Why Taylorism Cannot Apply To the Cleaning Craft

Cleaning services have been outsourced and depreciated for far too long

Few jobs are harder to automate than that of cleaning persons. Thanks to technology you can theoretically automate the work of accountants and of many highly-qualified creative class professionals. But cleaners? Nope. There are too many different tasks that depend too much on ever changing environments. Hoovering robots are quite handy, but they can’t do much. It will be many decades before cleaning persons can be replaced by robots.

And so the job is one of those jobs that really has a future. This line of work requires a large set of different skills, the ability to run a household, a high level of technicity and versatility, and a high level of empathy to understand the needs of their different customers. Above all, cleaning persons need to be trusted: whether at home or at the office, they have access to your secrets. You can’t give your keys to someone you don’t trust, can you?

And yet over the past few decades the job of cleaning where we live and work has been hollowed out. Cleaners have it worse than ever: they’re paid less, have less job security and find less meaning in their work. Meanwhile companies as well as private individuals have lost a lot in the process without realising it. Companies hire business concierges and chief happiness officers to compensate for their loss. Private individuals find it harder to recruit trustworthy and efficient cleaners and rely on their friends and neighbours to help them find the ‘gem’. Sometimes they turn to janitorial services companies because they are so cheap, but are rarely enthusiastic about them.

Tech companies have been of little help. Many platforms have tried to offer cleaning personnel on demand. But because they offered it as a commodity, a fungible resource to be as cheap as possible, they haven’t been very successful at it. Platforms like Handy have a high no show rate. And sending a different person each week just doesn’t work because no trust can be established. Both cleaners and customers, who have felt nothing but frustration, give renewed credence to the following universal truth: If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

So what happened? Indeed two trends have transformed the cleaning profession for the worse: outsourcing, and Taylorism.


The outsourcing of ‘janitorial’ services

In the 1960s consulting firms began teaching companies to devise a business strategy. In the 1980s focusing on one’s ‘core’ business was all the rage, so every company started outsourcing their non-core functions, like cleaning. The cleaning persons who had been part of the team were laid off (or just not replaced after they retired).

Bruce Henderson’s BCG is one of the first strategy consulting firms

Instead most businesses started to turn to companies that provided cleaning ‘as a service’. No need to recruit, train and deal with individual employees anymore. Less hassle. And it was cheaper too! Whatever working conditions were offered the cleaning personnel was not the clients’ problem anymore.

As a result, the janitors progressively became even more invisible. Though they shared the same working space as the executives whose offices they cleaned…they didn’t share the same world and they didn’t have the same employer anymore. They were asked to come clean the offices earlier and earlier to lower the probability of them accidentally meeting office employees. God forbid they strike a conversation with somebody from a different world! Office employees, unaware and uncaring, took these services for granted and did display increasing contempt if they did inadvertently saw what should have remained invisible.

Watch this amazing scene in J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call”

That’s also the subject of a fascinating New York Times piece by Neil Irwin: he compares the life of two janitors, one who was the full-time employee of a large company 35 years ago, and one who works for another successful large company, but via a services company today.

I strongly recommend reading this article!
“In the 35 years between their jobs as janitors, corporations across America have flocked to a new management theory: Focus on core competence and outsource the rest. The approach has made companies more nimble and more productive, and delivered huge profits for shareholders. It has also fueled inequality and helps explain why many working-class Americans are struggling even in an ostensibly healthy economy.”

How janitorial services companies applied Taylorism to cleaning

Pretty soon the competition between these janitorial services companies became quite intense. Because they made cleaning services into more of a commodity (individual personalities, team spirit and loyalty were no longer part of the equation), they had to make it cheaper and cheaper. Soon it became a vicious circle: as a company, the cheaper you are, the harder it is to recruit and the higher your turnover. So you have to make your resources even more interchangeable. That’s where division of labour comes in.

To improve efficiency, cleaning was ‘reengineered’ into a highly-processed one-best-way type of thing. Scientific management specialists analysed the workflows and devised ways to increase productivity. Each cleaning ‘session’ was divided into a series of highly codified micro-tasks that had to be performed a certain way, sometimes by one person, sometimes by a group of people working at the same time. The pace at which cleaners had to perform these tasks became ever more constrained. Cleaning was fully industrialised.

The problem is that it’s very hard to industrialise cleaning. Unlike factory work on assembly lines that can be replicated and directed for maximum efficiency, cleaning doesn’t necessarily take place in identical environments. No two homes or offices are exactly the same. Applying the exact same moves to these different environments is suboptimal. The result is that Taylorist cleaning can only produce the appearance of clean rather than actual clean. The work is botched. Nothing is ever in-depth. In different environments, with different furniture, different expectations or cultures and different spaces, only craftsmanship could produce a more satisfactory result.

In fact, these janitorial companies have been waging a “war of attrition” with one another. As Michael Porter explained in an HBR article some twenty years ago, “competition based on operational effectiveness alone is mutually destructive, leading to wars of attrition that can be arrested only by limiting competition.” In the cleaning industry, this war of attrition led to pressurising workers more and more. Now they find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain their workers, which leads to higher costs.

The impoverishment of the workers employed by those companies was clearly described in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America, published in 1996. In that book’s second chapter, Ehrenreich takes a job in Maine as a maid, cleaning the homes of the affluent as an employee of a home cleaning service. She describes the job as labor-intensive and fraught with unexpected dangers. It doesn’t pay well, but most of all, it is at times even more humiliating that the other low-paid jobs described in the book.


How interpersonal trust disappeared from the cleaning profession

In her book, Ehrenreich recounts the fundamental distrust of the working class by their rich customers that she witnessed during her weeks “scrubbing in Maine”. The people who hire cleaning services are, she writes, extremely distrustful of the workers who clean their homes. They leave visible “traps” to catch dishonest employees (for example, in one house, there was money sitting out with video cameras to record the culprits). They leave incomprehensible instructions for cleaning their property and treat the cleaners with utter contempt—which, in turn, leads the cleaners to resent the homeowners and do poorer-quality work.

Not only did this trust issue cause a lot of dissatisfaction with janitorial services companies from customers and workers alike, it can also be said to have destroyed a lot of value. The customers waste time and energy distrusting the services that are too cheap and impersonal to be trusted. The workers’ resentment and lack of loyalty make it that much harder for the companies to retain and motivate them. Clearly, a lot of value is wasted in the process on both sides. Being cheap is fraught with so many hidden costs!

In the age of internet platforms, several platforms have tried to deal with the trust issue…with disappointing outcomes. Homejoy was founded in 2010 with the promise to restore trust in the industry by building a platform to connect customers with competent and trustworthy home service providers. The workers were independent contractors who were not supposed to sell themselves cheap. Homejoy wanted to treat them better. Alas, the startup failed and ended its operations in 2015. Two things killed it:

  1. The fact that they wanted to restore trust among workers by providing more to them than regular platforms led the authorities to file suits to reclassify the workers as salaried employees. Homejoy lost itself in numerous costly lawsuits. The labour laws inherited from the Fordist era when everyone was an employee eventually stand in the way of Internet platforms treating independent contractors better to maximise trust.
  2. Homejoy sought to acquire new customers by offering them low-priced entry deals, thus sending them the wrong message about the service. Their retention rates were very low as these new customers never converted to the ‘real price’ of trust. If you lure customers with low prices, don’t expect them to trust the quality of your service. They came to you for the wrong reasons.

Other platforms have had mixed results. Handy was founded in 2012 and now operates in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. The Handy platform sought to restore some trust on the users’ side by offering a seamless interface and the Uber-like grades of its independent cleaners. But it failed to grasp that for that type of service interpersonal trust cannot be established with a grade alone. Cleaners aren’t a fungible commodity, yet Handy doesn’t make it easy to establish a relationship with an individual worker. Eventually, if a strong personal relationship is established, customers and workers will just bypass the platform to enjoy the benefits of trust…without the platform as an impersonal and rigid intermediary. In other cases, Handy has produced dissatisfaction among customers with relatively high no show rates and dissatisfaction among workers with disproportionately severe rules, as described in this Slate article:

“As for the cleaners, many have enjoyed the business the Handy platform has brought them. But others have felt exploited by the company’s policies. They face harsh penalties for missed jobs. They must maintain exceptionally high ratings to earn the most competitive wages and to keep getting gigs. And as contractors, not employees, they enjoy few if any traditional workplace protections. Three former cleaners have now filed two separate suits alleging that Handy classifies them as contractors but oversees them like employees — and demanding that the company compensate them for their unpaid time and expenses.”

What if the solution was to restore craftsmanship and democratise it?

The values of craftsmanship in these professions have never fully disappeared, they were simply reserved to the privileged few. Indeed, as the number of billionaires skyrocketed over the past two decades, the business of providing high-quality super trustworthy housekeepers and butlers has boomed. A WSJ article titled “The Help:Demand for Housekeepers and Butlers Is on the Rise” provides more details about this “aristocratic” business:

Demand for the well-staffed home is on the rise, according to agencies and house managers alike. Clients are calling for live-in couples, live-out housekeepers, flight attendants for private jets, stewards for the yachts and chefs for the summer house. In San Francisco, Town and Country Resources, a staffing agency for domestic help, has seen demand for estate managers and trained housekeepers grow so fast the agency is going to offer its own training programs in subjects like laundry, ironing and spring cleaning starting in 2014. Claudia Kahn, founder of The Help Company, a staffing agency based in Los Angeles, says she used to get one call a month for a butler but has gotten three in the past week alone. Some request old-fashioned “‘Downton Abbey’-type service”.
I just had to use that picture, now that Ishiguro got the Nobel.

But what if that type of craftsmanship could be democratised? What if we empowered many more cleaning persons to create more value for regular households and companies?

To put it simply, I see two types of solutions to democratise craftsmanship in cleaning services:

For private individuals, platforms that work like Hopwork could connect customers with people, instead of services. Customers could get in contact with reliable and talented workers who they can trust with their keys. They could be allowed to develop interpersonal relationships built on trust in which price is not so important anymore. They could trust these workers with more and more tasks (concierge-type tasks, running a budget and a household, being in charge of everything).

The workers could start building a profile and a reputation, which would allow them to make a better living. Without platforms those cleaning persons with good connections have managed that on their own. What if new startups could help make it easier for every cleaning person to build a reputation, restore trust and leverage their unique personality?

With a personal profile (that includes their tastes, their culture, their history, the languages they speak, etc.), they can improve their employability and increase their prices. They’ll be able to do more and move up, find a niche, and even have a career strategy of their own (and apply Michael Porter’s strategic positioning model to their individual careers).

For companies, restoring trust and leveraging craftsmanship might mean re-internalising their cleaning person. Once they’ve hired somebody trustworthy, talented and the right ‘cultural fit’, they can empower that person to be their concierge as well. Why not call your cleaning person a “Chief Happiness Officer” if that sounds more ‘core business’ to your ears?

Today, every company claims it wants to improve its offices and the quality of life of its employees. What’s more important than hiring the right people to take good care of your space and satisfy your team with nice attentions? And that person (those people) shouldn’t have to be invisible! They should be part of your team, be trusted to take initiatives and embrace the interest of the company.

Everybody should have their Reggie Love!