Frontline fight

The impact of COVID-19 is being felt by businesses around the globe. While some sectors within the professional cleaning industry, largely those producing cleaning products such as disinfectants, are booming right now, others are facing significantly hard times.

New Zealand is currently preparing to move from alert level four to alert level three from Monday, April 27. Under level three restrictions lockdown measures will be eased, allowing many more businesses to resume, such as construction, manufacturing and more primary industries.

Public venues, such as libraries, museums, cinemas, food courts, gyms, pools, playgrounds, markets remain closed, however, business premises will be allowed to open but cannot physically interact with customers.

People must work from home unless that is not possible and there must be physical distancing of one metre in controlled environments such as schools and workplaces.

Alert level three restrictions will remain for a minimum of two weeks, before the decision to move is revisited on May 11.

The cleaning industry is also preparing to adapt to this ‘new normal’, with many service providers gearing for a spike in cleaning services as businesses reopen following the county’s nationwide shutdown. But how can the industry be best prepared for the post-coronavirus bounce back?

Ian Kebbell, managing director of Wellington-based Supercare, says while cleaning frequencies and scope of work will significantly increase following the move to level three, so too will the emphasis on cleanliness standards and customer expectations.

“For so long the industry has been viewed as a necessary overhead, but we have been undervalued in terms of the contribution we make to workplaces and businesses,” says Kebbell.

“[COVID-19] has highlighted the importance of the work we do. People have seen the direct impact of the spread of an infectious disease and the impact not just on staff and absenteeism, but the impact on the entire business.

“I’m confident we’re going to see increased cleaning frequencies and greater emphasis on the scope that we do. We will not be just a service that businesses can cut or trim to protect the bottom line. There is a real investment now in the services we provide.

“At the same time, it puts pressure on us as an industry because the expectations are going to be higher. We have to step up and make sure the services we deliver meet these new standards.”

Many businesses re-opening under level three are having to rethink their protocols in order to reduce foot traffic and adhere to social distancing, with some companies set to introduce spilt shifts to minimise staff to staff contact.

Sarah McBride, CEO of the Building Service Contractors Association of New Zealand (BSCNZ), says these new workplace structures will likely impact cleaning service providers.

“Cleaners are going to become more visible to New Zealanders now. Instead of cleaning at night, [staff] will now see cleaners during the day, so we won’t be so much the ‘invisible workforce’ anymore,” says McBride.

“There’s going to be a lot of re-arranging of offices and common areas so many businesses will be rethinking their office plans entirely. Cleaners will play an important role making sure environments are laid out correctly [to ensure social distancing] and possible split will have an impact as it will mean contractors might have double the amount of cleaning for one contract.”

Marriott International recently announced its new, intensive cleaning regime to be rolled out across its global hotel portfolio. Cleaning staff will be required to disinfect all surfaces more frequently and with hospital-grade disinfectants.

The company will also re-arrange furniture to allow more space for distancing and install more hand sanitising stations at the entrances to its hotels, near the front desk, elevator banks and fitness and meeting spaces.

“Cleaning businesses need to adapt their offering and start looking at services that they might not have previously offered. The industry can help offer practical solutions, such as installing hand sanitising stations, to ensure businesses are compliant. Commercial cleaning is going to be industry that gives people the confidence to walk back into work.”

Training and compliance

Dominic Drumm, managing director of Westferry Property Services, says he anticipates a significant drive in education and safety that the industry needs to prepare for post-COVID-19.

“Traditionally, people haven’t looked to cleaning companies for knowledge but [COVID-19] has changed this. The challenge will be for cleaning company owners to up-skill themselves.”

Prior to the nationwide lockdown Westferry Property Services established a rapid response team, with the crew spilt into two teams to ensure any possible decontaminations could be carried out simultaneously.

“We realised early on that we needed to be on alert and be able to respond quickly, if needed, but that can come with its own set of challenges,” says Drumm.

“It’s refreshing that we have been recognised for performing an important function in a business. However, leading up to the lockdown cleaning companies were under higher amounts of scrutiny about their cleaning processes and products.

“Businesses have become more aware that the cleanliness of their premises, and of areas such as high touch points, is essential part of their ongoing business operation. Because of this, there is going to be a need for more transparency and education between cleaning companies and clients on their cleaning needs.”

Drumm says cleaning companies should take the lead – ensuring cleaning procedures are tailored specifically to each client.

“Cleaning companies should be educating clients. A lot of studies are showing that coronavirus is fragile outside a host and once it is on a surface it doesn’t last long. But some facilities are asking to use hospital grade cleaning agents [on-site] when it’s not necessary. We need to educate our clients and help reduce the paranoia that might arise from this.

“Each clients’ needs will be different and alongside that there will still be some serious pressure on budgets. So, there is going to be a natural tension between a requirement for increased cleaning and wanting to pay for it because everyone’s businesses are under pressure.”

Poonam Datar, CEO of the Cleaning Accountability Framework (CAF), an Australian certification scheme, says COVID-19 and the rapid rate in which businesses have had to react to new regulations and restrictions,  has led to higher risks within supply chains and questionable working standards and conditions.

CAF is an independent, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to improve labour standards and cleaning quality in Australia. The program works with independent auditors to verify that the CAF standards – as they relate to wages and conditions, tax and super, and responsible contracting – are being met at a building.

“We have heard from some cleaning contractors at non-CAF certified buildings [in Australia] that they haven’t been able to access proper cleaning material or PPE equipment.

“We’ve also had reports [from non-CAF certified buildings] of cleaners not being informed that the sites they are cleaning have a had a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19, and they have not been given correct PPE equipment. Some [non-CAF certified buildings] have also changed chemicals [during COVID-19] and workers have not been trained on how to use and dispose of these products.

“There is a spotlight now being shone on the cleaning industry when it’s generally been known as a ‘hidden’ workforce. In the public view, they are being elevated to a status they have not had before. But there is also a lot the industry can do in terms of recognition.

“Fairer prices need to be set in contracts. Contract terms and conditions should reward workers that take care for their employees and that have their employee’s wellbeing at the forefront of their business practises.”

Rebuilding after COVID-19

“Coming out of this, New Zealand’s economic landscape is going to be very different,” says Drumm.

“Prior to this New Zealand had a booming tourism sector, the country’s biggest export industry, and the heart of that has been ripped out.

“The knock-on effect for us is that [market share] becomes smaller and cleaning companies that were heavily exposed to those sectors that have been the hardest hit – tourism, travel and hospitality – will have to diversify.

But we will survive. Cleaning might not be the sexiest industry, but it is an essential industry. Many other sectors will take a while to get back up and running once the lockdown is over, but I believe that we will get back up to speed very quickly.”

For those preparing to open under the newly announced restrictions, McBride says communication and staff training is key.

“Make sure to have good relationships with key suppliers so that they are able to support you and through your customers’ changes and needs.

“Staff also need to be trained about what these new changes will look like. Every staff member should be taught to think about how they can add value especially when they are the ones on the coalface.

“The whole world has realised how critical our industry is. We are not just a service that is a nice to have. We are an essential service and we will be at the forefront of this fight.”

Kebbell, who was also recently appointed vice president of the BSCNZ board, advises contractors to reach out to clients sooner rather than later.

“We need to be reaching out and communicating with customers. Don’t wait for them to come to you.

“We want them to be trading and surviving because at the end of the day we need to them to survive so we can provide services. We need to make it as seamless for them as possible.

“For those yet to re-open under level three, they need to start thinking about what it will look like when they do re-start under level two or one, and beyond that.

“We also need to remember that some of our customers are business owners themselves and they’re also feeling it personally and professionally, so we can empathise and support them.

“As we come out of this, we’re entering a new world, a new business world, and a new way of living.”

“For businesses that were heavily reliant on one or two core industries this has probably highlighted the vulnerability of their business. But we also need to look beyond this time as those sectors will rebuild.

“People are getting used to a new working world – people are working from home and holding virtual meetings through online platforms like Zoom. Those that were reliant on pre-lockdown ways they need to be having a think and looking at their exposure.

“If some companies continue to work from home to save operating costs – what does that mean for those servicing commercial offices? If there’s less office space being utilised, there is less opportunity for us.

“We need to have a good hard look at the lessons from this to safeguard ourselves moving forward.

“There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there but I think as tragic as this event has been…the opportunities that exist for us as an industry are huge. [COVID-19] has reaffirmed that we are an important service.

“We are privileged to be able to provide our services if our customers are essential services and we shouldn’t take it for granted. We need to open our eyes and ask, where are the opportunities that come from this and we need to grab them.”

This article first appeared in INCLEAN NZ magazine 

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