The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown the importance of basic services into sharp relief. From food to logistics, from IT to security, the small wheels that keep life running smoothly have suddenly emerged as the critical sectors they are. And one such sector is cleaning. The sanitization and maintenance of our public and private living spaces has been stepped up: what, then, is being done for the workers who now shoulder an increased burden?
People Matters asked Zhong Jingjing, the head of operations for the Singapore branch of Internet-based home cleaning services firm Helpling, how she is managing her people and keeping them safe, especially during this period of heightened caution. Here are the highlights of the conversation.
Note: Between the conversation and the time of publication, Singapore has announced a shutdown of all non-essential workplaces to control community spread of Covid-19, and is planning legislation to restrict individuals from allowing others to enter their homes. Helpling is among the businesses that has temporarily ceased operations in compliance with the government's instructions.
Now that people are being advised to maintain extra cleanliness and social distancing, how are you keeping your workers and your customers reassured?
We're very tight in terms of operations. We have to be, because our service involves our cleaners going into customers' houses. Each of our cleaners serves 20-30 customers, and if just one person is sick, that's all those customers infected.
So we brief our cleaners very thoroughly: we even tell them not to touch escalators, handrails, handgrips on the train. We provide them with equipment, masks to protect themselves and disinfection solubles that they can use to disinfect surfaces at customers' houses. We have them report their temperature every single day, we video chat with them, we get them to monitor each other. If we see someone's temperature is elevated or they are having symptoms, even of a regular cold or flu, we separate them from their colleagues and we don't allow them to go to customers' houses.
Have you seen any change in the demand for your services since the outbreak began?
Yes! At first, some of our customers panicked and wanted to cancel all services. But then they realized that they couldn't stay at home forever—they were still going in and out, some were still going to work, and now it's more important to keep their homes clean than ever. And cleaning is not really something that everyone can do. You need to know what chemicals to use for different surfaces and different applications, especially now that we've introduced surface disinfection because of the virus situation. A lot of people ask whether they are doing cleaning right during this period, and that's actually a really good question.
Did you need to provide your cleaners with additional training?
Absolutely. When we brought in the disinfection solubles, we briefed them on the proper usage—for example, surface disinfection won't work unless you have cleaned the surface first. And these chemicals are not suitable for every surface, and so our cleaners needed to know that they shouldn't be using them for surfaces like the interior of the fridge or the oven.
Our training has been very thorough even before the outbreak. We teach them before they start work, and we do it ourselves—the thing about home cleaning is that every single household is so different, and it's just not possible for a commercial course to teach someone how to behave in every household. But we have so much experience with this particular area that our SOPs can at least cover a lot of what our cleaners need to know. For instance, we train them in basic customer service to boost their confidence when they go to customers' houses.
Helpling is essentially a gig economy company: how do you differentiate your approach to managing your workers from say, the food delivery companies?
I joined Helpling back in July of 2018, and one of the problems we faced when I came in was that we were getting way too many customer complaints. I talked to the customers one by one, got their feedback, and I realized that all the feedback went back to the fact that the cleaners were not happy. And because of that, they didn't do a good job.
That was when I realized that we needed to run an organization that uses the people-first approach. If you make sure people are happy, they will go in and deliver their best service to the customers.
So from that point on, we spent a lot of time and effort making sure that we talked to every single cleaner, all the hundreds who work with us.
We ask them to send in their feedback every quarter, and we ask them to rate their happiness. We have targets like making sure that all the cleaners rate their happiness 8/10, instead of say 7/10. And we try to understand why they might not be happy with a certain customer's house. We ask them to rate customers, and if one customer gets three negative ratings from three different cleaners, we don't serve that customer any more.
We try to take care of their well-being, try to make sure that they are happy working here and that they are making enough money. These two things—happiness and making enough money—are a deal-breaker. In return, they've been really cooperative during this outbreak. They report their temperature exactly on time every single day, and that's amazing.
How do you hit those happiness targets?
A number of our cleaners have experience as full-time domestic helpers, and they usually didn't like it much: a confined environment, under the eye of the same person all the time, they found it stressful. But with us, they're able to go into a customer's house, do the work, and then come out and be free. I did a survey with them, and 98 percent said they're happier than before. Most of them said it's because they can choose what they want to work on. We also give them proper off days so that they can take a break and have a life.
We also constantly communicate with them. If they have feedback about any customers, we take that very seriously.
We tell them: "If any customer abuses you or scolds you, if you don't feel comfortable going into a customer's house, tell us. We'll take care of it for you. We're all people. We've got to have mutual respect. Even if they're a customer, they have to respect you. But in return, you have to do a good job."
That's the mindset we try to inject into them. And once it takes hold, we have a really good relationship with them, because they understand that we are here to help them.
It's not easy to manage a couple of hundred people, especially with language barriers, or when some of them have other commitments. We have a really high touchpoint—we check in with them very regularly. We try to match and manage expectations, including salary and workload expectations. At the end of the day it is about making sure that everyone is treated fairly and puts in effort fairly.