Speakers at the BCC conference in London on 6th November covered a number of important issues including sustainability, technology and diversity to illustrate how the cleaning industry is adapting to better face the future.
Stephen Kerr, regional sales leader UK Benelux and Nordic at Kimberly-Clark Professional, said the conference was neatly timed in light of the recent publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission's report, which called attention to the negative experiences of a small number of people within the industry. "It's the right time to move up a gear when 'talking up' the cleaning industry and to see ourselves as others see us," he said. "We must own our problem to see what countermeasures the industry must take."
He explained that corporate social responsibility is the order of the day, in business and society, and we have a duty to encourage a positive impact on the environment and stakeholders, including consumers, employees, investors and communities. With the Ebola virus making infection prevention and control a top global news story, it is critical that we draw on our expertise to offer support sooner rather than later.
"Corporate Social Responsibility is at the heart of every sustainability programme" and "social media is driving the public conscious of sustainability – we ignore it at our peril", Kerr said, explaining that Kimberly-Clark Professional is supporting UNICEF to help prevent the spread of Ebola.
As well as changing others' perceptions of the cleaning industry, we need to change our own perceptions of ourselves and the direction of our businesses, Kerr argued. "Our industry has become saturated with undifferentiated products competing on price in the 'race to zero'."
But if an organisation's culture doesn't change, the result will stay the same. 'Culture' – the beliefs of people in the business – is shaped by new experiences. One new experience implemented by Kimberly-Clark Professional is to change the conversation it has with its customers. This has helped it to gain new insights and provide solutions that bring added value to customers, taking the company out of the 'race to zero'. The Healthy Workplace Project, for example, is a new wellness programme to educate and motivate employees to prevent the spread of germs, and in turn increase employee engagement, reduce absenteeism and increase productivity.
Brave new world
Another speaker to look at the industry's challenges was Mitie Group CEO Ruby McGregor-Smith, CBE. She explained that the facilities management industry, including cleaning, faces huge pressure to constantly innovate and create better efficiencies.
"The technological change we're witnessing across the industry is the biggest challenge as well as the biggest opportunity for growing business," she said. Today, technology is used in business for many purposes from paying and tracking employees to providing data for clients. This change has been relatively fast – eight years ago no smartphones were used within Mitie, and today its workforce uses 3,000. "To do that in a low-margin industry with mass pressure on wages is a huge challenge, but you've got to embrace it and train people on it," McGregor-Smith said.
Another big change over the past decade is how corporate businesses can reduce their energy use to become more sustainable. McGregor-Smith said: "It's important to remember that the individual cleaners we employ have a big impact on sustainability in terms of how they work – how they heat the water, how they use chemicals. Even how many hours they work in the day or evening can affect energy spend in buildings."
A challenge faced by all industries, and one which needs far more work, is the promotion of diversity in the workplace, according to McGregor-Smith. While she doesn't believe in quotas, she does believe in aspirational targets. "Gender, race, age and disability massively impact the workplace in terms of perception because these are things you see when you walk through the door and these are the biggest areas of discrimination still in the workplace. I find that companies that are really brave on those areas have the best talent and the most committed people working for them to help them grow their business."
McGregor-Smith underlined the importance of corporate social responsibility as well as encouraging business leaders to give up an hour of their time to talk to local school children about the world of work, or to take part in schemes that help disadvantaged children and ex-offenders into work.
Flying in the face of convention
Tony Anderson, former sales and marketing director for easyJet, provided amusing anecdotes on taking the easy brand into new business areas and the rewards that can be won by companies that are brave enough to take the lead.
Launched in 1995, easyJet was one of the first low-cost airlines to sell flights directly to the customer and, in doing so, take on the big airlines, Anderson explained. At the time, many people believed that its low ticket prices were unsustainable and the company would go bust in three months. Instead, easyJet helped usher in a new era in the airline industry where extras such as baggage allowance, insurance and car hire replaced tickets as the main income.
Today, easyJet airlines is an established success story, carrying more passengers than British Airways, and has been helped by its decision to take the business online and confrontational marketing. The easyGroup holding company also has several smaller businesses including a chain of hotels and gyms, but there is a cautionary tale. While the popular business catchphrase 'change or die' holds true, too much change too fast can prove costly.
Anderson explained that the launch of broadband destroyed the business model for easyGroup's quickly expanded chain of giant internet cafes overnight, making a loss of £150 million. However, he added: "You learn more from things that go badly than from what goes well."
For the cleaning industry, it would seem the time is right to embrace change and grasp the future with both hands. Adapting to new technology, new working methods and the new social environment is vital if we are to keep our industry competitive and demonstrate its value to the world.