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A HARD LOOK AT SOFT SERVICES – Andrea Yoko, Head of Soft Services at Emrill speaks about the soft services industry at the Round Table panel discussion held by FM Today magazine.
 

In the year 2010 Frost & Sullivan had sent out a report that the Middle East Facility Management industry was worth AED 15 billion. Today, they are anticipating only the UAE market to be worth AED 20 billion. This shows that the industry has expanded in a huge way and the soft services sector plays a major role in the facilities management market. In the world of facilities management, soft services is an ever expanding market. Traditionally comprised of physical security services, the cleaning sector, pest control and front office staffing, soft services has grown to include newcomers, such as health and safety and catering. In a recent roundtable discussion organized by the FM today, industry experts came together to discuss the growth potential of the soft service market and also the challenges soft FM holds today.

 

The panelists – Nigel Wright, General Manager, MAB Facilities Management; Mohammad MH Shaikh, Operations Manager, CFM Facilities Management Services LLC (Sister Company of Tanzifco); Andrea Yoko, Head of Soft Services, Emrill Integrated Facilities Management, Ram Ganesh, Manager – Business Development, Duserve Facility Management and Ravi Kumar, Senior Manager-Operations, Isnaad – felt that the market perception towards soft FM is also changing. No longer is the service just about cleaning with a broom or a cloth, in fact, people are talking about concepts like sustainability, colour coding, accreditation etc. in soft FM which was not the case earlier.

“In the last four to five years there has been a dramatic change in the soft service industry. For me, there has been a clear trend with security which has now become a separate entity in Dubai. At the same time, we have seen a lot of clear changes in other soft services such as, lifeguarding services, cleaning services, landscaping and pest control. The industry has definitely moved to a more a quantifiable performance based model rather than perception based. This is a great step forward for the industry,” said Nigel Wright, General Manager, MAB Facilities Management.

 

Agreeing with Wright, Andrea Yoko, Head of Soft Services, Emrill Integrated Facilities Management, also noticed that soft services have started to become a career of choice as opposed to being seen as an entry level role into the business. Having come with a strong backing in the hospitality industry, Andrea has observed that the importance of soft services within the industry has slowly come to the notice of those in hospitality. “We have seen several moves this year from this sector. In the past, higher salaries, service charge, tips bonuses have made recruitment a challenge to compete. Soft services in FM has shown to offer greater career opportunities as soft services operate on various segments ranging from aviation, retail, healthcare, educational, commercial and residential communities,” added Yoko.

 

Increasing Awareness

The panel also felt that clients have become more aware of the potential in the sector. Clients these days look for an engineered solution. Demands like BICSc certified cleaners, reduced manpower, efficient equipment use etc. now top their lists of requirements than just manpower. But speaking from a business point of view, Ram Ganesh, Manager – Business Development, Duserve Facility Management, felt that each client has a different perception of what soft services is all about. “Most of them look at the sector as means of providing manpower. They don’t regard it as a solution or a cleaning service. It is definitely a challenge to change this perception of the client as we are trying to sell a soft service solution and not just manpower. Dubai market is extremely cost sensitive, so from a business development point of view to convince a client that you are not selling a cleaner, but a cleaning solution to them can be challenging.

 

But I believe we are slowly progressing towards that change as well,” added Ganesh. Wright felt that educating the clients was the responsibility of the service provider. He went on to add that many clients are now starting to give more importance to the quality of service provided to them. “The last couple of years the soft FM market is being pushed a lot harder and faster to advance to what hard FM has been because in any facility, the first perception of the asset is based on the quality of cleaning. I have large clients whose first focus was on the quality perceptive in the soft services. And now the hard services team is going through the same scenario, which is great because a person looking after the building need to be qualified and before that wasn’t the case. And now clients have a clear strategy as to where they want to be and if they have a true partnership with you, they will integrate you into that strategy and you both head in the same direction,” added Wright.

 

Importance of certification and training

There have been an increasing number of FM companies in the Middle East who have been getting their cleaning services certified by the British Institute of Cleaning Science (BICSc). But what exactly does a BICSc certification signify for an FM company?

 

With more than 5,000 individual and corporate members, BICSc is the largest independent, professional and educational body within the cleaning industry. Founded in 1961, the organisation was established to raise the profile of the cleaning industry and is responsible for many of the standards maintained by the sector. Today many of the clients demand BICSc as a mandatory requirement from their FM companies. While some companies are strictly following the norms others don’t take it seriously and end up using it as a tool to get into the market. There is a basic methodology and risk assessment element and this certification gives a better understanding of that.

 

Ganesh said, “Many of the high profile clients who have BICSc as a mandatory requirement in the tenders regard cleaning as a science. Every tender is an output based or a KPI linked performance where they measure your performance. And it’s a tough task managing all of this and scoring in the KPI, as your payment is linked to this. Getting a BICSc certification is important but whether companies actually apply it or if it is adding core value to the operation is a question mark still.”

 

However, many others in the panel felt that BICSc is taken and practiced very seriously in the market. MAB FM was one of the first Dubai-based companies to be certified as a BICSc training organisation. Wright says that there has been a huge shift in the quality of cleaning, productivity, chemical wastage etc. “It ultimately boils down to the training programme. One of the key aspects of the programme is that they will come and do a spot check over the cleaners and if they find one staff not qualified they lose their certification. So if companies get their staff certified for the sake of it then they get caught eventually,” added Wright.

 

At Emrill, on the other hand, they try to raise awareness at all management levels through BICSc. Yoko explained, “BICSc is normally delivered to housekeeping cleaning operatives. Centre of Excellence took the decision to raise the awareness of BICSc at all levels of management within our business. All Emrill Assistant, Facilities and Senior Facilities Managers running contracts which have BICSc certification as a requirement have attended and attained the BICSc qualifications. It has given them a greater understanding, knowledge and appreciation of the soft services scope and remit and challenges housekeeping staff face.

 

It has seen a positive impact on health and safety, productivity and end results as everyone is working towards the same goals and objectives in a recognized manner. We have seen a greater respect towards soft services as these highly qualified engineers and managers have learnt all the skills and attained a competency to operate all cleaning equipment.”

 

The demand for high standards in training is another focus that the soft service sector is facing today. Mohammad MH Shaikh, Operations Manager, CFM Facilities Management Services LLC (Sister Company of Tanzifco), felt that while cleaning has always been a significant requirement in the market it also requires the passion for carrying on the activities. “And now with many environmental changes, technological changes, and automation brought into the market, this part of the Middle East is changing very fast.

 

However, the practical aspect is lacking in training and hence, we have our own training centres (Tanzifco Training Centre); it is very important to remodel or redesign the standard of training if we have to maintain the level of expectations. Clients have become very knowledgeable and also demanding. They are now looking for high standards with more economical value. In order to live up to the expectations, apart from getting accreditation, we have to give importance to assessment as well,” he said.

 

Mohammad went on to add, “With so many technological changes taking place, the cleaning industry has become more effective and it is also setting higher cleaning standards. Another change we can see is in the fact that the construction industry is coming into the cleaning industry. It becomes a big responsibility of the FM industry then to maintain a training requirement with qualified skilled trainers and staff to raise the standards in the industry. Otherwise, we will always face challenges in the market.”

 

Use and impact of technology Another change worth considering is the fact that the word ‘technology’ was recently introduced into soft services. Before a soft service was not considered as a technology, anyone could bring a broom or a cloth and clean. Now walk into any high-end mall and you can see the impact technology has had in the soft service sector. Rarely do we find janitors or cleaners standing around with a trolley by their side. But that doesn’t mean that companies have minimized the standards, instead they have now improvised their programmes and methods of cleaning. Technologies like minimizing chemical wastage, dosing systems; green chemicals which were earlier new have now become requirements.

 

“Use of technology is more about sustainability and increased productivity and efficiency. When I first came into Dubai, I remember seeing 100’s of poor people standing out in the sun sweeping streets because there was an attitude of wanting to see the things one has paid for. Thankfully that attitude has changed and it has been better for productivity, from a social perspective and a commercial and a quality point of view. It’s such a natural progression as you have everything starting to change. Before it was a wow factor to see machines, now it’s a minimum requirement,”

explained Wright. Many in the panel agreed that the training matrix should start from the bottom of the pack and go till the top. “The training matrix should start from the bottom of the pack and I feel that the activity should be controlled. The cleaner should undergo more specialized training; BICSc has a scientific approach towards its training. The cleaner should understand the standards that have to be met and introduced to the technology that helps him reach the expected level,” said Mohammad.

 

Technology not only helps in reaching people’s expectations but it has also proved how diligent the worker is towards his job. Citing an example, Yoko said, “There are devices that help us in identifying the level of  cleanliness and hygienic environment. They assist in the setting up and confirmation of cleaning regimes. An example is that I once carried out a quality audit and tested a washroom early in the morning which scored 8. This score motivated the employee as he was aware that the device had been benchmarked at 10 which is the recommended level for a food preparation area. I visited the same washroom six hours later which has a very high footfall. The same area was tested and scored a six. This could prove that the housekeeping employee has been extremely diligent towards his duties, the chemicals used in the cleaning process worked and the set cleaning regime/schedule was effective.”

 

Another big impact of technology is in the management. As it has become a standard requirement to upload cleaning schedules in the AAM, CAFM solutions making it easy to monitor the performances. “It’s a standard requirement now that your cleaning schedules are being put in the AAM, CAFM solutions and you can monitor the performances and if you set it up properly you can monitor the actual productivity of the individual staff members. So the next progression, I suppose is the continued evolution of managing the teams,” said Wright.

 

Ganesh is quick to point out that all this evolution does come with a cost. Educating the client has become much more important. “They need to be aware that while technology does come with a cost it has an added benefit. We as service providers need to educate the client that this technology will only help in taking care of the facility better,” added Ganesh.

 

Wright, on the other hand, describes the use of technology has any other business decision which, in the long run, is a driver to reduce cost. “If it doesn’t give you a Return of Investment then why use it all? I do understand that some things must be in the market because it’s a mandatory change but generally you don’t roll out a technology platform of any description if it doesn’t add a significant value because at the end of the day it is business from the clients’ side or our side,” he stated.

 

Need for regulations

With Expo 2020 nearing, the demand for trained manpower is going to increase. And the panel felt that this can be a real challenge as manpower is no longer cheap. Most of the companies in order to cater to the demand try to bring in people and groom them and train them. But the whole exercise will take around six months to a year and clients are not going to wait. This is where the panel felt that government interference is needed to streamline the soft service industry as they have done for other industries in terms of basic qualification, salary etc. This way, the panel felt, that unscrupulous activities will be stopped and the right kind of people will lead to stability in the industry. A classic example where regulations have helped in streamlining the market is in the security industry.

 

Mohammad said, “Standardizations and stringent regulations will help to streamline those in the industry. There are regulations which are being acted upon, but people end up compromising which results in losing standards and satisfaction levels.” The discussion then concluded with the need to bring in standardization for the people working the soft service sector. The panel also pointed out, that at the end of the day FM companies don’t sell widgets but services. And the real asset of the company is its people.