Putting people first

06 September 2018

For training and development to be effective in the cleaning industry it needs to start with the company’s leadership and the creation of a more collaborative business culture, says Parag Gogate of the not-for-profit Agile Business Consortium

The cleaning industry is a major contributor to the UK economy (£24bn in 2015 according to the British Cleaning Council’s 2017 industry survey) and employs more than 700,000 people. However it suffers from some well-known problems.

Cleaning is a people business but is often viewed as being a low status occupation of little value. Motivation, retention and skills levels among staff are low while employers have to operate in a highly competitive marketplace with clients frequently appointing their suppliers solely on the basis of who submits the lowest bid.

Understandably, this results in cleaning companies seeking to squeeze costs wherever possible, but in the process they forget about the people who work for them. Contracts are based on outputs that can be counted – even if they may not be the right solution – and staff pressured to deliver as many of these outputs as possible. 

As someone with long experience of hospitality and retail facilities management, I believe the industry – both cleaning providers and client-side buyers – needs to adopt a radical new approach.

Collaborative culture

For the cleaning providers, a command and control approach is not an answer to better productivity. Instead the solution is for leaders to embrace a more collaborative – or agile – culture and to put their people foremost.

Managers need to change their leadership style and to focus on their people and not just controlling a process. In an industry where many of the senior staff have come up through the ranks and never known a different approach, this can be a difficult transition.

But there is clear evidence from companies around the world that adopting a people-centred approach – and an agile culture in particular – leads to better productivity, improved customer satisfaction and greater profitability. 

In many ways, this is not particularly surprising. Empowered people take greater pride in their work and feel more loyalty to their employer. They also work more effectively. For example, research by Bain & Company published in the Harvard Business Review found that if average employees are productive at an index level of 100, then engaged employees produce at 144 – nearly half again as much – and inspired employees score 225 on this scale. 

The Agile Business Consortium has identified nine principles that underpin agile leadership, among them:

  • People require meaning and purpose to make work fulfilling. 
  • Leaders devolve appropriate power and authority – empowering individuals is a necessary skill of the leader as they balance the emerging needs and tensions of the organisation.   
  • Great ideas can come from anywhere in the organisation – people who are close to a problem usually have the best ideas about how to solve it.

(For full details, visit and search for “leadership”.)

The people actually doing the cleaning know best what works for their customers as they are closest to the action. But to do their best they need to be empowered to get on with the job and make changes when needed rather than follow a set routine specified in a contract months before in head office.

Buying behaviour

This also requires a change of business culture on behalf of the client-side buyers. Continually driving down prices is not sustainable. It leads to situations such as the collapse of Carillion, suppliers quitting or clients having to pay more mid-contract to keep their suppliers on board and their premises clean.

Similarly, rigidly expecting service providers to specify fixed outputs for a contract that will last for years will often not deliver the best results. 

Instead, a more collaborative approach may be more appropriate with contracts that recognise a customer’s requirements may change over the course of time – either as new cleaning technology emerges or demand changes – and incorporate the flexibility to react as needed. It means work can be flexed to meet changing priorities, resulting in better value being delivered.