By Ryan Bell (County of Alameda, California) and Jon Gire (now with City of San Jose, California)
Many jurisdictions aiming for zero-waste operations or energy conservation have realized their buildings’ janitorial staff are critical partners. Here are some suggestions based on our experience working with the janitorial department at Alameda County on how to gain buy-in and support for sustainability efforts. (While we are working with County staff, these suggestions also apply to working with contractors.)
1. Invite the janitors to the table from the start, and view your work as an opportunity to help them address their own challenges: Janitors are your eyes and ears in the building; they are a key partner to letting you know what is working, what isn’t working, and which specific buildings, floors, and topic areas need additional outreach. Not only is their input and support critical to the program’s success, but you can also help your janitorial team address their own concerns. For instance, green cleaning programs can improve air quality and ergonomics.
2. Have a conversation, and take the time to explain the big picture: Janitors are professionals in their field who have a lot to teach us. We have received positive feedback for taking the time to discuss why things are being done, explain how it fits into the big picture, and asking for input – rather than asking them to make changes in their operations without explanation.
During your conversation, keep in mind that while we work daily on these environmental topics, your partners may not have the same background. Avoid jargon, check in frequently, leave space for questions, and explain fully.
3. Include the line staff (not only the janitorial leads) in the conversation: The line staff are the ones who work in the buildings each day. What equipment do they see being left on all night? What do they recommend as the most effective outreach approach or technical fix? You can start to build a positive relationship by engaging the line staff as your partners early in your process, before asking them to implement changes.
4. Make the topic relevant: As with other partners, conservation goals may not be the janitorial department’s top priority, nor what individuals are being evaluated on; they may be evaluated on safety, cleanliness, and customer service. Recognize this and look for win-wins. For example, if you’re moving to a zero-waste program with multiple collection bins, point out that multiple bins are smaller, lighter, and easier to move. If these programs have been requested by employees, highlight that conservation programs are another way to increase occupant satisfaction.
5. Take time to address their concerns: Anticipate and hear how new programs will affect janitorial operations. For instance, will separated trash require more collection passes through the building? You might suggest attaching multiple bags to janitor carts or identifying a staging area.
Remember that the building occupants see the line staff daily so the janitors will receive the complaints if something is not working. Help work out responses. Are customers concerned that compost will smell or attract pests? The janitor can respond that the material in the compost bin is the same material currently collected, simply being placed in a separate bin. You can also provide materials and create educational campaigns that direct questions and concerns to your office directly, to reduce the communications burden on the janitorial staff.
6. Share visuals to make it real, and leave information for future reference: For zero-waste trainings, we bring recycling bins, diagrams of the recycling/compost loop, and a bag of finished compost to pass around. This helps make it real, not theoretical. We find that, like many of our colleagues, janitors are pleasantly surprised to see that the compost we are talking about – material that used to be garbage – looks and smells like great gardening soil. We also provide handouts using graphical approaches to help with language barriers.
We distribute signs that can be posted in the janitorial offices, waste enclosures, or other common areas as reminders:
7. Involve janitors’ peers in your trainings: Invite a janitor already doing the green effort, like composting collection, to give his or her story and offer encouragement to the group who will be starting the effort in a new area. During janitorial trainings, emphasize the “norm” of green practices by giving examples from throughout all the different janitorial work groups.
8. Provide feedback on how things are going: Be sure to let the janitors know when things are going well, instead of only reaching out when additional support is needed. We create recognition posters that summarize impacts of the janitors’ efforts, such as the equivalent of trees saved from paper recycling. These posters are distributed to janitorial break rooms, supervisors’ offices, and clock-in areas.
9. Recognize effort: Nominate janitors for any workplace green awards your organization offers to recognize employees committed to reducing the environmental impact of operations. Because their work often takes place during off-hours or behind the scenes, they are not frequently recognized for their vital role in keeping your organization running. Green awards provide a great venue for recognition.
10. Keep lines of communication open: If your janitorial group has a recurring supervisors meeting, sit in once in a while to give a short talk about recent green initiatives and answer any questions or concerns. We are amazed at how much, including otherwise unreported issues, is shared when we start the conversation!
Please share your own tips in the comments below.