In these trying times, housekeeping and facility management service providers are now holding fort to help facilities tide over this unsafe period. However, with diverse and undecided client behaviour, service providers are looking for a clearer roadmap with a combination of people, technology, innovative solutions, processes and digitisation. In a one-off discussion with Mohana M, Editor, Clean India Journal, former MD of SMS Facility Services Jolly Kochery, a veteran who has experienced FM for over three decades and incoming CEO of SMSFS Tarun Ramrakhiani, an inspiring FM professional, set out to trace the evolution of FM in India over the years, now and its future. Excerpts:
Tarun: Traditionally, FM companies were very activity-centric. It was always around deploying a fixed number of people, to do a specific activity, for a negotiated management fee (as wages are regulated).
The conversation now is shifting towards outcomes. Customers are asking us how we can make their buildings more immune, healthy, clean & comfortable and of course efficient (operations, maintenance and energy cost optimization).
They are doing so because FM has suddenly been thrust front-and-centre for organizations’ business continuity. It’s about how do I keep my employees safe, how do I get them to return to work, how do I get customers back and so on.At the same time, business results dictate that the funding of such initiatives has to come through efficiency. That is why customers are now asking us not only to service buildings but also unlock efficiency (particularly energy management) to pay for it.
As facilities restart, I don’t think the conversation is going to be restricted to Covid; the real conversation will be about whether businesses will be ready for the next pandemic. This is now going to be a part of any company’s risk assessment.
Jolly: Way back in the early 80s, FM was an unknown industry. There were manpower supply companies and housekeeping was rudimentary. Then we got specialised tools and cleaning agents. Companies realised that using liquid soap and acid was not right. That was a transition point.
The biggest shift in FM came when the IT/ITes sector boomed. The question was, how to manage such large facilities. Companies realised that they could be a services aggregator, so they found people for cleaning, pest control, technical services etc, and offered this as a bundle to the client. This allowed many small players to mushroom, since there were no entry barriers or licensing requirements. That divided the industry into the organised and unorganised sectors. The organised sector tried to work in an ethical manner, while the unorganised sector consisted of fly-by-night operators. The people who got badly impacted were the workers.
The industry has evolved, but the organised sector still wasn’t able to provide a living salary to our workers and enhance their skill-set, so that they can emerge from doing so-called unskilled labour. Even today, if someone works as a cleaner in a company for ten years, they are still treated as unskilled labour, and are paid accordingly. That is the tragedy of this industry.
We all thought that the new wage code would kick in, and eliminate grey areas and create a level playing field. With GST kicking in, we thought the fly-by-night operators would disappear. But the new wage code went on the backburner. Our hands are still tied when it comes to paying our workers; we can only pay what we get from our customers.
People think they are hiring bodies in uniforms; they don’t realise the amount of effort required to enable a worker to deliver good service to the customer. Cleaning is a science and it has to be taught. With the kind of new buildings coming up, skilled labour is required to maintain them.
The FM industry has become one of the largest employers for school dropouts. They may be brilliant people, but because of their circumstances, they could not continue their education and had to take up jobs. The next step is getting them into formal training programs and guide them from being unskilled to semi-skilled to skilled labour. We need to help them understand mechanised cleaning and digital technology, so they can change the image of the cleaning industry.
In developed countries, these are entry-level jobs for migrants, without supervisors. In India, this is not possible. If we train people to understand the seriousness of this job, they will understand that they are their own supervisors.
How did we get security organised? There was a law and a licensing system. In FM, there is no entry barrier at all; anyone can start an FM company with a few random people, which is unfair to organised players, who want to comply with rules and pay all taxes. Unless it becomes a level playing field, this may not be a sustainable business.
Mohana: Having experienced the change at both the client and the service provider ends through Clean India Journal, I have seen the evolution that has transpired over the last decade or two. While we have experienced the transition from unskilled to semi-skilled to skilled labour, where are we today? Looking at skilling and reskilling or perhaps actually looking for workers who can fit the requirement of today’s FM? In the wake of the demand for and the absence of required workers, technological interventions are inevitable. While the need for technology has dawned, choosing the right technology is now becoming a challenge.
Tarun: Technology-based FM is an inevitability. Even in the current environment, one has to appreciate that 70% of India is yet to be built. And when it does, it will need five million-plus personnel to service it. Unless one leverages technology, how can one build scale and deploy a workforce in a consistent manner to deliver with quality?
We had kickstarted our journey to digitize our Operations Management & Personnel Management under Jolly’s leadership. In FY 2021-22, we intend to digitize the majority of our site operations.
This means on any given day, we know exactly what is going on at a near real-time basis. Did my person show up? If not, could I respond and send the nearest reliever? Was the checklist referred to? Was the checklist followed? Do I have evidence (data, images, audio, video)?
Once all this gets tracked, you end up with a baseline and comparing the baseline against the benchmark, we can understand the efficiency potential that can be unlocked, which is great for both customers and service providers.
The second area of technology intervention will be in the area of making client premises immune at five levels: air, surface, frictionless automation, upgrades and of course policies.
For example – take cleaning in general. There is a term called ‘hygiene theatre’. We are scrubbing every surface we see, but it is also a lot about feeling safe rather than just being safe. During the previous lockdown, people would keep parcels outside their homes for days, then spray them with disinfectant before taking them in. But it would take a hundred Covid patients to sneeze on a one square inch of area for there to be a chance of surface contamination.
A coffee shop will screen customers’ temperatures, clean surfaces and wash cups, but customers will exchange what is called stale microbial air. This is where the actual infection happens.
To combat this, we have just launched a product for air purification and sterilization using UV-C and Ozone. This product has 99.4% efficacy in virus inactivation within three hours, sustains virus inactivation and air purification thereon for 8,000 hours without any intervention, covers an area of 500 square feet, is plug-and-play and can be used in high risk areas (homes, restaurants, retail outlets, meeting rooms etc).
Another example is ingress/egress control of employees, suppliers and customers. We are looking at a system that combines temperature screening, the Aarogya Setu QR code and employee/visitor entry/exit. This eliminates any loopholes of basic temperature screening.
We intend to launch at least half-a-dozen such offerings this year to assist in the creation of touchless and immune facilities across India.
Mohana: No doubt, not just established players like you, many start-ups too have come up with disruptive technologies. Where we started speaking of clean toilets mid-decade, we are now talking of smart toilets. Interestingly, while all technologies simplify service delivery, there are few who are actually receptive to invest in technologies.
Tarun: At the field level, you are as good as the person who is working at the site. For this, we will have better trained, more empowered, better connected workforce on the ground. As India invests in infrastructure, it is going to need five million more people to run it. We need to develop and upskill such people who will operate our assets.
More contracting models will move towards outcomes rather than input costs and margins. Without the power of technology, this is not possible. Sooner rather than later, India will commit to climate goals. Facilities will have to run with half the energy we are using today, and technology will help us get there.
There will be a hybrid ecosystem where users, customers, suppliers and others are all connected on a cloud-based collaborative system, sharing data and achieving outcomes. A lot of this infrastructure is already in place. Data is cheap, and the penetration of devices is excellent.
Along with this, we will need people who have a sense of mission and purpose. This will be a challenge. If 20-30% of our leadership comes from that frontline cadre, we will have done our job.