Nils J.van der Zijl, VP Sales & Marketing, Softbank Robotics EMEA explains how AI and RPA can help employers tackle a high-churn talent environment

High staff attrition has been a painful fact of life for FM and cleaning businesses for many years.

Linked to this, FM companies face a constant struggle to recruit and train the people they need to replace leavers and ensure they consistently have the workforce they need to meet service level agreements. In most cases, contractors simply cannot access the volume of people they need to feed into the revolving door of talent within their cleaning teams.

Even at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, in March this year, 82% of FM leaders reported that attracting employees was a significant challenge and 79% admitted that employee churn was an issue for their organisation.

Now the pandemic has exacerbated these problems even further. FM and cleaning companies are having to respond to increased scrutiny of cleaning performance as clients look to ensure their buildings are safe for people to return to them. At the same time, they are having to manage a workforce that is hugely over-stretched and ensure that cleaning staff remain safe in what are extremely challenging conditions.

Whilst it is still too soon for any official figures to be published, it is being widely reported that  both staff churn and absenteeism due to physical or mental illness amongst frontline cleaning staff are increasing during the pandemic.


Developing an employer brand in FM

One of the reasons that it’s been so hard for FM companies to recruit the frontline staff they need has been the their lack of differentiation in the labour market. They simply don’t have any kind of discernably different ‘pull’ factor to draw in operational talent.

In our research, 79% of FM leaders across Europe admitted that developing an employer brand was a major HR challenge. The high staff turnover rates mentioned before means that it has been almost impossible to create a sustainable culture across operational teams and therefore there is little to communicate to prospective employees, beyond a salary. Added to this, few FM companies have been able to show prospective cleaning staff any kind of career development or upskilling plans. And 86% of FM leaders admit that developing employees and providing opportunities for advancement is challenging.

Evidently, there is an engagement problem, and employers are understandably struggling to make meaningful connections within a constantly changing workforce, with huge diversity in language, ethnicity and background.


The importance of employer brand

People join and leave organisations for all sorts of reasons, some of which are completely out of the control of the employer in question, but without a doubt, the employer’s brand plays a major part in the decisions people make.

Do employees have a clear, tangible reason to join and stay at a company?

Do they believe in what the company stands for and do they feel they are better off with this employer than any other?

That’s what it essentially comes down to in an industry where no business can realistically differentiate on salary or benefits to any significant degree. It’s about the wrap-around factors, the employer brand.

And this is where we’re seeing the introduction of cobotics makes a real difference to FM companies.


Using cobotics to enhance employer brand and build workforce culture

Cobots are collaborative robots that work alongside frontline operational teams, carrying out strenuous and repetitive work and freeing up people to focus on less physically demanding but higher value tasks.

Whiz, our cobotic vacuum sweeper, is now being deployed by forward-thinking, innovation-led businesses across Europe, alongside their cleaning teams.

Of course, the main driver for deployment is improved efficiency and performance, but our clients are also telling us that the introduction of Whiz is having a positive impact on employee engagement amongst frontline staff.

Here are a few of the ways that cobots can make a real difference to engagement and employer brand:

  • By taking away repetitive tasks, cobots ease the strain on workers. This reduces the risk of repetitive strain injury, makes each shift less physically demanding and helps to enhance employee wellbeing
  • Cleaning staff can spend time on more varied work that makes a real difference to clients and end users of buildings. This is more personally rewarding and makes work more enjoyable
  • Working alongside Whiz, frontline staff have an opportunity to interact with cutting-edge innovation and develop new skills managing AI-driven technology. For experienced cleaning professionals that have seen little change in the industry for decades, this is a hugely welcome change; and for younger workers, millennials and Gen Zs, these digital natives place huge importance on technology in the workplace

The feedback from frontline employees that are using Whiz is extremely positive – it has helped to raise the profile of cleaning within the wider organisation and cleaning teams are genuinely excited about working with cobots. Check out this video from Steam Hotel in Sweden.

And employers can recognise the upsides as well, with 87% of FM leaders predicting that the introduction of cobotics will provide workers with more opportunities for career advancement.

The challenge now is for employers to take this internal positivity and communicate it externally.

FM contractors can ‘sell’ the idea of working alongside cobots to prospective employees, and shout about the benefits they can enjoy.

In an industry where differentiation in the labour market has been close to impossible, cobotics really can be the trigger for a stand-out employer brand.