How to embed cobotics into your cleaning teams

The cobotic opportunity in commercial cleaning

By Stefano Bensi, General Manager, Softbank Robotics EMEA

Faced with increasingly tight margins and growing pressure from clients to improve performance, business leaders within commercial cleaning and facilities management are looking for innovative solutions to drive efficiencies and remain competitive.

In response to these challenges, the industry will see a major shift towards cobotics over the coming years, as a way to streamline operations, manage costs and meet heightened client expectations. 

Cobotics is the collaboration between workers and machines or robots. Cobots are collaborative robots which carry out repetitive or strenuous tasks which would otherwise be performed by a cleaners, but they work alongside individuals and within a team, not in their place. Cobots are instructed and managed by people on the ground and are there to support workers.

Cobots: A commercial reality 

Already, we’re seeing the benefits that cobots can deliver within cleaning teams. Whiz, Europe’s first industrial autonomous vacuum sweeper and the industry’s first genuine cobot, is being successfully deployed within a number of innovation-led businesses across the EMEA region, including ISS and Sodexo. Whiz is a simple to use and reliable self-driving cleaning solution designed for soft-surface vacuuming, which works alongside cleaning teams, taking over the ‘grunt work’ of vacuuming large areas of flooring and freeing up workers to focus on other tasks.

Across the board, organisations that are deploying Whiz within their operations are reporting game-changing results, with increased efficiencies, significant improvements in overall cleaning performance and client satisfaction, as well as extremely positive feedback from cleaning staff. (proof needed if possible) 

Indeed, cobots such as Whiz are not only good for cleaning businesses; they also bring real benefits to cleaning teams. They liberate cleaners from repetitive and physically strenuous tasks such as vacuuming, and allow them to focus on more varied and fulfilling tasks, where individuals can more easily see the impact of their work. The introduction of cobots into cleaning teams also allows individuals to interact with and manage cutting edge technology, and to develop new skills and knowledge around AI and automation, skills which will help them throughout their careers. 

In this way, cobotics has the potential to boost engagement amongst cleaning staff, improve health and wellbeing and, ultimately, to increase employee retention rates. This is transformational in an industry which is now battling attrition rates of around 200% and where absenteeism averages around the 25% mark. Cobotics can also be used to attract new talent, particularly younger generations of workers who are eager to work in more innovative environments.

A strategic approach to integrating cobotics into cleaning operations

Clearly, cobotics represents a massive opportunity for the commercial cleaning and FM industries.

However, it’s important that business leaders ensure they have the right strategies and plans in place when starting out on their cobotics journey. It’s not as simple as leasing some cobots and handing them to janitorial staff (cobotic partners offer contractors an innovative leasing model which eliminates the need for high capital expenditure).

A recent article in Harvard Business Review cited two main reasons why digital transformation programmes often fail within any industry: firstly, an ‘unspoken disagreement among top managers about goals’ for new technologies, and secondly, ‘a divide between the digital capabilities supporting the pilot and the capabilities available to support scaling it’. 

As with any innovation-driven project, it’s important develop a clear vision for how cobotics will be deployed within their operations now and in the future, and that they then create an environment in which both cobots and people can perform in an optimal way. That means ensuring that workers have the right skills and knowledge within the business and creating a level of understanding across the workforce so that staff are not frightened or resistant to change and are instead ready to learn and work alongside new technologies. 

This is particularly important where automation and cobotics are concerned. Given media stories of AI taking millions of people’s jobs, it’s likely that some cleaning staff would be concerned about the implications of autonomous machines being brought into an organisation. Indeed, those that have been in the cleaning industry for some time will likely be able to think of previous attempts to bring new (and costly) innovations into their operations which have failed because janitorial staff have refused to use new devices and solutions, or not been trained properly to do so. 

Developing cobotic skills and culture

Therefore, it’s vital that business leaders develop clear and tangible plans to communicate with all staff around the introduction of cobotics and explain the benefits, both to the business itself and also to their own working lives. This is where contractors and FM providers should be looking for support from their innovation partners to create campaigns which resonate with cleaning staff on the ground and get them feeling positive and excited about cobots. This could be through handbooks, posters, videos or workshops.

Alongside this, business leaders should also ensure that cleaning teams are taught the skills they need to operate cobots. By their very nature, cobots such as Whiz are extremely easy to train and manage, but employers still need to make sure that cleaning staff have a good grasp of how to operate the machines, as well as easy access to technical help should they need it. Again, this could be through face-to-face training sessions or easy to follow instructional videos. 

What is absolutely critical is to create a positive ‘cobotic culture’, where workers understand the role of cobots, see how their own role will evolve in the future, and are eager to embrace change.

Embracing new operational and business models

With cobots taking on time-consuming tasks such as vacuuming, managerial staff need to re-think how they assign work within their cleaning teams. Cobots enable contractors and FM companies to review their team structures and re-define how they service buildings. This can be everything from how they re-deploy an individual cleaner who was previously tasked with vacuuming, right up to how they are able to structure and present their bids and proposals for new contracts. Cobotics can transform business models and empower contractors to offer more efficient and innovation-based propositions to clients.

Cobotics also introduces new commercial and leasing models into the commercial cleaning sector. Whereas the established method for procuring new machinery involved having to commit to large capital expenditure up front, with little certainty of life-span or long-term value, contractors can deploy cobots on a monthly leasing model. They can effectively enjoy ‘innovation as a service’, accessing the very latest technologies on a totally flexible and scalable basis, through a fixed monthly cost. 

Cobotics will bring about vast improvements to the way that the cleaning and FM industries approach innovation but, once again, it is vital that leaders put in plans the right structures and skills to ensure a smooth transition to these new cobot-inspired business models. 

As the race for innovation within cleaning gathers pace, cobotics presents an unprecedented opportunity for the sector to accelerate its transformation and meet the rapidly changing expectations and demands of clients and end users. These are genuinely exciting times with massive changes on the horizon; if contractors can develop strategies to introduce cobots into their cleaning workforce in a structured and sensitive way, then they really can steal a march on the competition and drive growth in the coming years.

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