Engage Your Green Cleaning Staff with a System of Connection

In a new series of blogs, we’re highlighting inspiring stories about the ways that schools and universities across the country are using engagement to strengthen their green cleaning and environmental initiatives. We recently talked to Leadership Council member and staff engagement advocate Gene Woodard, director of the building services department at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle about the unique ways he is engaging his staff around his award-winning green cleaning program.

More than 50 percent of U.S. employees are not engaged in their jobs, according to a 2016 Gallup poll. And for those who work in the cleaning and maintenance field, that number can be much higher due to high turnover and lower pay. Unengaged employees are the ones who complain often, don’t show up on time and resist change. Sound familiar? When it comes to green cleaning, an engaged staff can mean the difference between a program that makes a positive impact and one that fails to inspire change.

As a manager of your facility, you have the power to overcome the challenges of an unengaged staff. Many leaders in the field have found systematic, creative ways to build up their staff members’ sense of worth, increase productivity, and create more buy-in around their green initiatives. Gene Woodard and his team at UW have a model system of engagement that may inspire you to come up with a new system of connection in your own program.

Connection is Crucial

The custodial staff at UW is divided into 30 teams of custodians who work in the same buildings, share the same shifts and have the same goals. Woodard and his management team makes sure to meet with each team regularly to connect, emphasize an environment of encouragement and show staff that they are listening.

“From the very beginning, we ask all new teams the same questions,” says Woodard. “Why do you come to work? If you had a good day, what are the things that made that day good? How can we make them happen more often? If you had a bad day or felt frustrated, how can we identify and resolve those things?”

At each team’s first meeting, they create their own first draft of what their goals are as a team. “Usually it falls into doing quality work, customer service, not getting any complaints, working as a team,” says Woodard. “We start writing that out and then we talk about their challenges. We list the challenges they come up with and put it all on a board, using post-it notes so it’s visible for everybody.”

When a new 22-floor building opened up on campus, teams were met with a slew of challenges that made cleaning the building efficiently difficult at first. The building’s team created their own system to overcome these challenges based on their own experiences. “They knew which restrooms were busiest that needed to be cleaned at certain times, which floors needed to be vacuumed daily while others could skip a day, and how much time was wasted waiting for elevators,” says Woodard. It took them four different times, but they eventually came up with a system that has resulted in no complaints from building occupants.

A System for Engagement

At UW, teams meet daily for five to 10 minutes and monthly for longer periods to dive deeper into strategies and goals. All goals are tracked on whiteboards with a color-coded post-it note system. Managers rotate to meet with each team once every five weeks, and progress toward goals is visually tracked. Successes are rewarded with lunch parties.

“To me, the most important part of engagement is having a system that is repeatable, ongoing and helps people understand their expectations,” says Woodard. “We want them to generate ideas to help overcome all challenges they have in the workplace.”

Recognition should be a key element of any engagement system, especially in the custodial field where outside acknowledgment may be hard to come by. “People really enjoy it when you are focused on them and the time you spend on your team members without being distracted,” says Woodard.

He uses parties to reward teams who meet their goals. These goals could be going a set amount of time without having any complaints, or making a team-wide switch over to a new process or piece of equipment. At the parties, Woodard makes sure that they don’t talk about work. “We just get to know each other better. That isn’t necessarily a form of recognition, it’s just a bond to deepen the relationship,” he says. “Before they would say, ‘Uh oh … what’s the director doing here? I must be doing something wrong.’ But now when I show up, it’s about recognition and connecting.”

The cleaning staff at UW has presented in front of the campus in showcases, in front of the university president, and in front of members of the student council. In addition, UW hosted the Green Clean Schools Leadership Summit in 2015, presenting on their system of engagement in front of peers from schools across the country and green cleaning leaders.

“There’s so much power in having employees with their brains on and not just going through a routine each day,” says Woodard. “The morale and job satisfaction just goes through the roof.”

At the Green Clean Schools Leadership Institute this July 12-14, we will dive deeper into the leadership practices that are essential to green cleaning programs. Gene Woodard and other members of our Leadership Council will also be there to share more of their engagement and leadership successes. We hope you can join us there. Until then, we want to hear your engagement stories! If you have experienced an engagement win in your green cleaning program, email Nicole Bowman or share your story with us on social media with the hashtag #greencleanstories.