Don’t Let Fear Dictate Your Building’s Cleaning Budget

As people begin to trickle back into offices throughout the country, they want to know the spaces they inhabit have been thoroughly disinfected and cleaned. This seems simple enough. Property managers and cleaning staff need to implement more thorough cleaning practices, especially in regards to high touch surfaces and high traffic areas, right? But the reality of executing this increased level of cleaning using the same resources available pre-COVID is not as simple as it sounds. These increased cleanings need to be communicated to tenants through multiple channels, but is all of this communication leading to unnecessary cleaning or cleaning hype?

Interestingly, communication seems to be at least half of the battle in trying to make sure tenants feel comfortable returning to the office. Signage, newsletters, email blasts and other types of communication platforms have all been a part of properties’ reopening strategies. Telling tenants what you’ve cleaned, when you’ve cleaned it, and how you’ve cleaned it has become a regular part of property managers’ jobs. Communicating cleaning protocols has become so commonplace that it has people questioning if all of this cleaning is actually necessary, or if it is simply done in excess to act as a security blanket in a society that is largely becoming germaphobic (with good reason). 

A recent article from The Atlantic describes how New York City is on target to spend more than $100 million a year on “power scrubbing” subway cars despite declines in ticket sales causing the transit authority to consider layoffs. The article’s author sites other instances of what he dubs, “hygiene theater,” which is defined as overzealous cleaning practices that provide a false sense of security, namely, because the COVID-19 virus is spread most commonly through infectious aerosols rather than through surfaces, according to the most recent research from the CDC. The term hygiene theater could have been subliminally derived from a 2010 article (also published by The Atlantic) that described the obsessive security practices of the TSA when terrorism was the most prominent topic of concern. Now, germs have replaced terrorists as public enemy number one.  

It’s fair to say that Americans became obsessed with security after 9/11. All levels of government dedicated more time and resources to public safety and security. Task forces were created. Contracts were issued. Whether or not these measures produced the intended results (of actually making anyone safer) is debatable, but this is certain: The security industry benefited from growth just as the cleaning industry will now. The takeaway here is that we shouldn’t be cleaning things as a production just to make people think they are safe. This benefits no one and it is a waste of resources. Instead, cleaning ought to be targeted and based on scientific facts.  

For commercial properties, people will undoubtedly feel safer returning to a place that is regularly disinfected, but how much cleaning is actually required? Office spaces are now utilized differently because of distributed workforces. Not everyone is returning to the office at the same time. This adds another layer of complexity to the issue because some rooms or parts of a building may remain unused indefinitely. In a recent Propmodo webinar about data-driven cleaning during the COVID era, our editor spoke with Tom Jackson, the COO of Microshare, a technology company that specializes in IoT and sensor based technologies. Recently, Microshare created a cleaning assessment tool to help property managers determine how to redistribute or allocate their existing cleaning resources to meet the new (or changing) cleaning demands. 

According to Jackson, lower on-site staffing levels means that there is less used space throughout a property, hence less cleaning overall but more cleaning of areas that are used. “Historically, people had resources allocated largely based on fixed schedules and with a spatial orientation, in other words, ‘how much square footage of space do we need to cover?’” said Jackson. Now, cleaning schedules will need to take into account where the building is and the ordinances it must follow in addition to square footage. “Resources have shifted from off hours and nightly cleanings to a need for cleaning resources during the day and more frequently throughout the day,” he explained. Having cleaning staff operational throughout the day will also increase visibility for tenants, making them feel safer.

In general, Jackson explained, a property would typically be cleaned assuming an 80 to 100 percent building utilization rate, but properties were actually only operating at a 60 to 65 percent utilization rate. Essentially, this means that we’ve been consistently overcleaning or cleaning spaces that were not being used. Now, even less of the building is being utilized, but the spaces that are used must be cleaned more frequently and during different hours to accommodate changing shift times that have been a large part of most companies’ return to work plans. Jackson explained that Microshare’s clients were assuming that the new, incremental cleaning protocols would need to be done on top of existing cleaning requirements. That assumption would call for increased cleaning budgets, too.  

However, increasing budgets doesn’t make sense when occupancy (and for many companies revenue) is most likely down. The goal is to avoid hygiene theater while still making sure cleaning requirements are met. So how much cleaning is really needed for spaces that aren’t being utilized? The answer is probably close to none. If no one is going in that space, it can be cleaned as infrequently as needed to meet basic maintenance needs. Instead, the resources that would have been allocated to for these underutilized spaces can now be restructured to meet the increased needs elsewhere. If anything, cleaning budgets for properties operating at 25 or even 50 percent occupancy could probably be reduced while still thoroughly meeting new cleaning requirements.

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