This is just a sneak peek from Morten and Anne’s feature in SCENARIO 1:2014. If you are not a current subscriber to SCENARIO or a member of The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies, then subscribe or get in touch with us here.
Interview with CEO Jeff Gravenhorst, ISS
We are three minutes into the interview. For the first time, Jeff Gravenhorst leans forward in his chair and raises his voice a bit:
“The customers of the service industry – yes, society itself and its actors – need an attitude change in this field,” he says.
This is the first of several key issues that come out in the flow of speech from the ISS director who has allowed us to do an interview about the future labour force, workplace, and developments in the growing service industry. He isn’t just anybody when it comes to speak about these matters. He is the CEO of ISS and hence boos of more than 530,000 employees in more than 60 countries.
We meet him in the headquarters just outside Copenhagen, Denmark, where the global facility service company just has moved into a brand new office building.
A focus on the end product is necessary
Gravenhorst wants a reckoning with the decades old idea that a service provider primarily is worth something if people have spent many hours doing it. In the future, the focus has to be on the end product and less on the process behind it.
“We must focus more on the result, on the output spec, and less on the input spec; i.e., how much manpower has been used to create the result,” he makes it clear.
“We simply can’t afford anything else,” he goes on, “because we are heading for a future where there is greater and greater demand for services, such as eldercare or cleaning for the growing middle class, but where at the same time there are fewer people to perform the service. This is not a new thing – just listen to the radio every morning. It is a challenge for the international society and not just for our industry. Hence, we must move away from the view that fewer man hours necessarily lead to poorer service or a worse end product, because that is not the case,” he says and refers to how a modern service company makes use of technological advances, including built-in intelligence on the physical workplace and in the building stock, in line with the general focus on rationalisation and optimisation of work processes.
For this reason it is actually possible to provide good service with fewer man hours; and decision-makers particularly in the public and political spheres must recognise this – and it must happen at the highest level, Gravenhorst thinks. The mindset simply must be changed for responsible politicians, even though they fear losing votes. Job loss because of automation has never been a winning political cause.
“When cutbacks or reductions in expenses are mentioned in the public and political sphere, most instantly think reduced value. Yet this mindset is entirely wrong. We should instead speak of improvements in efficiency. The production industry thinks this way. Mobile phones would for instance not look the way they do today if Apple or Nokia had thought the way politicians do. If it was decided ten years ago that mobile phones had to remain at fixed prices for ten years, and they couldn’t become less expensive for the consumer, it would have been absurd. Precisely this industry is an example of how you simultaneously can get far better and far cheaper products, and naturally the same is the case in the service industry; we also have lots of technological progress. However, the typical and instinctive attitude in parliaments is often that zero growth leads to reduced value in the welfare society. Private enterprises would die if they thought like that, and at a societal level the challenge now is that also politicians and public decision-makers must be willing to accept the premise of looking at the end result, not at how many hands are at work.”
Technological advances are an important factor in Gravenhorst’s optimism regarding the future service industry and its opportunities for meeting the growing demand. We ask him what concrete innovations we can expect in the future.
Is it about robots and advanced technology?
He doesn’t mind answering that, but first wants to talk about the role of the individual human being and more low-tech solutions. The small measures that improve working conditions for employees are central, he thinks; technological innovations must always be considered in the context of the people doing the work.
He uses the word ‘sustainability’ on several occasions, in a sense that is far from the chrome-plated CSR plans and visions full of promise that companies like to show off:
“Sustainability in the world of ISS has the employees in focus. It is a matter of holding onto the people we can and give them the best possible conditions. A workplace that wears people out is a really bad investment. Hence, we increasingly sit down on the same side of the table as the unions; after all, we have the same interests! I am interested in having far fewer work-related injuries in the future, and I really want to motivate our employees. This results in a durable work force that will keep working after they turn 60 or 67. Perhaps in the future we will work until 80. In the city of Esbjerg, we just retired a woman who has worked for us for 55 years. She is 86 years old, and she continued working because she considered it fun and she experienced having a better life because of it. This is also a way of addressing the problems of our society.”
Gravenhorst tells us that many from the generation that is entering the labour market aren’t interested in service jobs, and fewer in general are attracted to the service industry, at least in the developed world. Hence, his common cause with the unions isn’t pure philanthropy – it is also good business sense. He tells us about concrete measures:
“Our focus is technological and ergonomic, and there’s always something that can be improved. It is simple. Look at our cleaning cart out there in the hallway. It has flat mops and adjustable height and all sorts of other improvements for the employee. A union would say it was ground-breaking. We work towards not having any more employees get wrist injuries, which is one of the most common work-related injuries when cleaning. The small, simple things are what work. We can handle more square metres and clean more effectively while having a work force that doesn’t wear out and is happier and more motivated. It is low-tech, but I think it is important.”
We return to the question about technological advances and future opportunities. Gravenhorst tells us how this plays out in in relation to handling the growing service needs:
“Today we e.g. have technology that tells us where in a building most people get injured. Where people fall and get hurt, where there are complaints and where there’s satisfaction. We can use this …
Jeff Gravenhorst is the CEO of ISS, which with its more than 500,000 employees worldwide is the world’s fourth-largest private enterprise measured by the number of employees. He is has a MSc. in Auditing from Copenhagen Business School.
Image via ISS World