Back to the Future of Grounds Maintenance09 March 2018 / by Jason Petsch (author) / Leatherhead
Grounds Maintenance has become stale, commoditized and in desperate need of renewal.
When you think of industries on the verge of disruption, it’s often a case of seeking out traditional sectors that have been doing things the same way for years - decades, even.
You’ll look for industries that could use a shot in the arm from some smarter thinking or that could benefit from digital technologies to trim away layers of accumulated inefficiency. On the face of it, Grounds Maintenance seems a great candidate for this treatment. In the UK, the sector is extremely fragmented, with many of the established service providers having been around for several decades and delivering very traditional offerings based on fairly rigid maintenance regimes. But that’s not to say that things haven’t been evolving. In many respects, today’s GM industry has companies competing to discover ways to add more value to their clients. Those who struggle to achieve this rely on leaner, cheaper services so much of GM has become increasingly commoditised and, as a result, overall service is suffering. It’s therefore time to re-evaluate some of the common practices in the industry, reconnect with what customers actually need, and shift the competitive battleground further towards value.
Short-term is short sighted
One of the causes of commoditisation has been a relentless focus on the short term: Whether it’s the duration of client contracts, or the seasonality of employment across the sector, there is a lack of investment in lasting relationships and better service delivery.
In many respects, this is an inevitable result of cutthroat competition. When faced with more complex challenges on site, contractors will naturally be reluctant to treat the root cause of an issue if they feel there is a chance that that hard work could be under cut and someone else could reap the rewards later. Too often it’s easier to paper over the cracks and do the minimum amount to meet the specifications rather than go the extra mile to address problems properly, or even work to produce more aesthetically pleasing solutions.
When seeking to reduce costs, first in line to be cut back tends to be winter visits when there is no obvious growth taking place. Typically grounds maintenance companies conduct a process of mass recruitment in March to employ sufficient numbers of staff to cover the peak period / grass-cutting season and then reduce staff numbers again over the winter. However, this pared down approach can be counterproductive as activity during winter months is very important to effective grounds maintenance.
One practical example is leaf collection, where neglect can allow debris to build up and destroy lawns, leading to unnecessary lawn treatments or replacements at a later point. On hard standings, leaves can also decay and leave a substrate for weeds to germinate, which can result in a need for more weed control and unnecessary chemical treatments during the subsequent growing season. Similarly, neglecting autumn and spring pruning of shrubs and hedges can result in more expensive reduction work at a later date (when specialised equipment and chainsaw licenses are required). Just like warming up before workout at the gym, the work we do during winter provides an essential rehab or conditioning phase. Skip this and injuries occur.
A further consequence of cutting back during winter is that grounds maintenance companies are squandering their primary asset – people. The practice of hiring and firing according to the season leads to poorer service delivery, particularly when it results in a higher turnover of staff or a greater reliance on agencies. When you can’t retain experience, it’s difficult to do a good job or even run an efficient operation. For example, it’s very easy to lose half an hour of a visit to a large site simply in assessing the location and getting up to speed with what needs doing. Furthermore, quality can take a nosedive. When you’re using different staff for each visit, it’s far easier to ask them to focus on the basics such as keeping the grass cut to the detriment of addressing more complex challenges or longer-term projects. And when your relationship with those staff only lasts for one season, there is virtually no incentive to invest in their training and give them the skills to take on more responsibility. Engaging seasonal staff can also make it hard to build trust with team leaders and with management. In peak season in particular, grounds maintenance is a hard graft and a well-motivated team that can pull together can be much more effective.
Continuity is key
There’s also the issue of relationships: With a higher turnover of people, it is harder to build the relationships that really matter in effective GM. At the simplest level there’s the relationship with the land itself: When operatives become more familiar with a site itself, they get a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities it presents. Every site is different and building up knowledge of that location lets individuals add more value. They can then also assume a greater level of responsibility for planning and implementing necessary actions and take greater pride in that work. This really shines through – particularly for clients, who can benefit from more specific expertise and guidance e.g. when recommending further improvements.
The human dimension can be very significant when servicing clients where a familiar face is important. In a residential context, such as housing associations, people will naturally be happier knowing the people working around their homes. Often a resident’s experience of the quality and nature of grounds maintenance can be what defines their wider perception of the service they receive from the association as a whole. Indeed, the same perceptual factors are equally true for clients such as retail or business parks and wherever there are a greater number of stakeholders involved better relationships and increased accountability can help to manage the increased number of challenges. Again to use the example of housing, residents want to feel listened to and be able to have their say on any plans for improving their site. Conversely, complaints can arise if people think work has not been done or that the standard of work is inadequate. In these situations it is important that grounds maintenance teams on site are empowered to talk to both residents and housing managers and proactively solve small requests without delay.
The right balance between people and technology
All of this may seem to be an argument in favour of good old-fashioned hard work and ditching the ultra-flexible, lean working practices of modern contracting. It may even be taken as a case against outsourcing grounds maintenance in the first place. However, it’s important not to see these things as being mutually exclusive.
While the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, there is a middle ground to which we can return. Grounds maintenance companies can modernise, stay agile and take advantage of digitisation, while still fostering those vital relationships and invest in people for better service delivery.
This is the model that we have sought to build at GRITIT Grounds Maintenance – and it can and does work. Although we service hundreds of sites in each region, wherever possible we seek to ensure that the same team members care for each of these sites. As a grounds maintenance company that is part of winter gritting firm, we also have an opportunity to retain more staff during the quieter winter periods (GM staff can join the gritting operation if they so choose). However it is achieved, better retention is key for any grounds maintenance firm seeking to invest in their staff, and it has given us the security to invest more in training (many of our staff now attained horticulture NVQs to level 2 or level 4, including a regular stream of apprentices). We think that the investment pays dividends as skilled team leaders and operators do become more effective and serve as better ambassadors for both our own and our clients’ businesses.
This back-to-basics approach to people is a somewhat different way of disrupting an industry, but it is long overdue for grounds maintenance. Even as GM returns to its roots, new technology will be vital to growing its future. From smart devices on site, to databases at the back end to client portals and apps – better technology can help service providers more efficiently plan, monitor and record activity, while allowing busy clients to save time and resources monitoring their GM contracts. It’s always been about delivering the small details that matter most, whilst passing on the savings that come through working better and on a larger scale.