May 16, 2024

How to Improve Operational Efficiency and Meet Higher Ed Facilities Budgets

Cobi 18 robotic scrubber supporting custodial staff in higher ed facility

The institutes of higher ed face some tough challenges over the next few years, especially when it comes to operational efficiency. 

An article published by Higher Ed Dive in 2023 noted findings from the Commonfund Higher Education Price Index, or HEPI, which is an inflation index created specifically for colleges, reporting that “colleges’ operating costs increased 5.2% in the 2022 fiscal year.” 

The article notes that “Construction projects…are taking the back seat at many colleges as leaders avoid breaking ground due to the increasing costs of material and labor.” 

Additionally, according to Gordian’s 2024 State of Facilities in Higher Education study, facilities leaders note finding talented staff as their biggest challenge, and “without people to care for a facilities portfolio, the properties age more quickly.”

Rising costs due to inflation combined with labor challenges, declining enrollment, the end of pandemic relief aid, and aging or unused buildings has put campus administrators and facilities leaders in a tough position.

The ultimate goal is to meet these new budget constraints while tackling the issues without compromising the quality of maintenance and upkeep across college campuses.

By streamlining processes and maximizing resources, educational institutions can effectively meet higher education facilities’ budgets without compromising quality.

Below we outline strategies to enhance operational efficiency while focusing on budgetary goals for higher education facilities management.

Understanding the Importance of Operational Efficiency

Operational efficiency is important across higher education campuses because it serves as the backbone of successful facilities management. Plus, finding the most efficient ways to do the work is essential to supporting the people responsible for this work. 

When the focus shifts from supporting staff to only improving productivity, people burn out and leave, and the campus can fall into disrepair. Campuses left in disrepair not only cost the college more money in the long run, but they can also be dangerous to students and staff on campus.

Operational efficiency is crucial to the success of the college. This is why many facilities leaders focus on supporting their staff and improving efficiency. The two are intrinsically tied together. 

For example, finding ways to automate repetitive and mundane tasks helps free up time for cleaning and maintenance staff to focus on other critical work. Automating repetitive tasks relieves staff from time-consuming and mundane tasks and can also increase productivity. 

This is why bringing on autonomous solutions is gaining in popularity. Bringing on autonomous technology not only helps get more work done, but it also frees up staff from repetitive work, which in the long run could impact retention. 

Mark Helms, AVP of Facilities Services at the University of Florida was interviewed in Gordian’s 2024 State of Facilities in Higher Education report. He outlined approaches his department is taking to make campus operations more efficient. 

 “We are using autonomous floor care and mowing equipment where it makes sense…” as this allows staff more flexibility during their shifts. 

Helms goes on to share:

“We are using sensors to monitor levels for paper towels, toilet paper and other bathroom supplies. It is helping to eliminate unnecessary trips to low-use bathroom areas and increasing the productive time of our people.  They can focus on the areas that need attention and improve the experience for all the people who are using our facilities.”

Finding ways to improve operational efficiency can save time, resources, and money. Not only that, but when operations are efficient, the campus is better maintained making it a safer place for staff and students to conduct their work. 

Strategies to Enhance Operational Efficiency & Meet Budgets

Investing in Facilities Staff Training and Development

Staffing challenges continue to plague most industries, but this is nowhere more evident than in higher ed where many longtime employees are approaching retirement and there is a decline in people learning the trades. 

Gordian’s study indicates that “an estimated 40% of current building industry workers will retire by 2030.” 

The gap in trade labor combined with the retirement of long-time skilled laborers puts college facilities leaders in a tough position. One solution is to offer more skills training for existing staff.

Providing ongoing training and professional development opportunities equips employees with the skills and knowledge needed to perform their roles effectively and to become experts over time. 

This not only improves retention, which impacts the budget, but by having a skilled workforce that takes pride in the work they do, operational processes can become more efficient and streamlined, as your team knows exactly how to tackle daily tasks. 

One tip is to check with your equipment suppliers to see if they offer free certifications or training for your staff. 

For example, ICE Cobotics, a cleaning technology and equipment manufacturer has a free online Automation Academy, available to any end user. The Academy is a series of online videos that train end users how to run and maintain Cobi 18, their autonomous floor scrubber.

Once a person successfully completes the videos, they are prompted to take a short quiz and once they pass, they are Cobotics Certified. Programs like these can be a great way to offer free training and certifications to staff. 

Manager and worker with automation academy certification

Optimizing Energy Usage Across Campus

 According to Aramark, only “60% of campus spaces are used daily.” That means many buildings sit unused across college campuses, draining resources and money. 

Aramark proposes the idea of “demand-driven” cleaning which entails scheduling your staff to clean and maintain campus buildings based on usage. Facilities leaders can leverage data to determine which buildings on campus are busiest and schedule their staff to focus on those buildings. 

This moves staff away from daily cleaning in unused buildings, which is ultimately a waste of resources, and to focus time and energy where it matters. 

In addition, implementing energy-efficient technologies, such as LED lighting and smart HVAC systems, can lead to substantial savings over time. 

According to Laura Miller writing for BuildingsIOT, “Retrofitting dated lighting fixtures such as high-pressure sodium (HPS) lamps with LED luminaires can save 10-25% of total greenhouse energy demand, and proves to be an effective and easy way to reduce energy costs, and operations and maintenance costs.” 

In terms of HVAC systems, Miller goes on to point out that “Studies have revealed that installing UV-C systems in Air Handling Units (AHUs) to treat cooling coils improves indoor air quality while saving HVAC energy with reduced fan usage.”         

Implementing changes like these can add up to big cost savings over time. Not only that, but these changes can improve the work lives of staff (which can aid in retention efforts), improve the safety and quality of the built environment for staff and students, and improve operational efficiency. 

Implementing Preventive Maintenance Programs 

Implementing a preventative maintenance program is one of the best long-term cost savings and efficient operations techniques. 

Preventive maintenance programs help identify potential issues before they escalate, prolong equipment lifespan, lower the risk of breakdowns, improve health and safety, and decrease downtime. 

One key area where preventative maintenance can have a significant impact is with large equipment. 

According to FMX “Only about 10% or less of industrial equipment ever truly wears out from proper use– this means that 90% of mechanical failures are due to preventable problems, avoidable with a good preventative maintenance plan in place.” 

Routine maintenance and repairs can prolong the life of large campus equipment. Whether it is HVAC units, floor cleaning machines, or lawn care equipment, keeping up with maintenance improves the ROI of the equipment and keeps campus operations on track.

Not only that, but routine maintenance checks also help to reduce downtime due to unexpected breakdowns. Unexpected breakdowns not only result in higher costs to repair an even bigger issue but also result in lost labor hours. 

While putting together a preventative maintenance plan may take time initially, the cost savings are worth it. FMX goes on to point out that “Unplanned maintenance typically costs 3 to 9 times more than planned maintenance.” 

Conducting thorough audits and performance evaluations can help identify areas for improvement and pinpoint inefficiencies. From energy consumption patterns to maintenance workflows, a preventative maintenance plan can provide valuable insights into where optimization efforts should be directed.


Operational efficiency plays a pivotal role in managing higher education facilities’ budgets effectively. By implementing strategies such as investing in staff training, optimizing energy usage, and implementing preventative maintenance plans institutions can enhance productivity, reduce costs, and improve service quality. 

Overcoming challenges and embracing a culture of continuous improvement are essential steps toward achieving long-term success in facilities management. By prioritizing operational efficiency, educational institutions can create a conducive environment for learning, research, and innovation while staying within budgetary constraints.

ICE Cobotics is a leading floor cleaning technology and equipment company specializing in autonomous solutions available through an all-inclusive subscription. If you’re in the market for robotic floor scrubbers, we can help. Reach out to our automation specialists to answer your questions.

For more information, download our free infographic guide: 5 Ways to Save Costs and Improve Ed Maintenance Goals

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