Most large American employers have a plan to control a COVID-19 outbreak at this point. We’re past the awkward fumbling of early April, where our teams were trying to educate an unaware workforce about a new pathogen.
Most employees understand the rules at this point. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Avoid large groups of people. You can adjust the flow of work within a plant to reduce the risk of exposure within your team. With proper precautions and good execution, the workplace can be protected.
Unfortunately, your workers can catch COVID-19 from community exposure as well. Your team heads home, stops by the grocery store, chats with some neighbors, and socializes with their family — all of which create additional opportunities for them to catch this new disease.
So what do you do when one of them brings this new pathogen back into the office?
COVID-19 as a business challenge
The typical incident starts with a phone call, generally a few days after an employee calls out sick. Most COVID-19 cases are mild, by the way, and many patients are on their way to recovery by the time they become aware of their exposure. This means they potentially had several days in which to expose their colleagues to the disease, not to mention contaminate surfaces in their work area.
As a business operations leader, you’ve got two significant challenges. First, you need to quickly isolate and test exposed team members to ensure the virus doesn’t spread. Second, you’re going to need to ensure the location is safe enough to bring people back to work.
The first of these challenges can bring even a well-run manufacturing facility to its knees. For example, look at the U.S. food processing industry, an industry that routinely requires large numbers of employees to work in close proximity to each other. Tyson Foods, a leading U.S. meatpacking company, reported outbreaks at three meatpacking plants during the month of April. Dealing with these outbreaks resulted in the closure of each plant for several days for testing and deep cleaning.
In the Tyson case, the pathogen had spread very quickly before management was aware of the outbreak. Subsequent testing of plant employees revealed that at least 15% of the team at two plants had been infected with the virus. This process was hindered by the fact that three quarters of these cases were effectively asymptomatic, delaying detection of the outbreak.
The business impact was noticeable. All three of the affected plants were closed for several days, adding pressure to an already strained grocery supply chain. These closures attracted the attention of the national media, who ran sensationalist pieces about the situation, potentially distorting consumer demand and stirring policy discussion. Politicians and industry regulators alike paid close attention to events at the meatpacking plants.
Beyond the damage to the brand image and the strain on customer relationships, a second major challenge lurked. While 80% of the Tyson workforce tested negative for COVID-19, confidence had taken a major hit. Assurances were needed to get employees to return to work.
While an inspector may deem a manufacturing plant to “be safe”, that doesn’t create any value unless employees are comfortable enough to show up for work Monday morning.
The business value of deep cleaning: instilling confidence
There’s nothing magical about cleaning and sanitizing an area against COVID-19. Modern disinfectants have broad kill claims against viruses. If your current janitorial services provider is diligently doing their job and cleaning surfaces, you should already be in decent shape. However, dealing with a confirmed case requires a deeper cleaning process.
Aftermath Services is one company that already specializes in deep cleaning services. Before the crisis they built a nationwide business focused on trauma and crime scene cleanup, which often requires a similar level of diligence. With extensive experience addressing biological hazards in unwanted places, they pivoted to address COVID-19 as the pandemic gained strength.
In the words of Bryan Warcholek, the general manager of Aftermath’s COVID-19 team, describes the company’s value in this video, “Anyone without training can clean. It’s going to be everything you can’t see that needs to be disinfected.”
There are two additional assurances attached to that statement. First, the cleaning process should address hard to reach surfaces where pathogens from an infected employee can lurk. In addition to a comprehensive scrubbing of every surface, most deep cleaners use an electrostatic spray or other technology for untouched areas.
Second, you’re paying for the assurance that the cleaning itself was conducted in a comprehensive manner, that the cleaning was executed as a controlled and disciplined technical process vs. the more superficial “tidying up” that a janitor might provide.
These extra assurances should give your employees the confidence to return to work after an outbreak.
Deep cleaning as a growth platform
It takes only a single infected employee to trigger the need for a deep cleaning service, to contain the outbreak before it gains strength within a workplace. With 2.3 million cases of coronavirus in the US, demand for these services is growing rapidly.
This demand is a growth platform for companies in the building services and construction space. Challenged with the rise of work from home and shift from retail to ecommerce channels, deep cleaning is creating a welcome pocket of underserved demand in their core markets. We could be headed towards a future with fewer offices, operated with greater precaution to prevent infection.
One company that has aggressively pivoted into this space is PowerHouse, a portfolio company of Lincolnshire Management. Powerhouse is a construction and building services contractor that already offers deep cleaning services to their customer base. They already have expertise in sanitizing and biohazard cleanup. To unlock growth, they added sales resources and marketing.
“We want to grow the products and services to other spaces and do more in healthcare, retail and hospitality,” said Phil Kim, a managing director at Lincolnshire.
This approach to growth is well aligned with Lincolnshire’s playbook as an operationally focused middle market private equity firm. Like many private equity firms, Lincolnshire’s operating model enabled them to pivot into an emerging market unlocked by industry disruption, one that could help American employees return to the workplace.