As offices reopen, cleaners are stuck in a weird new reality

Anthony Devlin / Stringer

Andy works as a cleaner at a college in the East Midlands, looking after a campus that would ordinarily be bustling a few hundred teachers and teenagers. After initially being placed on furlough he returned to work in mid-June, even though there is no-one to clean up after.
His first week back was spent binning forgotten sandwiches festering in fridges and giving the whole building a deep clean. Since then, with students at home, Andy has been left with nothing to clean, his usual responsibilities all but disappeared.

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Andy would ordinarily arrive at 6am, unlock the doors and spend the next three hours preparing the classrooms for the day’s lessons. Now, he finishes his three-hour shift in around ten minutes. “We’ve had no kids come in so basically we’re only cleaning what we’re touching,” he says. “I spend the rest of my shift sat in one room trying not to touch anything.”
Andy is one of the 1.63 million UK cleaners back at work and readjusting to post-lockdown rules. Prime minister Boris Johnson announced an end to the government’s work from home guidance from August 1, an attempt to boost the economy by getting people back on public transport and into Pret a Manger.
National newspapers are entering the discourse with their own hot takes, too. “We’ve had our lunch, now let’s get back to work!” read the front page of Tuesday’s Daily Mail, delivering an “urgent cry to Britain” to forget social distancing and get back into the office. But as workers are being encouraged to return to their 9-5, Andy believes his employers are offering lip service to employee safety.
After months in lockdown he was told to go back to work with just two days notice and has been reprimanded for failing to follow rules that he was not informed of. “We haven’t been given any guidelines or rules, we’ve just been told to do our own thing,” he says. “We were supposed to be given protection when we arrived but only received one disposable mask, a coverall and a face shield. We were told we only have to wear PPE if someone higher up comes to visit, or to say we’ve decided not to use them. It’s passing the blame on to us.”

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These failings are perhaps to be expected, given how the guidance on ensuring businesses are Covid-secure is open to interpretation. Official government advice states that all workplaces set to reopen should first undertake a risk assessment.
Frequently touched surfaces such as microwaves and kettles should be regularly sanitised, movement of people around the office should be limited and posters should inform staff of any changes. “As an employer, you must protect people from harm,” the document states. “This includes taking reasonable steps to protect your workers and others from coronavirus.”
How that is done varies from workplace to workplace, and the operation is a mammoth one. Mitie is one of the UK’s biggest facilities management companies, employing around 17,000 frontline cleaners working in train stations, office spaces and schools. The company’s cleaning teams have also been based at 11 regional Covid-19 testing centres and headed up the cleaning operation at NHS Nightingale Hospital in London.
Their guidelines to keep the UK squeaky clean read like a military operation. Mitie has distributed over six million pieces of PPE since March, while each of the 31,000 UK sites that Mitie is contracted to clean have been risk assessed and made Covid-secure.

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This includes treating over one million square meters of public space with a new product called Citrox Protect, equivalent to ~10,000 litres of disinfectant, since June. More recently, as travellers return to the skies, Mitie is trialling automated cleaning robots at two major international airports. These robots work alongside specialist cleaning teams, misting a non-toxic solution throughout key locations within the airport.
These measures have allowed Mitie to quickly “establish a new normal”, says James Gilding, managing director of cleaning and environmental services at Mitie. “In many cases, our cleaners’ day-to-day experience is the same today as it was in March.”
This “new normal” looks different in each workplace, though. Helen, who works as a civil servant, has seen her office completely overhauled. A record of her working hours must be kept on record for 21 days to ensure track and trace protocols are met. Narrow stairways are out of use, face-to-face meetings have been outlawed and the office is operating a one way system.
Several “hygiene stewards” have also been appointed to ensure that everyone plays by the rules. “I imagine those people are busybodies who want something not too taxing to put on their end of year review,” she says.
This Spaghetti Junction of safeguarding practices is there to reassure employees that it’s safe to return to the workplace. “Because it’s the civil service they have no choice but to do everything they can,” says Helen. But some of these measures may simply be there to offer an illusion of safety, rather than a foolproof plan to ward off the virus.
The US Centres for Disease Control, or CDC, suggests that the primary way the virus is spread is not through touching an infected surface, but through air. Sanitising surfaces and washing hands remains important, but an overt emphasis on ridding all surfaces of contamination can “distract from more effective ways to combat Covid-19”, writes Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. For businesses reopening after lockdown, that could mean prioritising the compulsory wearing of masks, to opening satellite offices or investing in workplace infrastructure that allows employees to work from home long-term.
Government guidance is contradictory too. Workers living in areas such as Manchester, West Yorkshire and Leicester are being urged to both stay indoors and return to work.A survey conducted by Theta Financial Reporting found that 57 per cent of UK workers would not feel comfortable returning to a normal working life. In Birmingham, return to work calls were ignored as Colmore business district, normally home to 35,000 workers, lies deserted, while companies such as Google and the NatWest Group are allowing workers to stay at home until 2021.
“Many employees are feeling anxious about returning to the office,” says Libby Sander, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Bond Business School. “We are seeing second waves in a number of countries, so organisations must be open and transparent in their communication. They need to consult with their workforce, give people the option to work from home, proper cleaning and social distancing protocols and and clear policies on what will happen in the event of an outbreak.”
Some semblance of confidence has returned, though. According to data compiled by data consultancy CGA, nearly half of English consumers returned to pubs, bars and restaurants in the first three weeks after lockdown.
This news comes as welcome relief for Jake Anthony, owner of City Cleaning Specialists. As lockdown hit, Anthony’s business stopped almost overnight as his usual window cleaning clients disappeared. With little to do, he instead donned his hazmat suit and wellies and spent weeks sanitising benches and bus stops across his home city of Southampton free of charge.
Now, Anthony says that business has “returned to normality”. Bars and restaurants are now some of his biggest customers. Most clients opt for a deep clean and full sanitisation once a week, which Anthony believes helps reassure staff and acts as a unique form of post-Covid advertisement. “It’s nice for customers to see a sign outside saying a restaurant has been sanitised,” he says. “Showing that your bar, restaurant, whatever has been sanitised will draw in customers.”
Not everyone will be returning to their old life anytime soon. Andy’s days of picking up after college students will soon be over, as after feeling hung out to dry by his employer he’ll soon be handing in his notice. “The lack of support, guidance and communication has all got to me,” he says. “This really is the final straw.”
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