Why wellbeing in FM makes business sense

By Nils J.van der Zijl, VP Sales & Marketing, Softbank Robotics EMEA

Let’s be honest – engaging frontline staff in facilities management was tough, even before COVID-19.

A transient workforce with high rates of churn and absenteeism, along with a hugely diverse talent pool, from different backgrounds and speaking a multitude of languages, makes any effort to drive employee engagement and create a strong workforce culture a real challenge.

In many ways, it’s a chicken and egg scenario. High rates of attrition within frontline staff make it difficult to establish and maintain culture and forge relationships. At the same time, this lack of engagement and feeling of belonging means that workers are far less likely to stay in the job and perform to their potential, a fact borne out by the low eNPS scores for most of these organisations.

This ongoing churn and high levels of absenteeism are driven in part by the strenuous, physical nature of the job and the long and often unsociable hours. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed even more pressure on frontline staff who are now having to manage increased workloads in challenging conditions, leading to additional stress and anxiety.

The result for many contractors is a painful, never-ending (and costly) struggle to recruit and train the people they need to service buildings and meet client SLAs.

The scale of this resourcing problem was highlighted in research that we carried out amongst European FM leaders (both supply and demand side) at the beginning of the pandemic. More than three quarters admitted that attracting and retaining staff is a significant challenge.

Wellbeing now a strategic imperative

Interestingly, the research revealed the extent to which FM leaders recognise the impact that employee wellbeing is having on staff retention rates and in ongoing engagement and productivity within their workforces. 

The COVID pandemic has shone a spotlight on the FM and cleaning industry like never before, with far greater scrutiny on performance levels. This pressure is felt across all parts and at all levels of the industry, but few would argue that the greatest burden is falling on frontline staff. 

So as with many other industries, FM leadership teams are turning their attention to employee wellbeing in a big way during the pandemic, with 85% reporting that improving wellbeing is a top priority for their organisations over the next two years. This really does go beyond the often-used and trite expression that ‘our employees are our greatest asset’.

Employee wellbeing is no longer seen as the preserve of the HR department, a nice-to-have or tick-box exercise. It has become a business-critical strategic priority for businesses who recognise the cost and impact of physical and mental health issues within their workforce, and the benefits of having a healthy, engaged and motivated workforce for overall productivity levels and profit.

The Wellbeing challenge in FM

How FM leaders address wellbeing is of course complex. There is no getting away from the fact that cleaning is a physical job, which puts repetitive strain on the body, and that it involves long shifts at unsociable times. At the current time, it also involves staff working in challenging conditions, with question marks around the safety of the buildings and teams in which they operate.

Almost three quarters of FM leaders in our survey admitted that enhancing employee wellbeing is a challenge and 89% recognised that the repetitive and manual nature of cleaning work compromises wellbeing.

Employer strategies need to cover physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and there is no one-size fits all approach which works across every geography, team or for each individual team member. 

There are no easy answers but what FM leaders can do is look to create an optimal working environment for their cleaning staff and provide them with support, tools and technologies to make their working lives easier. 

Using cobotics to ease workload and reduce repetitive strain

A good example of where employers can take steps to improve wellbeing is the introduction of cobotics into cleaning operations. Cobots are collaborative robots which work alongside frontline teams, taking over repetitive and strenuous tasks and freeing up people to do more varied and physically less demanding work.

Whiz, our cobotic vacuum sweeper, vacuums large areas of floor space (to a higher level of performance and consistency than manual approaches) meaning that cleaning teams don’t have to spend a large proportion of their shifts operating heavy and awkward machinery. Instead they can focus on higher value tasks, such as the sanitisation of hard surfaces and high-traffic touchpoints (lift buttons, door handles, hand rails etc) which is critical to stopping transmission of COVID-19.

The feedback from our customers is that frontline staff are overwhelmingly positive about the introduction of cobots into their teams and treat them as co-workers. Not only are they pleased to not have to do so much physically challenging work, they’re happy to be spending more time on more rewarding and fulfilling tasks. So cobotics is not only having a benefit in terms of physical wellbeing, it’s also helping with their mental health.

There is also another benefit of cobotics in terms of employee wellbeing, one that we had perhaps underestimated prior to the launch of Whiz. Cleaning teams are genuinely excited about working alongside cobots and interacting with such cutting-edge technology. They are developing new skills and gaining a greater understanding of AI and robotics. And they feel that they are working in an innovative and forward-thinking environment, where technology is being applied, not just to drive efficiency and performance, but to support themselves in their everyday working lives.

We’re hearing this feedback across the board, across all markets in the EMEA region and in all building environments, from office space and retail, through to airports and hotels. Have a watch of this video as an example, from the Steam Hotel in Sweden.

Of course, cobotics is just one piece of the wellbeing puzzle. Employers need to develop holistic plans to address all aspects of wellbeing in the workplace and beyond. However, FM leaders are already recognising the potential benefits, with 78% predicting that the introduction of cobotics into their cleaning operations will improve staff engagement and free workers up to focus on more varied work.

As we head into winter and the second spike of the pandemic gathers pace, FM and cleaning will continue to play a vital role in preventing the spread of the virus and protecting the end users of commercial buildings. This means heightened workloads and greater pressure on frontline staff.

It’s now up to everyone in our industry to look after these unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’d be more than happy to talk to FM and cleaning companies about how cobotics can help.


Find out more about how cobotics can enhance engagement and wellbeing in your cleaning teams in the Cobotic Evolution Report – available to download here.   

If you would like to learn more about cobotics and hear how Whiz could support your frontline staff, whilst improving performance and productivity, please contact us here.

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