Among the pandemic’s more manageable impacts on hotel operations was the immediate need to retrain housekeeping staff on sanitation practices. Dan Paola, VP of operations at Raines, recalls, “It started with cleaning practices and the chemicals we used to sanitize surfaces. We had to retrain our teams to ensure they were sanitizing all of the high-touch surfaces with greater frequency and put in practices to track and ensure compliance. Foggers and electrostatic sprayers were implemented for public spaces, and in many cases, guestrooms.” But a more profound impact occurred on the staffing front. “The Great Reshuffle” saw many housekeepers who quit or lost their jobs during the pandemic seeking opportunities in other fields.
The challenge of reestablishing an effective housekeeping operation continues today, particularly since guest demand for the service is on the rise. “According to the data compiled and issued for our May 2022 Hotel Effectiveness Housekeeping Labor Management Report, 22 percent of guest stayovers were cleaned in February 2022 compared to 65 percent in pre-Covid February 2020,” notes Del Ross, chief revenue officer, Hotel Effectiveness. “This rate is up 50 percent from early 2021 and has continued to rise. While owners, brands, and operators continue their work to determine the future of daily housekeeping, consumer expectations are causing this service to return toward historic levels.”
Understaffing Calls for Resourcefulness Hoteliers have taken various approaches to meet the elevated need for housekeeping, including cross-training non-housekeeping staff. “Front desk and restaurant teams were trained in housekeeping to help alleviate the staff challenges,” Paola observes. Strategic scheduling has also been used to make the most out of existing staff. For example, night housekeeping can inspect rooms first thing in the morning to alleviate the burden on staff the next day, he suggests. Ross notes that “Ensuring rooms are clean before guests arrive is more important than making sure that they are cleaned when guests depart. Keeping this in mind enables hotel managers to be more flexible with shift scheduling, which leads to more satisfied team members and more efficient housekeeping productivity.”
However, trying to train and manage existing staff to meet the challenge of understaffing runs the risk of overworking those employees, which in turn can lead to job dissatisfaction. Thus, some hoteliers have resorted to contracting additional housekeeping staff. “We’ve had to do this in markets where it wasn’t necessary prior to the pandemic,” Paola relates. “The same goes for our use of the H-2B visa program. We currently have around 30 H-2B visa workers supplementing staffing needs across our portfolio.” While a hotelier may not be accustomed to depending on contract staffing, new approaches are sometimes worth testing. “It’s really important to not be afraid of doing something you may feel is nontraditional or that you may never have thought of doing in prior years,” Paola says. “If something doesn’t work, chalk it up as a loss and be prepared to quickly pivot in another direction.”
A technology platform designed to manage labor shortage is another option worth investigating, as the improved efficiency may obviate or reduce the need to outsource housekeeping services. “We’ve found that when hoteliers work with technology platforms specifically designed to help track, schedule, and optimize labor, they see the most positive impact to revenue and profitability,” says Ross. “Real-time productivity information allows hotel owners and general managers to make data-driven decisions that improve labor efficiency and bottom-line operating profits. Integrating team communication tools into scheduling and availability employee apps makes it easy for room attendants to collaborate with management to identify opportunities and improve service levels and efficiency. For example, improved and more reliable shift schedule communications helps improve staffing ‘show-up rates.’”
Attendance is one of the three factors Ross identifies as measures of housekeeping performance, the other two being quality and productivity. Rewards for excellence in any of these areas can have a strong motivational effect. For instance, he advises that “with shift show-up rates for housekeeping staff running at about 80 percent in the United States, hotels should reward team members who come to work on time when they are scheduled to work.”
Now more than ever, it is important to reward housekeepers for great performance. The stress that understaffing and turnover create is ameliorated when staff feel appreciated, and especially if they’re given the opportunity to enjoy camaraderie with colleagues and management. “In the last 20 years of being in hospitality, if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that housekeepers like to eat. This is something we’ve done for a long time and will continue to do for our teams: We feed them and have some fun,” says Paola. “I’ve gone around with a cooler and passed out ice cream sandwiches. Engage and empathize with them. Spend some time with your team to let them know they are appreciated and you understand how hard the job is. We like to play games and give out bonuses for cleanliness goals and perfect rooms.”
While these perks have a positive psychological effect that can improve performance and retention, they are clearly no substitute for an attractive employment package. “As a company we’ve increased wages, PTO benefits, and paid holidays,” he notes. “We’ve also partnered with nationwide discount programs and implemented a points-based bonus program, among other initiatives to decrease turnover and boost morale. We’ve also started offering daily pay solutions to our teams across the portfolio. Giving our teams the flexibility and access to earned income has helped reduce some of the turnover.”
Getting insights from individual staff members on what’s important to them is a commonsensical approach, but it can fall by the wayside during the hectic operations of an understaffed hotel. Paola illustrates how such feedback can result in changes that benefit all staff members: “Our daily pay solution was a direct result of a conversation I was having with one of our longtime housekeeping associates. I just asked her what she thought could be a difference maker. She mentioned the biweekly pay cycle as being a determining factor for some people either leaving or choosing other opportunities. We were able to take that feedback and find a solution pretty quickly.”
Overall, there is no one solution to the ongoing challenges of understaffing and the historically high turnover rate for housekeeping staff. Rather, a combination of the general features that make a job desirable, including competitive wages and benefits, growth opportunities, and a company culture that promotes engagement and recognition, will help safeguard a hotelier against excessive turnover. In the current market, many housekeepers are rethinking what they want out of a job, and employers may have to rethink what they offer.
Housekeeping Hiring Tips
While competitive wages, quality benefits, and employee engagement all help to retain housekeepers, ensuring that a prospective employee is a good fit for the role is an equally strong predictor of that employee’s longevity with the company. According to Matthew Kuraska, content marketing specialist with Sprockets, the current challenge with turnover is not only due to the fallout from the pandemic, but “also likely stems from hoteliers making bad hiring decisions in the first place. They might feel so desperate for staff members that they rush through the process and hire just about anyone who applies—often people who aren’t a good fit and won’t last more than 90 days or even a single week.”
Kuraska offers several suggestions to help hoteliers improve their hiring practices in this area. The first is to bear in mind that LinkedIn has its limits. “I don’t believe the issue lies with the lack of potential hires on LinkedIn, although I would suggest hoteliers advertise on job boards more frequented by hourly workers, like Indeed and Snagajob, to source more applicants,” he says. “Also, I’d say that while LinkedIn can offer a brief overview of someone’s experience, it doesn’t help identify factors that are often more important, like soft skills and personality traits.”
Accordingly, Kuraska also suggests seeking out the right soft skills in potential hires. For instance, the Sprockets hiring platform identifies the best hires using the mental makeup of a company’s current top performers as a benchmark. “While it’s difficult to pinpoint key personality traits with an interview due to the required guesswork and potential bias, there are some questions that can help. Ask specific, open-ended questions that could reveal certain soft skills, like work ethic and teamwork,” he explains. “An example of this would be: ‘Tell us about a time when your team was understaffed, and you stepped up to pick up the slack and ensure guests had a five-star experience. What challenges did you encounter, and how did you overcome them?’”