On January 2, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first U.S. case of coronavirus in Washington state. Fast forward to the present and we are well into a full-blown pandemic. This is a pandemic, no doubt, but the more important question has become, is this the “new normal” for the next three to five years? If it is, then what we’ve accomplished in the past 19-plus months just highlights the resolve of our industry.
How did we get from there to here? It started with, “two weeks to slow the spread.” That phrase triggered a paradigm shift in the facility services industry. What had historically been viewed as a commoditized service offering, quickly became the focal point of every “Return to Work” business continuity plan. Like Operation Warp Speed, which fast-tracked safe, effective vaccines to the masses, the facility services industry had to fast-track solutions to ensure our client’s business continuity plans were effectively executed.
Given everything we’ve learned so far, what makes an effective, yet flexible return to work plan? Here are five key elements to consider.
Every client must calculate their strategy for a return to work, yet outside influences may deter their plans; be flexible.
Countless hours went into the development of the C&W Services ‘Return to Work’ playbooks. These guidelines were developed in a way that could easily be amended with the changing CDC and FDA guidelines.
These playbooks were then shared with our clients and in most instances customized to meet each site’s specific needs. As the guidelines evolved, the playbooks evolved. Controls were put in place to ensure consistency across each client portfolio.
As we’ve seen over the latter part of the summer and heading into a new school year, there have been instances of increased COVID-19e cases. There have been cases of infection among people that have been fully vaccinated and those that are still unvaccinated.
These are all factors clients must account for when anticipating their return-to-work strategies. As building services contractors, we must remain flexible, but also provide guidance and transparency during these challenging times.
A great example of transparency is communicating to our clients the impact COVID-19 has had on the labor market. Across the U.S., labor shortages have challenged everyone in the service industry.
We’ve seen an unprecedented uptick in service providers offering incentives like sign-on bonuses and increased pay to attract qualified talent. Shifts in pay practices should be communicated to our industry clients because that’s what the market is dictating. That’s the level of transparency our clients should expect.
Provide peace of mind
In late May of this year, our service innovation a optimization team (SIOT) was invited as a virtual guest speaker to provide an overview of our return-to-campus playbook, as well as our contracted custodial program to more than 100 faculty and staff to one of our higher education clients. What started as a high-level overview of our cleaning program, quickly morphed into a live demo of our quality assurance program, and more specifically, the data that had been captured during the weeks and days leading up to our seminar.
What fascinated the audience most was that we were able to share with them the ‘live’ quality assurance data for their campus, first at a ten-thousand- foot view, and then with a few clicks of a mouse, filter down to a micro-view of specific classrooms and labs. The university’s faculty were completely immersed in the data, photos, and feedback from the platform’s dashboard.
The consensus was that they were unaware of the level of cleaning, disinfecting, and verification of our services that were taking place seven days a week across their multiple campuses. This demonstration allowed the faculty to get a peek behind the curtain. The audience was able to hear about the level of detail that goes into customizing a cleaning/disinfecting plan for a campus and our team was able to highlight the level of scrutiny that goes into the ongoing verification and show that the work has been completed at a satisfactory level.
While reporting out our weekly quality assurance scores to an entire university’s faculty isn’t the norm, we do share that level of detail with our facilities’ clients every month. And to that point, we’re confident that’s the level of reassurance and peace of mind our clients should expect.
Build-in contingencies and mitigations
It’s safe to say COVID-19 caught everyone a bit off guard. Every building services contractor scrambled to buy gloves, masks, disinfectants, electrostatic sprayers, foggers, hand sanitizer, and that list goes on.
That was then and this is now, where every building services contractor should have a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment (PPE); U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-approved disinfectants, and well-maintained equipment.
At C&W Services, we take our planning a step further and work with our suppliers to ensure we’re receiving monthly forecasts on chemicals and consumables. This prevents us from overspending on essential supplies but also helps us mitigate any future supply chain disruptions. We also maintain an open line of communication with our executive leadership team and provide them with a running inventory of all essential supplies and equipment that’s available across the enterprise. This inventory can be shipped from one region to another within 24 hours to ensure zero service disruptions.
Communicate and leverage resources
Communication is the key to any successful return-to-work plan. Pre-pandemic, we met face-to-face, now it’s through Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Those communications channels are always open to our management teams and clients.
It’s how we partner with our clients and their internal stakeholders like Human Resources that highlights the real value. From a client perspective, they have to provide peace of mind to their returning workforce and potential guests. That’s a workforce and guest pool that for the last year, has primarily worked from home. Depending on geographic region, those same individuals may have been on restrictive travel or have been taking extra precautions to avoid large public gatherings. Now, these same people will be returning to familiar spaces, but there will be apprehension.
Providing reassurance is key. Joint communications and a marketing plan will demonstrate a level of reassurance. Highlighting cleaning schedules for restrooms and common areas and using digital signage and posters to explain safety protocols will also demonstrate an added level of reassurance. Additionally, ensure the custodial teams are wearing high-visible shirts or vests so they’re being seen cleaning and sanitizing.
Be the expert, but know your organization’s limitations
We’re cleaning industry experts, we’re experts in engineering and maintenance, but we also know our limits. Early into the pandemic, we leveraged our industry expertise and applied ‘health care best practices,’ into non-traditional spaces like retail, finance, commercial office, higher education, manufacturing, and the transportation industry. This was to ensure we were providing our clients with the safest environments in which to work. High-touch disinfecting/sanitizing; deployment of UV-C technology; incorporating MERV-13 air filters into HVAC systems and most importantly, training our teams in the field are all tasks we’re used to doing. But what happens when the industry gets inundated with products that one would perceive as ‘snake oil?’
Around mid-2020, many of our clients were fielding calls and emails from companies offering products that were not on the EPA List-N but had robust marketing plans, and in some instances, exaggerated ‘kill claims’ against COVID-19. At that time, everyone was looking for the silver bullet to prevent cross-contamination.
As responsible service providers, our job is to advise and educate our clients on the best solutions for their properties. To better understand these “new” products being introduced to the markets, we collaborated with independent certified industrial hygienists (CIH). We supplied the products and described the environments in which these products could potentially be applied, and in turn, the CIH conducted efficacy studies, interviewed the product manufacturers, and reviewed lab and field data for each product. We collaborated on the potential pros and cons of each product and finally, their applicability to our client’s workspaces. Months of investment and research went into this study. From this study, we educated our operators, provided cost-effective alternatives to our clients, and shared this research with the industry through ISSA, the standard-bearer for the cleaning industry. Additionally, we published a comprehensive whitepaper and recorded a podcast where we interviewed a CIH on the subject. We didn’t have to share our research, but we did because we’re in a pandemic, and we’re all in this together.
As you can see, it takes a collective effort from an organization to develop an effective return-to-work plan. It also takes open lines of communication and planning with our suppliers, subcontractors, and clients to execute those plans.
Original Article written by George Schmidt
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