PFM 21 2 Mar 2018 - Page 16



NEWS
news
Looking Back to the Future of
Grounds Maintenance
Grounds Maintenance has become stale, commoditised and in desperate
need of renewal but to evolve, the experts at GRITIT Grounds
Maintenance argue that the industry needs to go back to basics
W
hen 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 reevaluate 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
16
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

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