 (moderate dinginess).

Again, workloading software can help housekeeping managers with these tough calls. The programs can clearly demonstrate to administration or corporate management how staffing cuts will affect cleaning levels.

“When we went through budget reduction scenarios, the workload database gave us the ability to identify what dollars would be saved if we reduced certain services by different frequencies,” Bailey says.

For example, Bailey could clearly show how cleaning labs three days a week rather than five would affect the bottom line. Or, he could show which services would need to be cut or altered to accommodate budget cuts of different amounts.

“We could give them a grocery list of services that would be eliminated if they take away resources,” Bailey says. “The software gives me measured, scientific information; it’s not a gut feeling or an assumption. It gives me credibility for what I’m trying to communicate.”

These same reports can be used to communicate with the housekeeping staff. Managers can use the information to explain why changes are being made and how they affect workers’ responsibilities.

“Managers have to show a lot of support to the staff,” Woodard says. “Tell them you know it’s bad and you don’t like doing it, but explain how you are going to make the workloads as fair as you can.”

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