It’s a little past 9 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, and James Linder is squirting blue cleaning fluid into a urinal.
Today is Linder’s second day working for Managed by Q, the on-demand office management startup known mostly for its cleaning services, and Linder has been assigned bathroom duty at the Midtown offices of a new client called Rocketrip. What’s a bit strange, though, is that Linder hasn’t been hired by Managed by Q as a cleaner. He was hired as a back-end software engineer. In fact, he spent the daylight hours setting up his workstation in "Q" headquarters downtown.
"It’s actually interesting," says Linder, watching the blue liquid drip down the porcelain. "I’ve never cleaned a urinal before. Mostly because I’ve never had a urinal at home."
On this evening, Linder is one of three recent Managed by Q hires participating in a "deep clean," something that has emerged as a rite of passage for new hires in the company's main office. While Linder cleans the men’s and women’s rooms, Richard Hughes (Q’s recently hired lead recruiter) sweeps the floors, and Blake Dickstein (Q’s new manager of project operations) wipes down conference room windows. They clean under the direction of Tovey Wall, a full-time cleaning supervisor, and alongside two full-time Q cleaners.
"Everybody cleans" is one of Managed by Q’s mottos, occupying roughly the same space as "Move fast and break things" at Facebook or "Don’t be evil" at Google. At Managed by Q, CEO Dan Teran told me a few hours before I join his new hires at their trial-by-bleach, that the motto began of necessity. As the business scaled rapidly following its 2014 founding, evening cleans were perpetually short-staffed, meaning Teran and other executives were forced to roll up sleeves more or less nightly for a period of months, either to clean or supervise cleans. "What we realized in the ritual of cleaning is that it’s really hard physical work, and it’s also really hard to be perfect," he told me.
That is what Linder is discovering now, as he searches the bathroom for a toilet brush. He tells me that he only learned of the deep clean ritual yesterday, and was a bit daunted when he learned today that it could take as long as four hours. Still, he says, he understands why he’s doing it. "It helps me understand what I’m building, who I’m helping, and how," he says, his voice echoing from inside a stall. "It’s an equalizer at the organization. No one’s special." Flushes punctuate his musings.
For a night, at least, any implicit hierarchy at the company is inverted. After a while, Linder exits the bathroom and finds Wall, the cleaning supervisor. The software engineer has a question about how to do his job better: "Should I leave an extra roll of toilet paper on top?"
Wall, the supervisor, tells me he's just come off 11 years working at Starbucks. He was on track to make manager of a store, but finally decided that getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. wasn’t for him. "Coffee’s a morning thing," after all, he says.
So now he works nights for Q, visiting five or six accounts to supervise or spot-check the work of other cleaners, wrapping up typically around 4 a.m. The night shift suits him better, not least because it frees up his days to host "We Can Inspire You," a talk show he runs with friends on Facebook Live, usually out of his Bronx apartment. The central theme of the show, he says, is the importance of being yourself. Teran has said that "optimism" and "empathy" are the key traits Q looks for in choosing new hires, and Wall seems to have these in abundance.
I ask Wall what he thinks of Q’s practice of sending untutored coders to join in evening cleans. He says he likes it, and he hasn’t yet met an "office operator" who hasn’t pulled her weight. He likes the cleans for the same reason he does his show: "Certain things bring everyone together," he says.
At a little past 10 p.m., I shadow Hughes, the new lead recruiter. "I’m excited to tell candidates on the phone tomorrow that we deep cleaned an office the night before. The good ones will get excited about it," he says. A few minutes later, I find Dickstein, the new manager of product operations, dusting in a conference room. "So far, so good," he says, though conceding it’s hard, sweaty work. Before long, he’s gushing with a genuine, nerdy energy about a book his supervisor pressed into his hands called "The Good Jobs Strategy," which argues that it can be a "fundamental strategic decision" to build a company that offers real paths to career growth for all workers. "Just from a moral perspective, there’s a clear benefit to society" he says, dusting a chair. It’s also a business strategy that reduces churn.
Next, I shadow Gawayne Pringle, a full-time cleaner who’s been with Q for 10 months. He shows me the art of cleaning a desk without disrupting the placement of an employee’s effects. In the past, Pringle would take a picture with his iPhone, move things around as he dusted, then restore them according to the photo. But he found it cumbersome to later have to delete all the photos from his iCloud-synced devices. Now just he pivots a few objects at a time on each desk and dusts before replacing them.
Pringle, who grew up in Crown Heights but has been pushed eastward by rising rents there, tells me he used to unload pallets at Macy’s; before that, he worked for a rental car company, in telemarketing, and in catering. In the naïve way of a reporter who spends most of his time interviewing fairly privileged people about following their career-related bliss, I ask Pringle if he has shuffled from job to job out of some desire for variety. He pauses diplomatically before stating the obvious: Having started at minimum-wage, part-time work, his own career choices are motivated purely by better pay. Entry-level jobs at Q are $12.50 an hour, well above New York’s minimum wage of $9; Q also gives its cleaners the same health care benefits and 401(k) plan as it does its office workers. "Q’s the best company I’ve worked for," he says.
I’m learning a lot by interviewing these folks as they clean, but the main thing I’m learning is that it’s intolerably awkward to interview people while they're cleaning and you're not. At 11:20, I finally ask Tovey Wall to relieve me of this feeling. He smiles and hands me a broom.
Everybody is cleaning.
There may be limits to Managed by Q’s utopian-sounding language and ideas. Teran likes to speak of "servant-leadership," or the idea that "the leader exists for the benefit of the company, and not the other way around." But it's probably safe to assume Teran, as CEO, stands to become rich if Managed by Q succeeds, to a degree that is not true for a cleaner like Gawayne Pringle (or even a coder like James Linder). And while "everyone cleans" at Q, it is an inescapable fact that some must clean hundreds of nights per year, while others will be free to try it roughly once. In a reflection of New York City’s fundamental socioeconomic reality, the former will make less money and are likelier to come from communities of color. The latter will make more money and are, more often than not, white.
But all companies overreach in their corporate and marketing language; very few actually treat their entry-level employees better than the letter of the law insists they must. Managed by Q might have attempted an Uber-like model of contract labor, but instead the company chose to pay its cleaners better than competitors, to give them full-time work with benefits, to instill a company-wide culture that respects their labor, and to insist that its more privileged office workers taste what that labor feels like. Those choices are to be praised. In March, the U.S. Secretary of Labor lauded another of Managed by Q’s choices: the decision to give 5% of the company to its workers.
The company's focus on its long-term investment in employees has paid off, says Teran. Since its launch over two years ago, Managed by Q has raised $25 million, bringing its total funding to over $42 million from leading investors such as Google Ventures, RRE, and Homebrew. The company has over 500 employees nationally, has launched in four cities, and now manages millions of square footage in hundreds of offices.
By 11:40 p.m. on that recent Tuesday evening, James Linder puts the finishing touches on the men’s and women’s rooms. Has he noted any similarities between cleaning and coding, I ask him? "Diligence, precision, attention to detail," he says. Wall enters and performs an inspection, running his fingers along the top of the stall walls. "This is beautiful," he says. "We can turn out the light." Wall bumps his fist against Linder’s, in its blue latex glove.
Dickstein mops the last corner of the office. "My mom would be proud, I’ll tell you that much," he says of his evening’s work. "I never cleaned my room growing up." While he finishes, the others sit and unwind, the full-time cleaners chewing the fat with Q’s office workers. Though having mostly moved in separate spaces through the evening, they now seem to fall into an easy camaraderie after sharing a night's work. Pringle and Linder compare apps on their phones.
Finally, it’s time to lock up for the night. Handshakes are exchanged, goodnights wished, elevators called.
Waiting for his elevator, Linder sums up his evening: "I’m not injured. I have a better appreciation of what our operators are doing, which is very nice. It’s not an easy job. At all."