During the past decade, an increased emphasis on public health and indoor environmental quality issues has boosted society’s understanding of cleaning’s importance. Building owners have begun to realize that the act of cleaning does much more than make an area appear neat and tidy; if done properly, it removes harmful microorganisms and reduces health risks. Proper housekeeping also can reduce daily wear and tear in buildings.

“If we don't maintain things in our buildings, we won't get the ultimate return on investment,” says Steve Spencer, senior specialist, cleaning and interior maintenance for State Farm Insurance, based in Bloomington, Ill. To make his point, Spencer hosts a class on building maintenance for the company’s administrative services people. Early in the presentation he points to a slide of a Mercedes Benz, noting that an owner of such a car would be unlikely to let it get too dirty, or to stop changing the oil. He segues to a slide of a facility, and says the same should be true of a facility manager when addressing the needs of a building.

While this focus on physical plant maintenance may seem ancillary to an organization’s overall goals — educating students, providing medical care or offering business services — a clean, well-maintained building is essential for any successful institution. The question, however, is whether housekeeping executives are considering all the various ways in which they can have the greatest impact in their organizations.

Once housekeeping directors recognize how their departments can have the most impact, there are a host of ways in which they can leverage the benefits of a clean building.

The true impact of good housekeeping
“I only have to use two words — health department — to describe our department’s importance,” says Debra Emery, director of environment services at HealthSouth Chesapeake Rehabilitation Hospital, Salisbury, Md. “If we aren’t clean we won’t stay open.”

Any type of organization could shut down if not properly cleaned. Four Dallas office buildings were closed by local health inspectors in mid-March due to mold infestation, forcing tenants to to find different accommodations.

But poor cleaning affects facility operations in a variety of other ways. One of the biggest impacts is when customers use cleanliness as a criteria when choosing a medical facility, school or office space.

That’s why Stephen Murphy, director of environmental services at Sullivan County Community Hospital, Ind., tries to show customers that he is committed to serving them better by placing comment cards with his name and personal extension in each patient room. His department also sends out regular satisfaction surveys to patients’ homes.

Murphy is selling peace of mind, not to mention the importance of his mission. Positive feedback helps him prove that good housekeeping can make a successful impact on customers, while negative feedback helps him pinpoint where to spend extra attention, says Murphy.

There also are other reasons to think “clean” if you’re a bottom-line decision maker.

“If, as institutions, we’re competing against each other, we’re all looking for that competitive edge,” says John Harrod, director of the physical plant at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and president of the Association of Higher Education Facility Officers. And housekeeping departments can position themselves to be just that for their organizations.

At least one study has found that students overwhelmingly select a university based on the appearance of its grounds and buildings, says Harrod.

Reducing clutter to retain tenants
Sometimes, a clean, well-maintained building can mean the difference in retaining current tenants. This was the impetus behind the “First Impressions” program of the General Services Administration (GSA), which discovered that cluttered GSA entrances and lobbies were a sore spot with leased tenants.

The GSA acts as a landlord to various federal agencies that don’t have to rent from the government; they can find space elsewhere, says Alan Camp, regional chief architect for GSA’s Rocky Mountain Region.

The program tackles five tasks: reducing clutter in lobby areas; consolidating lobby functions, such as FedEx and ATM stations; making sure that signage is uniform; streamlining security equipment; and upgrading finishes in lobbies.

At press time, about 300 projects are underway, and 65 were completed. Many of the projects require little or no money to complete. Camp estimates that 90 percent are under $20,000, and 20 percent are under $1,000.

The results so far? Litter has decreased, and building managers are more vigilant in keeping clutter reduced, says Camp. While it’s difficult to point to a direct return on individual investments, Camp believes there will be an obvious overall benefit. “Some tenants were threatening to leave. By showing that we’re concerned about the quality of the space, we hope that they will stay.”

To find out more about the GSA’s program, click here.

Improving customer service skills
Since not all areas of an organization have direct contact with the housekeeping department, or realize what its staff does for them, properly servicing an entire facility often requires relationship building.

At the Chicago Art Institute, executive director for facilities, William Caddick, and his team continually work to build ties with their colleagues in other departments. All custodial supervisors walk the building at least twice during their shift. During their rounds, they’ll poke their heads into the offices of other museum employees.

“We walk into the lion’s den,” says Caddick. “We take our hits and move on.”

This makes Caddick’s job easier in the long run: Museum employees know that he and his staff are on the job, and receptive to their concerns. That helps in getting the funding that’s necessary to support the staff that’s needed, he says.

An ongoing dialogue with top management before, during and after building construction or renovation also makes it easier for housekeeping to be more efficient, says Daniel Knight, manager of the custodial operations department at The Delta Center in Salt Lake City, home to the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

When the center was built in 1991, custodial management worked with the arena’s owner to determine how to build the facility to make cleaning easier. The result was the addition of several innovative maintenance features that helped cut the time and cost of cleaning.

Each floor has a trash shoot, so custodians don’t have to haul trash from one level to another to dispose of it. Knight estimates that this saves his team about $100,000 annually.

In addition, each floor boasts a 20-by-30-foot janitor’s closet; that’s in comparison to the typical 8-by-8-foot closet, says Knight. “There’s plenty of space to move around and keep equipment,” he adds. “And, we don’t have to move equipment, such as floor sweepers, scrubbers and trash receptacles. They’re kept throughout the building.”

Knight’s strong working relationship with top management bodes well for his department during budget time. Because his superiors are sensitive to cleaning’s importance they can provide the support Knight needs to provide a a continuous level of high-quality service for customers.

Stacking up savings
The best way to keep housekeeping foremost in top management’s minds is to consistently produce savings and put that money back into the company with additional project work.

HealthSouth’s Emery has switched to pre-portioned cleaning chemicals to reduce over- or under-use, which not only wastes product, but also wastes time or leaves areas less clean. She estimates the simple switch frees up about 25 percent of her budget for other projects — something every housekeeping director should consider.

“Just because you save money doesn’t mean you’re done,” says Emery. “You have to redirect that extra time and money into other projects that can make the facility even cleaner.”

At the University of Maryland, the housekeeping department has slashed about $500,000 annually from its budget over the past two years, using ideas any organization’s cleaning staff can implement, says Harry Teabout, director of building and landscape services. As with Emery’s situation, Teabout’s savings go back to the various departments cleaned, in the form of additional projects.

“With the savings that we’re making, we’re not talking about taking dollars from the departments,” he says.

In part, the savings are a result of moving to a team-cleaning system; employees specialize in one of four areas: trash removal and dusting; vacuuming; taking utility cleaning; and restroom care. Specializing saves between 20 and 30 percent of the employees’ time, adds Teabout.

In addition, he introduced a vendor-managed inventory system for the department’s cleaning chemicals. Rather than store the products in one place, and cart them around the campus — a process that was consuming $300,000 annually in labor costs — Teabout worked out a just-in-time delivery system with a local firm. They supply the chemicals to cleaning areas around campus, on an as-needed basis.

Educate about cleaning
Of course, efficiency in the housekeeping department will only go so far. When it comes to cleaning, it’s important to make sure everyone in a building —tenants, employees, students, faculty and the like — takes ownership of their areas.

Most housekeeping professionals agree that nice facilities tend to stay nice. That’s the thinking behind the CURB, short for Concentrated Upgrade and Repair of Buildings program at the University of Wisconsin. Harrod’s team will identify a facility, and send a team in to bring it up to par. For instance, they may fix chipped paint, flickering light bulbs and air handlers. “Once we get it to a new level, occupants are more willing to keep things up,’ says Harrod.

Similarly, at Miami University of Ohio, attention to small details encourages students to keep areas much more clean, says Stephen Gaski, director of building and special services with the Oxford, Ohio school.

Some dining halls feature tablecloths. Students who want to post signs only can put them on doors or bulletin boards, rather than painted wall surfaces. If they want to put signs on trees, students have to tie, rather than tack them on.

Sometimes, a direct educational approach helps boost support. Spencer and his team at State Farm distribute a brochure entitled “Good Housekeeping is Everyone’s Business” to all new occupants. It lets those employees know that personal items in their cubicles are their responsibility to maintain. It also asks them to use the tools provided to help keep the buildings clean and uncluttered, such as coasters for drinks and racks for coats. Equally important, employees are encouraged to call their maintenance department as soon as a problem, such as a spilled cup of coffee, arises.

Not all attempts to get others to take responsibility for keeping things clean are likely to be successful. Though a well-planned effort can at least reduce some of a facility’s biggest housekeeping headaches.

Dan Almer is director of operations at the Citicorp Center in Chicago, which is managed by Jones Lang La Salle IP, Inc. About 100,000 commuters pass through the building daily — many of whom are in a rush — and it’s nearly impossible to get them all to throw their trash in the proper receptacles.

Still, Almer’s doing his best to promote customer recycling and use of trash cans. He’s placed 10 sets of bins (one for paper, one for trash, one for plastic, aluminum and glass) on each floor. In addition, each worker in the building receives a desk-side container for recycling paper. “We want to promote a positive image of the building and the city.”

Whether in sports arenas or schools, medical facilities or corporate offices, housekeeping plays an important role in keeping building occupants satisfied and coming back for more.

“No one will pay to watch us clean, but if the team is losing, and they’re sitting in a filthy seat, they won’t come back,” says the Delta Center’s Knight.

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

Educational Markets Tip
• Customer service and planning John Harrod at the University of Wisconsin-Madison borrowed a door tag program from the hospitality industry. If professors want their offices cleaned, they hang a tag on the door that says so. If a tag is not there, the cleaning crew knows not to go into the office, because it doesn’t require cleaning.

The program, which has been in place about three years, saves between 15 percent and 20 percent of staff’s time, says Harrod. The department can use that time for other special projects, such as cleaning the windows.

Medical Markets Tip
• Flexibility without flex staffing For organizations that do not allow for flex scheduling, which reduces staff sizes during low patient census, Debra Emory of HealthSouth Chesapeake Rehabilitation Hospital suggests having workers check in once time-sensitive duties are com- plete. That’s when they receive a list of projects such as window cleaning or high-area dusting. During down time, she also makes sure workers pay close attention to corners and edge work, which they might miss during busier shifts.

Commercial Markets Tip
• Putting tenants to the test If any one doubts that clean areas tend to stay clean, they may want to try this experiment: Steve Spencer of State Farm Insurance left a cart in an office hallway. As long as nothing was on the cart, it remained clean. Then, Spencer put a candy wrapper on the cart. An hour later, at least 10 other pieces of garbage had taken up residence there.