Behind The Scenes: Furnishing the Maintenance Department

It’s a story as old as new furniture itself… what to do with the old stuff. Throwing away perfectly good furnishings doesn’t make sense, so the shabbies get handed down and down and down until they end up in the maintenance department. There are lots of reasons why this ultimate “back of house” space ends up as the last stop for old desks, chairs, and storage solutions, and all of them are financial. Yet there are compelling reasons to invest in the ambiance of these areas.

“Most maintenance departments are left scrounging for furnishings, and the smaller the school the scroungier it gets,” said Mike Steger, director, Physical Plant Services, Palm Beach Atlantic University, FL, with a laugh. “I don’t mean that in a derogatory fashion, by the way. It’s just a fact that it’s always hard to allocate budget to the back of the house.”

“I have encountered operations that run the full spectrum,” continued Casey Wick, assistant director for Custodial Services, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY. “It all depends on the type of institution and their unique financial situation. The furniture and equipment inventories range from robust and adequate to woefully short. Generally speaking, tools, power equipment, and other specialized items are usually purchased new while filing cabinets, office furniture, and the like are often hand-me-downs.”

It’s not all bad, however. Steger points to an example where mismatched furniture can play to one’s advantage. “It’s great when a salesperson comes in,” he said. “If you look like the ‘poor country cousins’ they might be more willing to cut you a deal.”

Appearance Matters
Sympathy points aside, the reality of substandard interiors could mean substandard performance from your staff. “It’s the broken-window syndrome,” continued Steger. “Why take care of something that looks ratty? But when your environment looks nice, you feel prouder about yourself and your work. It also makes a difference in how people perceive you. If you’re the person who takes work orders and your desk is a mess, then how confident is your customer in your abilities?”

The wrong furniture for the wrong job could also become unsafe as well as unsightly. Maintenance people prove just as susceptible to repetitive stress disorders as any other member of the administrative staff. Along with the usual desks and chairs, this department possesses some specialized needs as well. “Having a larger printer that can run blueprints and plans is always a bonus for us,” said Steger. “But storing these plans takes some specific storage solutions. Instead of just piling the blueprints up on a desk, a wire rack keeps everything neat, while a hanging rack for high-use prints proves useful too.”

Warehouses also require specialized furnishings to work at their peak. “It’s about finding a place for everything and being able to access the goods at any time,” said Steger. “We had a 4,000-sq.-ft. warehouse that functioned for years without adequate shelving or pallet racks. Once we finally palletized our inventory, we tripled our storage. Of course that means we were able to collect more stuff to keep track of.”

Large operations must not only store their supplies, parts, and equipment; they must account for all this gear as well. “Such arrangements often include a ‘central stores’ configuration,” explained Wick. “This will include a tool crib and formal withdrawal process. The greater the number of users, the more formal and accurate the process needs to be. “
Steger plays favorites when looking for warehouse storage solutions. He prefers wire racks, as plastics, vinyl-coated steel, and wood eventually degrade if a there is a chemical leak. “A good steel or galvanized metal works well and can be hosed off in case of a spill. You don’t want anything that will absorb the chemicals and eventually decompose.” Whatever the material, a shelving system with a strong, heavy bottom makes sense in the unlikely event an employee decides to climb it like a ladder.

The Right Stuff
No one would argue the benefits of well-made efficient furnishings. The question is: how do you get them? “The best way is to find an angel,” said Steger, “someone who understands that the department is not as efficient or effective without the proper tools and work environment and can sell the concept to the people writing the checks.” Even then, Steger admits that, “Nine times out of 10 the project will have to piggyback on some other expenditure.”

But when it all comes together, it is worth it. “I’ve worked at the gamut,” said Steger, “from places with old army surplus desks to an organization where the boss believed in a professional atmosphere at every level. When the space had matching furnishings and a new paint job it transformed more than the interior. It had a definite effect on employee attitudes and outlooks.”