Lean, but not mean: the new workplace

Thanks to generous unemployment benefits, immigration restrictions, a defection by many line-level workers to alternative fields and other factors, hotels are struggling to reach fully staffed status. Operators are leaning on creative solutions and establishment of a culture designed to attract team members and equip them to handle running a hotel in a volatile time.

Contributed by Megan Rowe

A seller’s market for labor has forced hotels to rethink their recruiting philosophy, whom they consider suitable candidates and the terms they offer to sweeten the pot. “The employee is in the driver’s seat now, and we’re asking, ‘What will it take to hire you, and how can we accommodate your schedule?’” said Patti Hunt, GM of the recently opened Westin Tempe in suburban Phoenix, Arizona.

Schedules, in fact, are a key talking point in many interviews. After last year’s hiatus, many potential associates have decided they value a better work-life balance. They won’t agree to a full-time position or overtime; they want more control over their time. “They say things like ‘I’m available on these days, but not at this time,’” Hunt noted. Managers who meet a good candidate might agree to requests for fewer hours and end up hiring multiple staff members to fill a full-time spot.

Flexibility is essential in this environment, said Kevin Rockey, managing director of the U.K. and Europe for Ennismore’s The Hoxton lifestyle brand. “In the past, hotels really wanted people full time, because it was just easy.” With volatile demand, especially since business travel has yet to rebound, flexible hours make more sense for the hotel; it also satisfies potential team members. “People realize they can manage on less, and they don’t need to work five days a week.”

Management company giant Aimbridge Hotels is scheduling around employees’ needs. “Our approach today is: When can you work? And we build our schedule around that,” said Elie Khoury, executive VP of operations. That means more part-timers and job sharers, and creation of utility positions for people who can fill in as needed in various roles across the hotel. Some Aimbridge hotels are rethinking assignments like housekeeping, staggering workers or bringing in more people at night to accommodate their schedules.

Pay and perks are up for negotiation as well. “We’re not able to stick with a straight-line opening wage,” Hunt said. “I ask the applicant what range they’re looking for and balance that with the budget.” If it’s a strong candidate, she makes a quick decision.

Hunt has also removed other pain points for employees, such as parking fees or meal costs, to position her hotel ahead of the pack. “Whatever I can do to make this a great place to work,” she said.

That kind of responsiveness is more important than in the past. “One best practice we have found is speed,” said Tim Ryan, COO of Chicago-based Aparium Hotel Group. Managers respond to candidates and schedule interviews quickly, and they take a sales-first approach to the interactions, selling the job seeker on the company culture.

Evolving roles, planning

Forecasting labor needs has evolved as well. “Before, if someone would call in sick, the old way of doing things was to power through,” Ryan said. “Now we’re being more thoughtful about the staffing we have and the services they can handle so we’re not overwhelming them.” In some cases, that means turning down potential reservations, a conundrum every hotelier and restaurateur faces these days, Ryan argued.

The role of general managers and other department heads has evolved, as well; having the boss pitch in is seen as a positive continuation of the “we’re all in this together” mantra that blossomed during shutdowns. “If the rooms team needs help, the manager or rooms director might give them a hand. If a guest calls about a plumbing issue, and the one engineering person is off, the GM has gotten a little more handy,” Ryan said.

“Our GMs have always been incredibly hands-on; we’re not a very hierarchical organization,” The Hoxton’s Rockey added. “Partly from a morale standpoint and partly out of necessity, they have gotten more involved in day-to-day operations. I think it has been a big part of keeping morale up, seeing the GM wasn’t just sitting at a desk.”

“The employee is in the driver’s seat now, and we’re asking, ‘What will it take to hire you, and how can we accommodate your schedule?’” – Patti Hunt

Efficiency matters, too

The lean look of many hotels has tested many organizations’ commitment to providing flexible hours and easing stress on the staff. Technology has stepped in to ease the burden. Software like ShiftGig, which allows outside gig workers to bid on open shifts, has helped Aimbridge manage through the labor shortage; the company also has an in-house system that allows staff at nearby properties to pick up hours where there is a need. Aimbridge has also introduced a daily pay option for employees who prefer immediate compensation, another by-product of the gig economy.

Cross training also has gained favor as an obvious solution. With occupancies hovering around 50%, “we have looked at all our processes and taken out anything we thought unnecessary,” without affecting the guest experience, Rockey said. Cross training has helped during busy times, and as business picks up, “we are constantly evaluating positions to determine whether we need to hire again.”

When staffing up the Westin Tempe, Hunt skirted one especially thorny issue—housekeeping—by bringing in outside contractors to handle that department, as well as valet services. “We work with a great partner, which has lots of team members, recruiting sites and boots on the ground,” she said. “On day one, they were able to bring me 41 employees and manage the process.” The arrangement has worked out well, she added.

If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it could be the right sizing of many operations teams. “With slimmer organizational structures and reporting lines redrawn, companies are now better positioned to weather the pandemic’s fallout as we head into the prolonged pandemic-induced ‘COVID year two,’” said Jens Busch, vice president of Europe and Asia Pacific for HVS Executive Search. “There is no ‘post-pandemic,’ only a new order of us learning to live with it, the survival of the fittest.”