A New Frontier for Commercial Cleaning

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our lives. It has had a profound impact on the global economy as well as, truthfully, our mental health in ways that we’re just beginning to discover. A lot of businesses have been hit by the epidemic. On the other hand, a few have prospered due to it. However, many are facing the shakeup of their industry and a chance to rethink and reinvent their businesses and markets.

More than most industries, the US$60 billion industry of commercial cleaning is going through some of these shakeups and is putting the spotlight on cleaning’s function as an essential element of the infrastructure and economic backbone of the world economy. While the commercial cleaning industry has encountered challenges in the last 18 months of the pandemic but it has also been offered a chance to determine its own future in a way that has never been before in its past.

I’d like to introduce myself. I run an agency for digital marketing that specializes in commercial and facilities maintenance clients. While I was watching the pandemic develop into a world-changing event, nobody anticipated, I was eager to know what it meant for the clients I serve and what ways to assist them in their efforts to flourish and grow in a post-pandemic environment.

I’ve read a few reports discussing a possible boom within the cleaning business. However, I wanted to get to the root, behind the scenes, and hear direct from cleaning firms the impact of COVID-19 on their business. I wanted to hear what their views are regarding the future of their cleaning industry.

I must say that I was genuinely amazed and awed by the honesty, passion, and openness of the professionals in the field I met, as well as the genuine spirit of collaboration, solidarity, and adaptability in the field. After this experience, I’m more proud than ever before to be part of the commercial cleaning industry.

To conduct this study, from September 2021 to September 2021, I surveyed more than 100 commercial cleaning firms from more than a dozen countries spread all over five continents. In the course of my research, I conducted Zoom interviews with over 20 companies, with sizes ranging from small mom-and-pop businesses that employ less than five people to large multinational companies as well as franchises that operate in multiple countries. I gained many things.

The impact

The experience was similar to being drafted to join an elite bomb disposal team without notice. Then, in March of 2020, cleaning teams were forced out of their roles as a silent, solitary service in the background to the risky role of front-line employees — almost instantly.

In the same way that Martin Nyokolodi, owner of Mbuti Solutions in South Africa, I was able to hear him say over an internet connection that was sporadic, “We were like front-line workers. We were attempting at saving lives. But at the end each day we could be put our own lives at risk.”

Rocky Ramon, owner of Clean Advocate in Austin, Texas, spoke to him about the same experience but with a positive outlook. “COVID focused on the front-line workers and what they do. The focus was on cleaning up the building to making sure that the people were secure. Also, it strengthened our relationships with our clients because we faced a challenge together.”

With immense power comes an enormous responsibility, and people aren’t always willing to take on the challenge of danger. I had a very honest chat about this with John Ezzo, CEO of New Image Building Services Inc. from Detroit, Michigan. He explained how the situation had a direct impact on his business. “We had this difficult labor situation, and we were having to pay more and more money to hire people, because the perception was ‘I’m taking a risk to do this work.’ While everyone was afraid and told to stay home and work remotely, if possible, if you were an essential worker, you basically had no choice and were putting yourself at risk.”

Ezzo continued to explain, “What was once considered unobtrusive to have cleaners in the office throughout the day has become normal, and has created new challenges in the recruitment of labor beyond the risk aspect. An employee who is a daytime contact who is part of a client staff member is a different kind of recruitment as compared to someone who works at night and only emptys the trash, vacuums, mop and cleans bathrooms. This is why we’re currently facing the most challenging job-seeking situation I’ve experienced in more than 30 years.”

While a few cleaning companies were facing hiring challenges, however, other companies were facing issues that were on the flip side of the coin. Michael Doherty, president of Building Maintenance Service (BMS) located in New York, shared with me that BMS employed more than 3,000 people by the end of 2019. However, they were forced to lay off around 1,000 employees, or about three-quarters of their workforce, during the early stages of the outbreak. For a $40 million business that’s unlikely to go anytime very soon, it’s an incredibly devastating blow. It’s important to note that at the time we spoke to them, approximately 60% of BMS employees were back at the company.

The lockdown brought business to a standstill which left buildings void of employees and customers. Many commercial cleaning firms have also felt the severe effect on their profits. In an interview I conducted with Annie Ray, marketing coordinator at the Buildingstars headquarters, which is a national organization situated in St Louis, Missouri, she explained, “Our recurring cleaning services decreased due to offices closing. Customers were cancelling their contracts with us and telling us that they didn’t have any people entering the office, therefore there’s no need to maintain this place.'”

The epidemic, however, has also caused deaths of the most lasting type, putting certain cleaning firms completely out of their business. Joe Fairley, director of business development at Laser Facility Management, headquartered in Florida, spoke to him about, “There was a giant change within the cleaning industry market around six to eight months after the outbreak. Many companies in the retail and other areas were shutting down, and many facilities service businesses were heavily leveraging customers who were going out of business. So, the facilities service businesses began to beginning to fail too.”

The results of the survey

What were the main questions asked in the survey? The survey asked only eight questions about COVID-19’s impact on revenue as well as customer base, changes in the services provided, as well as marketing budgets and strategies that have changed. As I said ,close to 100 commercial cleaning companies took part in the survey, so let’s dive deep…

Do you view COVID-19 as an obstacle, opportunity, or a barrier to growing your company?

“I am very confident about our industry and the way we reacted. Our industry, based on my experience was very responsive. I’m not sure anyone would have been ready for what we’ve been through. The possibility that we’re all going through the same thing at exactly the at the same time hasn’t ever been seen before.” added Glen Harris, owner of Harris Services in Bloomington, Indiana.

The majority of companies that participated in this study consider COVID-19 as a chance. There were, however, challenges, ranging from a dip in revenue and business to issues with hiring and supply chain issues triggered by the growing demand for disinfection and decontamination.


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