The Myth about Office Cleanliness

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I remember seeing a morning news report about how dirty our offices are during the mid- to late-1990s[1]. I was a pre-teen at the time, so I can’t remember the specific details of the report. But I recall the news segment showed a close-up of a cleaning lady scrubbing a desk and washing a phone receiver, while the reporter described the reality of office housekeeping. I think the report told viewers that office housekeepers are only responsible for cleaning the floors, restrooms, and café areas of an office building.

That revelation goes against our fantasy image of the housekeeping staff diligently cleaning every nook and cranny in the office. If you still have that expectation, I’m here to burst your bubble and confirm the cleaning services at our offices don’t clean much. The staff typically does not clean the surface of your desk or dust things like your computer monitors, and the floor is likely the dirtiest surface in your office.

Vacuuming the floors, emptying wastebaskets, and cleaning restrooms are obvious tasks housekeeping staff will perform in any office building. If the building is owned by a single company, you can count on the staff cleaning any cafés or dining areas, and probably the communal refrigerators once a week too. If you work in an office building with many different businesses, they may only clean the restrooms on each floor.

They will not clean your desk!

They don’t clean your desk because it’s too much of a liability. The staff could accidentally vacuum something up, or move a stack of papers, or accidentally do something which disrupts business the next day. So, cleaning the desks are too risky when it comes to reportable complaints and lost items. As a defense against such claims, the housekeeping staff or contracting company, can simply say they don’t clean the desks unless there is a visible spill. If the housekeeper does clean your desk regularly, then you’re the rare exception.

We should remember that many of the housekeepers are contractors, and they need to move quickly from room to room, and floor to floor to make money. It can take an entire night for a team of housekeepers to do a standard cleaning in a skyscraper with over 40 floors. Many family-owned, small business contractors have several smaller buildings they need to clean each night, so it makes sense for the cleaning staff to avoid our desks. It’d take forever for them to do their jobs, and they can’t make as much money in the process.

This means your keyboard and mouse are still teaming with germs since the last time you cleaned them. Your phone may still have the same germs or makeup residue from the last person who used it too. This is normal, and it’s your responsibility to keep your work area clean.

Unfortunately, I’ve worked at a few locations where the cleaning staff has consistently missed the floors at the office, which is their primary responsibility. And Covid-19 has made this worse by forcing the staff to focus on cleaning high-contact surfaces and forget the floors altogether.

At one job, I occasionally noticed the same toasted marshmallow flavored jellybean on the floor, next to my desk, for almost a year. At that same job, I misplaced a Bluetooth adaptor and probably dropped it on the floor. I tore my office apart looking for that adaptor but couldn’t find it. As I threw away the jellybean, I jokingly concluded that, of all things, the adaptor got sucked up by the vacuum.

At another office, I had to sit on the floor to search for a document the mail department threw into the shred bin. I could visibly see hair on the floor and sometimes felt small debris of what could have been dirt or food particles. When I finally found the accursed document, I noticed my black slacks managed to pick up every single hair and dust particle in the area. I had to use a few sheets from a lint roller to make myself presentable again.

It may not be the individual housekeeper’s fault.

I used to work late at my current office before the pandemic forced us to work from home and I remember seeing the housekeeping staff vacuum each room during those late nights. This leads me to believe that it may not be the individual cleaner’s fault the floors are so dirty. I think it’s likely the vacuums are broken, or the vacuum-bags are full. The staff may be so focused on running the vacuum as quickly as possible, they may not notice the things they’re leaving behind.

So now you know your office may not be as clean as you think it is. Your desk hasn’t been cleaned since the last time you personally cleaned it, and the floor is likely even dirtier.

You should forget the “5-second rule” the next time you drop a chip, or other scrap of food at work.

[1] There were only a couple channels we could receive on the antenna TV, so I had to have seen the report on either Channel 11 or 13 (respectively: CBS and ABC).

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