As more and more of the business world became interested in technology, a new term emerged. Seemingly all at once, the business people started to describe the bundle of digital tools that they were using as their “tech stack.” Personally, I always liked the term. It implies that a conglomeration of smaller pieces of technology can be built on top of each other to create something that is more than the sum of its whole. It also gives a sense of instability; what can be stacked can also topple. Once you have designed a tech stack, you realize that it is very much an unstable Jenga tower of platforms that can all come crashing down at once if not balanced properly.
A company’s technology is one of the most important parts of its organizational intelligence. But part of me wishes that we would give the same kind of reverence (of which that bespoke jargon implies) to the people that service an organization. For almost any business model, vendors can be the difference between success and failure. They are particularly important when it comes to the business of buildings, which need to be constantly cleaned, maintained, and repaired. Even still, vendors, like cleaners and maintenance workers, were always seen as a bit of a commodity. These “low-skill” roles never seemed to merit the same amount of attention that technology solutions now do.
Then COVID-19 struck, and our world went into freefall. We all simultaneously learned what it means to be essential. These same commoditized laborers—the cleaner, the maintenance worker, the landscaper, the security guard—suddenly became a precious resource. While many of us were able to move our desk to our homes, site workers became front line soldiers for the pandemic. Every cleaner willing to work became a hero. Every plumber, a lifesaver. Every security guard, a knight in shining armor. And who could blame those that didn’t want to work? Putting your health at risk for an unfulfilling, mostly thankless job seems Dickensian, but the pandemic has shown the world that this reality is not just a relic of the industrial revolution. It exists, and we are witnessing it every day.
The value of a trusted service provider has become painfully obvious to most building management. Sure, some of these tasks might be low skill, but when they need to get done in order for a building to keep its occupants safe and comfortable, their importance outweighs their difficulty. Much like technology, any time you bring on a new vendor, there is risk involved. Just as a newly implemented technology might crash, a vendor can simply not show up, or worse. Without any specific language in a contract, anyone working for you becomes your agent by law, so their actions are your liability. Sure, sitting on hold to talk to customer support at a tech company is painful, but I would choose that over going to small claims court any day.
When disaster strikes, as it has in the past few months, finding reliable vendors becomes much harder. This gets exacerbated by the fact that many building managers are unwilling to share their preferred vendors, lest they be wooed by others. I talked with Omri Stern, CEO of Jones, a liability management platform. He told me, “Working with reliable vendors is an urgent priority. Properties need to think of past vendors as a commodity and focus on building trusted relationships with them.” Trusting a vendor has everything to do with liability. Unreliable vendors not showing up can expose property companies to a good deal of risk. Unattentive or unscrupulous vendors can expose them to an amount that’s catastrophic.
To help alleviate this problem Stern and his team released a comprehensive list of vendors in the city, helping every building that needs qualified, available vendors find them. Hopefully, this spirit of sharing and openness when it comes to vendors will extend past the pandemic. Having shared resources not only helps building owners work with the most reputable service providers, it incentivizes good performance by rewarding those with good track records.
Eden is a workplace platform that has been able to create a local vendor marketplace in every major city in the U.S. They have seen a huge spike in demand for things like cleaning and have worked hard to create a “Yelp-like environment” to help their clients find the best companies for almost every type of job. Up until now, there was nothing like this. “It is hard to think of a category that has worse information,” says Joe Du Bey, CEO of Eden. He thinks that the pandemic will create a demand for transparency not just from building managers, but from tenants themselves. “People increasingly want to know where their consumer products are from, where they were made, and what kinds of sustainable or socially responsible practices were used in making them. Why shouldn’t this extend to buildings?”
Facilities teams and building operations crews were always supposed to be like magic elves, omnipresent yet hidden from sight. Buildings would go out of their way to hide workers behind partitions or only schedule cleaning when there was almost no one around to be disturbed by it. Now, not only do we not mind seeing this work taking place, we are bolstered by it. The next step will be not only wanting to know when a room was cleaned, but also who it was cleaned by, what certifications they have, and what cleaning products they used.
By bringing our buildings’ vendors and support staff out of the storage closets and into our consciousness, we might just humanize them and come to appreciate the value they bring. We all now realize that forcing our workforce to commute into our city centers, oftentimes at the mercy of mass transit, can create costly, even dangerous gaps in service. Yet still the term “workforce housing” is mostly pejorative, nowhere near as cool as “vendor stack.” If we want to have better-run buildings and more equality in our cities, we need to remember these scary past few months and the heroes that risked their own safety to help us get through it.