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A janitorial service company isn’t the first place you’d look for the future of work. But you probably should.
Mary Miller, CEO of Jancoa, is on the bleeding edge of what the future should look like. Here are some of the insights she shared with us.
Dividing labor between humans and machines
Airports have large open areas that are cleaned very well by robots. They don’t require a lot of thought and have to be done often and exactly the same way all the time. Other areas of airports, and offices are often more complex and require a human to clean well.
This kind of clarity on the type of work is essential to understanding how work will be done in the future. Mary said, “Tech and robots and AI should enhance the quality of life and make things better for people, not take everything away.”
Building an abundance mindset
Mary works with a lot of immigrants coming into the country. She is always thinking about how to create value for new people coming into the country and showing them what life can be like here.
“When we acknowledge the humanity in realizing nobody’s trying to do or cause you harm, but they’re trying to enhance their life for themselves and their family so that they can eat and have a quality of life that they can do for themselves.”
Jancoa is always looking for a great ways to expand the abundance and create value for everyone.
Systems vs. people
If you saw a robot doing a bad job, you wouldn’t yell at it (hopefully). You’d wonder what went wrong in the system it was set up in. You’d go back and examine how that system should be improved to create a better experience.
If you saw a human doing a bad job, you should do the same.
Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. Today our guest is Mary Miller. She is the CEO of Jancoa. Hey Mary, how are you today?
I’m well, Neil. How are you?
I’m super excited. All of our prep conversations got me really jazzed up for what we’re talking about today. So, I’m feeling very positive about this. But let me start off just to make sure you are a certified human. Your capture question today is to finish this statement, ‘I wish everyone could’. How would you finish that?
Oh, that one was a really easy one. I wish everyone could pursue their dreams and use their talents and skills they were born with to make them come true and enjoy every minute they have on this planet.
Wow. That’s a great one. When you realize that when you have that ability to do it, that’s a great deal of privilege. And that’s a great deal of love when you say, man, I wish everyone had that ability just to sit down and say I want to do something great today and align with my dreams. Love that one.
Yeah, absolutely. And I have to tell you Neil, I’ve never dreamt of being a janitor. That was not on my list. We, as human beings, get way too caught up in the task and don’t pause to look at the impact we have by our actions and our words that are spoken.
Totally. So, Mary, let’s start with that. Typically, when we think about the future of work, we have this bias towards like, okay, we’re talking of tech companies, we’re talking all sorts of Silicon Valley stuff. Tell us about your business, and then we’ll get into why you are the perfect person to talk about digital work and the future. Tell us about Jancoa.
Well, I think first we might want to let everybody know that we do not have a bias as being related because even though we have the same last name, we’re not cousins and not related at all.
Because that is a bias that I see regularly in a family business with clusters of families that work in our business. But our business is a janitorial business where we clean, right now, about 20 million square feet just in the Greater Cincinnati area. Pre-COVID, we had been on a journey in a row where our business had doubled in five years. We were up to 630 employees, 95% full time. And the world stopped. And thank God for technology. I mean, I’m an older person and my kids have always referred to me as an Apple geek, a tech geek. I love technology and what it can do to make life easier and more productive. And because of the technology that we had upgraded pre-COVID, we were able to click on, payroll never stopped, tracking people’s hours, there was technology for invoicing and receiving payments, I mean, everything flowed.
So, even though we are a humanity company with 500 employees, still, even after COVID, cleaning every day and over 200 buildings spread over a region of about a 150-mile radius, that technology is what keeps us together. But if it weren’t for people, we wouldn’t have a company. So, humanity has been a huge component that technology helps make happen. But it’s like any good marriage or relationship. You have to have respect for both sides.
This is great. I’m loving this conversation already. So, let’s dive into that. You’re also, by nature, a distributed company. You don’t have an office where all of those 500 people come to work every day, right? They go out to various locations.
That’s a fact. That’s a fact. They go directly to their location.
So, how would you describe your digital workplace? What’s the experience that people have? What’s the headquarters, so to speak, of your business when it comes to digital tools?
Well, the digital tools we have helps us in our value system. Commitment is number one, communication is number two. And that’s where the digital piece really comes in. Because the technology, the iPhones, the technology, the iPads, the 2-in-1 laptops, all of these things help us communicate better through emails and phone calls and bring in that humanity connection where we can stay in touch with our team members and our customers.
Let’s talk more about this marriage of tech and humanity that you talked about because it’s something we’re always trying to figure out. What is the right blend? We try to talk about a ‘human-first’ mindset or human focus, but then also looking at how technology can enable humans. So, you’re in a field where some might say, ‘Hey, you know, in 15 years, we’re just going to have robots that are cleaning everything anyway. So, what’s the point? Don’t invest in humans. Just invest in the technology.’ How are you navigating that world of trying to find a right blend or a symbiosis of the two?
Yeah, that’s a really great perspective because that has been a conversation we’ve had. And I have friends, of course lots of friends in the industry, but friends at the Greater Cincinnati airport, saying that they’ve got wide open spaces, and that my offices that we clean typically don’t have a lot of wide-open spaces. So, it’s harder for robots to program for them to get around and all the nuances that different office buildings have. But if you think of an airport, the terminals are so wide open. And what my friend Brian Cobb has been able to do is stay up with technology and have robots to do the wide-open areas which allows them money to free up to be able to pay more to the janitors that have to do the detail work that the robots aren’t capable of doing. Because it’s hard. I’d almost say, it’s impractical.
There are some things that there’s a human thought process or decision that needs to be made on the spot of the moment. A robot can’t necessarily do that. They have broad parameters. There’s a lot they can do. And man! Who would have ever guessed Siri would have gotten better, but yes, AI does constantly improve, and I’ve actually been to one of those gigs and have enjoyed Peter Diamandis’ ‘Abundance 360’, and that looks into the future of what is possible. But you got to have people and respect people in a way. And I agree with Dan Sullivan, the founder of Strategic Coach, that says tech and robots and all that AI and everything else is doing should enhance the quality of life and make things better for people, not take everything away. And that’s a really interesting boundary to watch, to see how that’s going to be done. Because, again, people will have different descriptions or definitions of what that means.
And if we look to a very idealized future, I wouldn’t rank cleaning toilets as humanity. If we can get humans out of that role, get them doing something else, or provide some kind of basic income for them, that’d be great. We don’t want that to happen. But, like you said too, there’s a little bit of specialization that we’ve talked about before about how a plumber, a residential plumber, would maybe be the last job to ever get automated. Just because there’s so many intricate decisions and every house is different. There are so many things like that. So, there’s always going to be a need for some kind of specialty cleaning service as well that’s going to be there. So, understanding, okay, how do you need to train your workforce going forward. Being able to sit on a machine and clean wide-open spaces, it’s probably not something you really want to invest training into and figuring out how to do that. But some of these other skills, as well, will become more important.
Well, that can be any of the efficiencies that allows our productivity to go up so that you can expand. You may not have as many human beings working and doing the work. But there’s always going to be entry level people and immigrants looking for a better quality of life. I remember several years ago I spoke at a worldwide conference in New York City. And I was talking to some of the other attendees coming from Europe about what their obstacles were. Because I always enjoy, like you do, preparing for a podcast, and know a little bit about the audience. And I asked, what is your biggest obstacle that you’re dealing with? He says, ‘Keeping up and making sure I’m creating value for the immigrants.’ And I said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Where are your immigrants coming from?’ Right? He’s in Spain. I’m in the middle of the US. And we both have that issue of making sure we can attract and retain and train immigrants in a way that we’re creating value for them.
Because for the most part, locals don’t want to clean those toilets that you mentioned. That’s something that people that are really trying, that are at an entry level coming into a country trying to make their lives better, not only will they do it, but thank you for the opportunity. So, as the owner of that company, my responsibility is to show appreciation and gratitude for their hard work by helping find out what are their obstacles individually and how can I help lift them? What do they need to learn? What is their educational level? Where are they at? Where do they need to be? And what programs exist that I can help connect them to so that they can improve their quality of life?
Yeah, and this is a great too. Let’s take a little turn. We will talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, because I think this feeds into the same topic too. We talked earlier too about how companies like yours should probably be the ones that we look to as experts in these topics. Technology companies, software companies, people who already have the privilege and access to be able to study computer engineering and programming, that generally doesn’t bring in the full diversity of what we can experience. But someone like you who understands. You see everyone. You see all sorts of people that are coming into different plays. And it’s so encouraging to see the approach you’re taking to immigration, just saying like, ‘Hey, people are coming in. How can we give them a great experience? Hey, welcome to the US. Here’s a job. Here’s how we can take care of you. This is what you should expect from an employer’ type stuff. Just lead us out in that discussion. What do you see as your role in that DEI conversation?
I think DEI, diversity is acknowledging the different backgrounds. There are so many different perspectives to diversity. It’s not just race. It’s not just ethnicity, age, gender. There are so many life choices now that diversity, like my husband and I are diverse, where he’s male and female, he’s older than me. I mean, there’s all kinds of things that make us different. But inclusion, when you add diversity acknowledging the differences, as the French would say, ‘Vive la de Français’, right, inclusion means ‘everybody feels welcome in the room’. So, we are including them in the conversations. We’re including them in the possibilities of opportunities to make their life better than what it is or has been in the past. And equity means that, not necessarily treat everybody the same equal, but they have the same opportunity to improve and enhance their quality of life. We don’t do it for them. But we set up an environment to allow them to do it for themselves while creating connections and encouragement to work through those difficult changes.
Because imagine, my great grandmother came from Germany to the US during the middle of World War I. There was hardly any food there. They were starving. She was able to get to Chicago, and a marriage broker connected her to a farmer in Batesville, Indiana, where she thought she would die a rich woman because she’d never be hungry again. Right? So, everybody goes someplace else, sometimes away from something. She was moving away from hunger, but she was moving toward a better quality of life. A lot of the people that come to the US, almost all of them, they come to North America, because a lot of them go to Canada too looking for that better quality of life than what they had, for themselves and their families. So, when we acknowledge the humanity in realizing nobody’s trying to do or cause you harm, but they’re trying to enhance their life for themselves and their family so that they can eat and have a quality of life that they can do for themselves.
When you look at some of these discussions happening in big corporations, tech corporations, what do you feel is missing from that conversation that you feel people need to be talking about more based on your experiences?
Just basic simple humanity alone. Technology is important to make things better for people, but it’s not the end all. And I think when we find ways to embrace the two and connect them in a way that can help lift and help eliminate obstacles on all sides and help capture opportunities, then it will become a win-win. I don’t think there has to be a win-lose in any of these scenarios. I think that it can really be a win-win where everybody benefits from it. And nobody wants things done for them. If you think about it Neil, when did you feel the best about yourself? Was it after you accomplished something you really didn’t know if you could do it or not? That’s basic humanity. And if there’s a way that technology can help people be aware, know what that is, and to track it in a way they feel better about themselves rather than using it as a stick to beat themselves up because it wasn’t good enough, there’s that.
I love that perspective of how we can see people as humans and see the work that you’re doing as important to society. It’s not just, ‘Oh, we need to get our offices cleaned.’ But this is where in fact you’re working with humans and you’re working with ways to create a better workplace and a better society too.
One of the silver linings, which there were many silver linings of COVID, was that our people were being acknowledged as necessary to keep people healthy. And nobody ever thought of the janitors as being necessary. They were just there. And if it wasn’t done right, then they would be criticized in a way that was very inhuman in so many ways. And we want to know when we can be better. We want to do things better and make things safe. But the way we address and communicate with others. And I don’t want to take anything away from the genius of tech, but it takes very different talents and abilities to be able to train people at basic levels that don’t know what they don’t know.
So, we have a wide spectrum. Extreme differences of the political extremes that we’re dealing with. The extremes of humanity. And it doesn’t make one person better or worse than the other. But it is something that if we just acknowledge it, we feel better when we help others, and they feel better when they are able to achieve and grow. So, when we can start keeping that as part of the conversation and the possibility, I think, it would make a huge difference just with the energy. I mean imagine Neil, what would this world look like if 80% of the people were pursuing their dreams, what they really wanted to do and use their talents, skills to make them come true? Because when you’re pursuing dreams, what’s your energy like? What’s your attitude toward other people?
Yes, there is so much difference. I agree with you.
Yeah. And we can all help each other achieve that and make that happen.
I’m thinking about something that you said earlier about when someone maybe would criticize a job that somebody would do. Just the difference in thinking about that, that split between tech and humanity. Like, if I were in that airport and I saw that the one spot hadn’t been cleaned and I knew that it was a robot that was doing that, I would criticize the system. I would say, ‘This thing wasn’t programmed right. It wasn’t designed to do what it should be doing.’ So, I would immediately look at that. But if I thought a human would do it, then I would say, ‘You messed up here. Fix that.’ And so, there’s this different viewpoint that we have to take. And I think there’s something here in terms of, for example, if you take it outside of just the cleaning services and other things, the difference between criticizing a system saying, ‘Hey, this person wasn’t trained right. They weren’t given the right input. They weren’t given the right program to run. There needs to be some more training involved in this’ versus saying, ‘No, you as a human failed at this. Try and move away from that.’
But instead of making the person feel bad about themselves and what they tried to do, to actually look at the system and the breakdown in the system.
Yeah. So, there is almost a little bit of, as we look at the world through digital lenses and as we see the systems behind that, that can actually increase some amount of humanity and allow people to say these things, or even to say, ‘Hey look, this job is so taxing or it’s so beyond what we would require from a human, let’s create a system so that we can automate that so that humans don’t have to do that anymore.’ And push them out of those things. So, I feel there’s some amount of almost humanizing that tech and digital tools can bring to these situations.
Absolutely. And you just refreshed my memory banks with somebody that I just have great respect for, is, Jason Lindstrom and his partner created bucketlist.org. And they were inspired by reading ‘The Dream Manager’, the program we created to help our employees to go after their dreams, to figure out what they really want to do with their lives, instead of just being stuck in the transition. Nobody dreams of being a janitor. It’s a transitional job on the way to something, but some people forget where they were on the way to.
And they are tech people. And Jason and Bart created bucketlist.org with this technology helping companies, whether you have 50 employees or 5000, they engaged them in the conversations in technology where they can tell the leaders of that company, ‘You know, 40% of your team members would like to go bungee jumping’, you know, just to choose something out of thin air. And then they can create an activity to bring these people together. And while still keeping things on a confidential basis of not giving the beans out but companies can know what they can do to engage their employees in their own life.
See, when employees are engaged in their own life, of making life better, then they become engaged in their job. And it creates a loyalty to the company that’s helping them pursue and achieve things they never thought possible. And when you do it in a way that incorporates and involves their family as well, you totally have that connection that companies are dying to have with their team members that reduces the turnover.
See, it sounds really great, dream, fufu, warm, fuzzy. But I got to tell you Neil, we’re more profitable because we care about our people. We doubled our business without a sales team in five years because we cared about our people and people started referring to us for employees as well as for business and customer base. And our profitability is better than it’s ever been in our efficiencies because our turnover is 300% better than the industry average. That’s not just warm, fuzzy. That’s data. And that’s actuality. That is something that, are we perfect? No. But we’re always pursuing conversations and opportunities to get better, to find out how we take this to the next level. Because the minute you think you have it figured out, brand new different obstacles pop up, right?
Yeah. There’s one more area that I feel you have a certain level of clarity that other people might be missing in. Like you said before, you don’t necessarily intend to hire somebody for a long term. They haven’t come to you and said, ‘Hey, it’s my dream to be a janitor for the rest of my life.’ You know as soon as you hire them that this particular role is almost 100% temporary in your life. Maybe it’s there for a year, maybe it’s there for five years, but you know this isn’t the end for you. But I feel in a lot of other companies when you hire somebody else, we don’t have that kind of clarity, even though it’s true. Most positions you’re going to hire for that person’s not going to stay more than five years. Either they’re going to move to a different position within the company or they’re going to find something else. But that gives you this very clear advantage to say, ‘Look, while you’re here, this is the job we need you to do. But we’re also going to build into you. And here’s some other opportunities that are coming up.’ So, you’re always thinking about that, about how to retain people but not just say, ‘Hey, you’re going to stay in this role for the next 30 years.’ And I’d be like, that gives a lot of perspective and clarity that other people don’t get.
Oh, no doubt about it. Every HR person and every executive expects to hire somebody and then they’re surprised when they leave, whether it’s a year, five years, or 10 years later. It’s like you don’t buy a new pair of running shoes and expect them to last forever. But we think people will stick around and they’re not going to. They’re there for their reasons, not for yours. But when you do that, and what gave me perspective Neil, of looking at mine from a different way, is when I was talking with Karen Forgus, the Vice President of Operations with the Cincinnati Reds. Baseball teams know they’re under contract, but every year they have to build this great team. I mean, I’m in Cincinnati. We had the Reds team, the Big Red Machine with Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan and Pete Rose and all of them, and you know, they’re much older today. They didn’t stick around forever. Things change.
And that’s the one thing that tech can really help, as it addresses how we can make the system smoother and keep working in ways, knowing that humanity will change. And you can’t always see that wind of change coming in or why, but it happens. And so, we really ask our people, give us your best three to five years so we get the return on the investment in you with the training and everything else, and we’ll help you during that time, figure out what it is you want to do and connect you to programs that will help you achieve that.
Yeah. I love that. I love the clarity that you have around that. We were talking with someone about a book called ‘The Alliance’ by Reed Hastings. It talks about these transitional times. People need to come in. Maybe it’s a tour of service, or just a few years of something, or maybe it’s going to be starting a new project. And you might have a few of those franchise players that you know they’re with you. You’re going to build your team around them. But they’re very few. You’re going to end up with a few of those on a team, sports team or even in a company. And having that perspective of saying like, ‘Yeah. Give us your best three, five years, we’ll give you our best. And let’s see what we can build after that.’ I think that’s a very healthy perspective to have.
And then you get surprised and amazed by people that stick around for 10,15, 20, 30 years. I’ve got people that have worked here for 30 years. We had a guy who retired that worked with Tony, my husband, when he started this business 49 years ago. He taught my husband how to clean floors. And he wanted to share all the stories and Tony said, ‘The party’s over if you start talking’. So yeah, and he had a son and his grandson all worked in the business at some point. So, you want to create an environment to attract people, to want to be part of your organization.
Just as much as I love technology and digital, you still need the people to do it. So, you want great people. I’m on a great Board for a tech company out up in Nova Scotia in Halifax, and it’s not easy to figure out what are the components that make a team work together, even with tech. And especially when not everybody is together and people are working from home and are having virtual connections, when you start focusing on acknowledging the humanity component and connecting at that level, you can build a better team faster.
Fantastic. Mary, I wish we had a ton of more time because I feel like we could just talk for days about all this stuff going through. But let’s wrap this up.
Yeah, I’m like the best.
I know there’s so many directions to go with this. Tell people where they can go to learn more about you, but specifically talk a little bit about ‘The Dream Manager’ while you have some time.
Well, ‘The Dream Manager’ was a book written by Matthew Kelly, and he’s got this wonderful organization called Floyd Consulting, that you can look under Floyd or you can look up Dream Manager. And they help people, individuals, who want to get certified to be dream managers or companies that want them to come in to help them with their team, with attraction and retention. And they’ve got a great program and it was started by the program we started in Jancoa. J-A-N-C-O-A. You could go to our website, Jancoa.com. And there’s more information about our business. There’s a site about me where I do a lot of speaking. We’re a family business with clusters of family and second generations running the day to day. So, I spend a lot of my time coaching and speaking and creating workshops to help people really pursue what they want in their life.
So, it’s fantastic. I love the work you’re doing. This has been such a refreshing conversation for me just to realize, wow, there’s so many great people like yourself that are doing good work out there in the world. And we need to be listening to such a wide variety of voices to make sure that we all move together and it’s just going to be great. I’m so excited about this conversation. We hope to hear from you more in the future.
Absolutely. Look forward to more conversations, Neil.
Mary Miller is the CEO of JANCOA Janitorial Services, a local certified WBE that is family owned and operated. JANCOA is a commercial cleaning company that my husband, Tony, founded 45 years ago and Mary joined over 20 years ago. Through efforts to create an environment to attract the best in the industry, the team created The Dream Manager program, popularized by Matthew Kelly’s bestselling book by the same title. In addition to running a business with more than 500 full-time employees, Mary is an Associate Coach with Strategic Coach working with entrepreneurs at quarterly workshops in Chicago.
As a keynote speaker, she motivates audiences to work toward a fulfilling life by achieving dreams and focusing on the positives in life. In my speeches and workshops, Mary encourage attendees to turn obstacles into opportunities and work in the direction of their dreams.
Mary enjoys sharing my vision and inspiration through active participation in many industry, business and non-profit organizations including serving on the Board of Directors for SORTA and United Way. She strives to stay on a path of positivity, determination and success to ensure that she continue to chase my dreams and inspire those around me to reach for theirs, too!