Utility Players as a Way to Save Hotels on Staffing
By Larry Mogelonsky, Managing Director Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited
The post-COVID recovery will not mirror the initial reactions to the global lockdown for the hospitality industry. Namely, with hotels shutting down and laying employees off in droves, most properties will be reluctant to rehire all those previously let go because occupancies will take a long time to get to their pre-pandemic levels, thus not necessitating full staffing and recruitment.
Working as an asset manager for small properties over the years, there were numerous situations where associates had to be shuffled from one department to another in order to improve productivity in one area or to make the budget work. This was especially true for rural properties where eager team members were hard to come by and horizontal promotions like this worked as a good motivational tool without having to increase wages. In this sense, the idea of the utility player has existed in hospitality for eons, only now there is a clear and present need to examine its applicability for all brands.
A foremost reason for having a utility player program during the pre-pandemic days - called by whatever name your company deemed best -was that exposure to a good mix of departments helped to keep novices engaged so that they would stay with an organization until such time as they felt committed to it. With many properties suffering from egregiously high yearly turnover rates, preventing younger, attention-deficient associates from falling into the rut of only doing one task also helped to ultimately find what operation best suited a team member's passions and long-term career goals.
Now that COVID has swept across the world, the aftermath will mean a far more scrupulous workload for the housekeeping team. As I highlighted prior to this event, the big problem here is that experienced room attendants are rare even in populated urban labor markets. Together this means that the utility players of the future hotel will all undergo extensive training in cleanliness and sanitization so that any rookie team member can pitch in when your room attendants are overworked.
Not just for assisting housekeeping, but having a reserve of employees who can be sent in to aid the specialists will help to keep costs low primarily by minimizing overtime compensation and the total number of employees you have to have to get everything done.
What's needed at this point is to first assess what the actual staffing requirements will be for 25%, 50% and 75% occupancy while also abiding by the new cleanliness and viral safety protocols that are bound to become standard for hotels. For this, you cannot rely on hitting full occupancy for anytime in 2020 as social distancing will restrict how many rooms you can fill as well as how certain common operations like the restaurant and spa can function.
From there, you need to develop a cross-departmental training and engagement program so that all associates can be redeployed where they are needed most. For instance, you may have a few longstanding servers who are keen to get back to waiting tables but due to social distancing rules hindering the capacity of the restaurant you barely have enough volume to meet even part-time requirements. With the appropriate training, you can keep these dedicated employees with you until such time as all this craziness is long behind us by having them help with room service orders, front office or public area cleaning. The key here is to make known that this is a short-term tradeoff
Concurrently, to properly enable utility players, you need to take the time to set up the right back-end software that can relay service orders from one department to another without any loss of accountability or miscommunication and in as contactless a manner as possible. In this sense, technology will become even more of the backbone of hotel operations in the post-COVID landscape as without it we cannot have these utility players to see us through until bookings return in earnest.
For larger hotels, the opposite to utility players - what may be termed as 'operative pods' - has worked in the past by promoting an even higher degree of specialization and team efficiency. These operative pods may still be valuable because they limit contact within the totality of the corporate structure, but the risk is that decreased cross-exposure can mean diminished motivation to stay with the job.
Given that hospitality in general as a stronger COVID-related stigma than most other industries, it is imperative during the recovery that managers do everything in their power to inspire their teams and prevent burnout. With any luck, this pandemic may be the perfect opportunity for your hotel organization to set itself up for tremendous success in the years to come.