Why culture is king

Creating a positive workplace culture will be at the heart of cleaning and facility management companies’ success as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put pressure on profitability and people.

Not many cleaning companies are in a position to give their staff free seats in a corporate box at iconic sport venues such as the Sydney Cricket Ground and Adelaide Oval.

For national cleaning services and waste-management company Quayclean, however, it is all part of trying to give back to its employees and creating a positive culture for them and their families.

CEO Mark Piwkowski explains that the business has contracts to clean elite venues around the country, and when corporate suites are empty and available the business can offer staff the chance to watch sport such as cricket and Australian football.

“Those sorts of actions engage the hearts and minds of the employees, so their commitment to the organisation becomes really strong,” Piwkowski says.

Quayclean also offers recognition and benefits including monthly Superhero awards, Christmas bonuses and competitive salaries, while also making it clear to departing cleaners that they are “part of the Quayclean family” and are always welcome to return to the business in the future.

Piwkowski says creating a positive work culture, especially during a pandemic, is crucial to a company’s success and must be driven from the top down and the bottom up so that it is infused in every aspect of the work environment, talked about enthusiastically by the team and recognised by the customers they serve.

“The culture of the organisation is integral to its success and without a strong culture a business will never create sustainable success.”

Plan for a great workplace environment

People and culture practitioner Amanda de Haas says many companies, including cleaning and facility management operations, often underestimate the impact that culture has on their business.

“Positive workplace cultures don’t happen by accident,” she says. “They are carefully thought through and planned.”

De Haas believes a desirable culture – that is, where employees want to work and feel that their contributions are valued – is the result of three main elements.

1.  Staying true to the collective values of the organisation – this shapes the way it wants to do business, both with external customers and internal stakeholders or employees.
2.  Engaging and empowering employees – ensuring staff have the skills to do their job, while also rewarding and recognising their efforts.
3.  Building a work environment that fosters their employees – courtesy of clear organisational structures, work processes and the physical environment.

With cleaning and facility management companies facing labour shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, de Hass says it has never been more important to create an environment that improves recruitment and retention outcomes, including offering the right incentives, rewards and training.

“Strong people processes are the key to incentivising and retaining employees,” she says.

“Money only goes so far. People will tend to leave a business for the opportunity to learn more, or if they’re feeling disenchanted with their manager. They don’t tend to leave if they feel valued.”

Ultimately, culture is complex, de Haas says, but it portrays everything about the norms of an organisation.

“The thing that a manager walks past becomes the culture that’s accepted. If you’re not dealing with under-performers, not dealing with safety issues, not hitting the key pieces, then the culture won’t move.”

Do more with less

Andrew Ash, director of accounting and tax at advisory and accounting firm HLB Mann Judd, says there is no doubt that recruiting and retaining talent is a real challenge for the cleaning industry because of pandemic-related immigration restrictions.

“As such, government has an important role in addressing this issue, (but) business owners also need to be savvy in attracting staff and working out how to do more with less,” he says.

Ash encourages businesses to adopt monetary and non-monetary methods to promote their culture and encourage workers to enter and remain in the industry.

“First, you need to pay staff appropriately and give them enough work to make a living,” he says.

“If workers cannot support their families, they will not join or stay in the industry. It’s as simple as that.”

In order for this to be viable, cleaning industry companies need to be paid appropriately for their contracts, Ash adds.

“As such, all businesses in the industry need to make a point of educating their clients of the true cost of paying someone so that more fair contracts can be negotiated.”

Second, he says businesses must provide workers with opportunities for progression, appropriate training, the freedom to take ownership of their work, and recognition when they perform well. If they can provide these elements, along with a strong culture, more workers will commit themselves to the industry over the long-term.

During COVID-19 and the trend to working from home, de Haas says instilling cultural norms has been more difficult in the absence of regular induction and onboarding processes.

“And when you’re not connected closely each day with your managers and peers, you can become fractured in the way that you outline the norms of the company and how you want to operate.”

That puts a premium on checking in with workers to see how they are going – not just to see if they are doing their job, but to check on their welfare and show that you are interested in them as people.

Focus on developing leaders

Quayclean is putting its money where its mouth is in terms of creating an outstanding workplace culture, setting up the Quay Academy to establish deep cultural behaviours within its workforce and foster leaders across the country. The goal is to train, mentor and develop talent from within the Quayclean team.

Piwkowski takes the view that a business must do three things really well – build an inclusive culture where all staff respect the work they do, deliver a best-in-class customer experience; and be profitable.

“Making a buck means that you can invest back into the team, into the business and ensure its long-term success. And it has to do that in a cultural environment that encourages its staff to continue to grow.”

To that end, he believes Quay Academy plays a key role in creating authentic and accountable leaders who will inspire innovative thinking and great outcomes for its clients.

Ash agrees that a strong, positive culture starts from the top.

“Leaders create culture, good or bad, through the language they use and the example they set,” he says.

“If their language and actions do not align, then their message will not go through and they will have little hope of creating a positive culture.”

Ash says if leaders live and breathe the values of the business, show empathy towards their people and give them a purpose, “then they are on their way to creating a great culture and a place where people are happy to be”.

He also suggests that businesses should make their purpose bigger than the service or product they provide.

“For example, cleaners don’t just wipe down surfaces, they protect people and keep them safe. Business leaders should make their staff understand this and make them proud of their contribution and make them feel valued.”

Create a succession plan

Another element of building an outstanding leadership and employee culture is to focus on succession planning, according to Ash.

He says there are three general types of succession – management succession, ownership succession and employee succession.

“The risks associated with not having a succession plan increase over time. It becomes harder and more complex the longer you leave it. For this reason, succession planning is something that should be consistently considered at every stage of business, from start-up to maturity.”

Many businesses are forced into making decisions about succession due to things outside of their control, such as death, illness or staff leaving. Those businesses that are forced to react to a “succession event” are almost always worse off than those that have planned for succession, Ash says.

He advises three actions for cleaning businesses. First, incorporate succession planning into the business strategy.

“If it’s not on the agenda, then it will likely not be addressed.”

Second, get an external advisor to guide you through the process because “it’s hard to read the label from inside the bottle”.

Third, be clear on your purpose, values and strategy.

“If you make these compelling, and you practise what you preach, then you will be able to attract the right leader into your business.”

Keep redefining your culture

Ash warns against a set-and-forget approach to culture.

“Culture is something that evolves over time and requires constant nurturing,” he says.

“It’s easy for your culture to go backwards if you do not give it enough attention. Over time, employees leave businesses and new ones come in. As such, it is vitally important that you bring in the right people and let go of the people that do not fit the culture you are creating. One bad apple can do a lot of damage.”

At Quayclean, Piwkowski says the business’s efforts to develop a great culture have resulted in stronger recruitment outcomes, with staff members providing word-of-mouth referrals for prospective new workers.

“We rely on our team to attract people to the company,” he says.

“And when you have the right culture that happens naturally.”

As 2022 unfolds, he says the management team will keep emphasising the importance of understanding what it wants to deliver and ensuring that team members understand their role in delivering that outcome.

“If you do those things well, you’ll create a strong culture of unity and energy and passion. That’s what a business needs to be successful.”

Three steps to improve workplace culture

Amanda De Haas outlines the keys to fostering a great culture.

  1. Identify where you want to be as an organisation and how you want others to see your business.
    2.  Get feedback from your employees about the business. What works, what doesn’t?
    3.  Make a plan that is achievable, with small milestones. “For example, you may want to encourage proactivity in your workforce where employees highlight potential problems and help resolve them.  Your plan could ensure that they have adequate skills, they have communication channels and that the right behaviours are recognised and rewarded.”

… and what to avoid

De Haas says many organisations fail to make cultural initiatives part of their strategy, as well as forgetting to involve all employees in their cultural journey.

“They fail to realise that culture is an enabler for the business and its financial strategy, not a nice-to-have. Culture is often about getting that extra 10 per cent out of people, but with them still being so happy to do it that they just don’t think about it.”

The other error is to treat culture as a one-off event. De Haas explains: “Culture needs to be reinforced every day, it needs to become the new norm, the way things are always done.”

This article first appeared in the March/April issue of INCLEAN. 

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