Requiem for the Cleaners – On So-Called Soft Services

Requiem for the Cleaners – On So-Called Soft Services


May 8, 2021


Mankind has endless capacity for speciation. We simply cannot resist the urge to define one thing without contrasting it with another, and often in a way that is implicitly judgmental. Sometimes explicitly. We do it with race, with religion, with sports, with systems of government – if there’s more than one way to do something, be sure that mankind will find a way to assign a value to each different method that can be compared to the other.

Which is a long-winded way to say that Facilities Management does this as well. In an industry where no two firms follow the same operational framework, you can be sure that they will at least divide their portfolio into Hard and Soft services. Hard services are those that require some degree of certified and advanced training – HVAC, Electrical, Mechanical, Fire and Plumbing are the baseline.

Not So Simple

Soft services have a smack of domesticity about them; cleaners are almost always relegated to this category, as is Reception if it’s part of the portfolio. But then so are Mailroom and Security, so it’s a long bow to draw to assume a gendered bias.

Soft Services are often assigned to a junior portfolio of responsibility. The division of labour between a Facilities Manager (FM) and Facilities Co-ordinator (FC) is rarely consistent from one team to another, but a split along hard and soft lines is relatively common. It’s assumed that soft services, which are assessed as requiring less specialized skill, are somehow easier to manage. Any FM who has had to negotiate a cleaning contract will tell you that the complexity of it makes a routine mechanical preventative maintenance schedule look like first grade homework.

Managing the cleaners themselves may require more skill than managing hard service providers. Cleaners are poorly paid and frequently abused, which makes the industry a target for itinerant workers and students. Getting quality work out of them requires a fair amount of empathy and understanding, but more often than not the pressure is on you, as an FM or FC, to string them out. The profit margins on cleaning contracts are measured in pennies, and at the same time the expectations are extremely high. For a $4bn AUD industry, it’s remarkably diffuse and company implosions are common. If you can find a way to motivate a team into providing stellar, consistent results, you will find that many other problems melt away. A clean and tidy work or residential environment will keep tenants and staff happy, productive and tolerant of bigger problems. Good cleaners are priceless.

Front and Centre

In a country without a gun problem, Security work is almost entirely unarmed and run on similar razor-thin margins to cleaning contracts. The work force is made up largely of young men with little other experience, and often older men who have otherwise not found a place in the modern workforce. The turnover rate isn’t as high as with cleaners, and the pay is marginally better – but opportunities for advancement can be hard to come by, with many firms striking a hard line between operations and management. Still, a good security guard is level-headed, ethical and helpful, and an asset to a facilities team.

A good security professional is aware that even a busy site will come with a high amount of downtime, and that it’s good for everyone to be proactive about using that time wisely. Some FMs will fill in much of that time with housekeeping duties, which isn’t always the best course of action. Cleaners should be focused on cleaning, Security should be focused on their role. Perimeter checks and patrols should be exactly that, and downtime at the desk can be utilized to reconcile access control, familiarize staff with ever-changing software systems, and filing incident reports. Treat security personnel as professionals and you will get professional results.

A Good Attitude

If you’re in a team and you’ve been handed the soft service portfolio, take an opportunity to know your contractors and staff well. Aside from this being good practice with any colleague, it’s also worth noting that cleaners, security and other soft service providers are the true front of house, and know about issues well before they have the opportunity to become a bigger problem. Offer them kindness and respect, and you will find yourself well-informed and in the loop.