It’s not like we didn’t care about cleaning before COVID-19. But it’s fair to say that it’s on everyone’s mind now. In the last two years, cleaners have become essential workers and, just as many companies faced an unparalleled crisis, cleaning companies experienced an unmatched demand. But how are new technologies helping them cope with this increased demand? 

Cleaning is no longer a ‘lesser’ or ‘invisible’ service

Paul Ashton is a board member at Cleaning & Support Services Association (CSSA) and a CEO at the Birkin Cleaning Group. As CSSA’s Chairman of Technology and Innovation, he aims to help cleaning businesses grow and “keep things moving forward in this climate”. Technology and innovation have a “positive influence on compliance and reliability”, and provide solutions in these troubled times. 

Paul openly lobbies for change and believes we’re at a moment where cleaning can really be recognised for what it does. Despite its essential role in every facility, cleaning is often undervalued. Before the pandemic, and to some extent even today, cleaners feel like invisible workers, seen as less-than by society and organisations. The slogan “we are not the dirt we clean” is nothing but telling. 

“We’ve got a huge role to play within society in terms of getting the economy going again.”

– Paul Ashton

“[for example] Schools are open. We’ve got this daily role to play which is pivotal and there are still hundreds of buildings every day that will need to be cleaned”.There is “an increased demand, drive, and expectation” from customers, and technology helps them deliver on that service. But, for Paul, the pandemic wasn’t the tipping point to use more technology on cleaning services.

Technology provides sustainability, resilience, and prosperity

“It started pre-covid. It seems like a lifetime ago but there was a real trend where clients were starting to care about the environment”, he muses. Both clients and end-users prompt them to ask “what are we doing as business leaders, as an industry, to reduce our impact on the environment? What are we doing to reduce water consumption, improve packaging, and so on?”

At Birkin Cleaning, they experienced the impact of technology and innovative practices first hand: “we have grown 150% in the last 4 years organically through integrating tech into the business”, says Paul. “It hasn’t always been easy”, he acknowledges, “but when you take the time it pays off. It’s a journey, yes, but it’s an exciting journey”.

One of these technologies was cobotics. “Undoubtedly, for me, one of the things I find most exciting is cobotics. Cobotics isn’t new. It has been talked about for a number of years, but it’s getting to a new stage. Some people will ask if they’re robotics, and to a large degree they are, but cobotics need to be seen as ‘colleagues’”.

Cobotics is a neologism formed by “collaborative” and “robotics”. A ‘cobot’ is a robot that has been designed and built to collaborate with humans. 

With a cleaning cobot, for example, employees push a button and the robot will do the most repetitive tasks, like cleaning the floors or vacuuming, while workers can focus on manual tasks or “value-added tasks”. It has also been suggested these robots could free cleaners from hazardous labour, like cleaning infected surfaces. But, fearing for their jobs, workers may struggle with these arguments.

Paul doesn’t dismiss their concerns. “400 employees are hugely important to us, so we don’t want to demotivate them”. The company decided to make them a part of the process, and he shared his own experience: “when you genuinely make them a part of the team, and take them on board, and help them to see the benefits of how this cobot can work, they accept them”.

“Cobotics is another name for a robot but actually it’s a mindset.”

– Paul Ashton

Cobotics to the rescue, but with people at the core

This is not about replacing humans, it’s about supporting staff with reliable pieces of technology that work, consistently deliver clean spaces, and ultimately allow the human to focus on touchpoints.” But if cobotics had been a plus before the pandemic, they proved to be a useful and reliable workforce during lockdowns, when many employees needed to self-isolate. It made Birkin more resilient.

We know that we have reliable pieces of technology that are capable of cleaning large spaces day in and day out, they don’t need to self-isolate, they turn up every day, they’re incredibly reliable.”

– Paul Ashton

Jamie Hall, Sales and Marketing Director at Birkin, says it was a game-changer. “Pre-COVID, [cobotics] was about giving that resource to the team, to make sure they can pay attention to detail, cover some short term absences, etc.” In contrast, “post-COVID is a key element to be more efficient and increase those sanitising elements and cleaning hotspots throughout the building”.

Plus, due to the circumstances, Paul adds that the client is expecting ‘enhanced cleaning’. “They want to know by the minute, by the second, who is on site, how long have they been there for, what’s being used”. “Proof of cleaning”, as they call it, became a “must-have”. Once again, technology came through to help them showcase compliance and provide greater confidence. 

Using cobotics connected to cloud-based software, frontline workers could “prove everything that is happening”. Indeed, Jamie thinks this trend will continue: “now that we’ve trialled using data and sensors for proof because of COVID, this ability to provide reassurance and comfort about where and how cleaning happened is incredibly important.”

However, proof of cleaning wasn’t Birkin’s sole concern during the height of the pandemic. As Jamie explains, the virus pushed them into closer partnerships and clients. “Working with clients, we needed to understand where the risk was in terms of shifts, buildings, and so on. It was about making sure we help protect people from COVID-19 and still maintain standards across all areas”. 

They also reached out to suppliers to “look at products that were effective and could be used by our daily teams”. Jamie stresses their company is committed to offering “best value” – which he defines as being “commercially competitive but not at the expense of quality standards” – and that was still what they strived for during the pandemic.

Commercially viable – cobotics will come mainstream in the next few years

Regarding the price of these technologies, Paul reckons they’re evolving quickly and will become more “commercially viable” within the next few years. He encourages companies “small or large” to explore these options. “Speak to the suppliers, be open-minded and prepare to give it a go. The sooner people start exploring, the more prepared operations will feel”. 

Jamie agrees. “It has been sighted as a concept for a period but the gatekeeper was the cost – or, actually, the investment. But that’s been reduced and it is incredibly exciting. There are solutions for the new challenges ahead.” He also highlights that cobotics have a positive cost-benefit, increase productivity without affecting service, and enhance sanitising. 

“You won’t stay a leading cleaning provider if you don’t constantly look, find, and identify the new things coming to the market. You want to have a pioneer rather than a follower role.”

– Jamie Hall

As one last piece of advice, Paul suggests straying from “closed systems that don’t talk to each other. Find systems that interact with one another, and ultimately can digest the data to help as business leaders”. Because, in the end, “the more intelligence, the better decisions you make”.

Cleaning cobotics are a great example of how technology can help companies become more sustainable, more productive and more resilient without compromising the quality of their services – or their closeness to their clients.