Finding and keeping qualified hotel employees is a conundrum in the best of times. It challenges a property’s viability in the worst of times. Today, many hoteliers are confronting the lasting effects of the “great resignation” spurred by the global pandemic and the extended closures of California hotels.
They are learning to adapt to changing expectations and attitudes of a fresh-look generation of workers, many of whom seek careers defined less by pay and hours and more by greater diversity of colleagues, a variation of tasks, and a detailed work/life plan that puts concerns for the individual’s needs on par with those of the hotel.
This emerging view of the workplace, of career paths and of staffing hierarchy seeks greater flexibility, a greater voice in job scopes, and to work for an employer that “walks the talk” about diversity and respect for the individual.
It comes just when hotel owners and top managers are eager to make up for the “lost years” of the pandemic when they were closed or had little to no business, yet continued to incur expensive maintenance, tax, and regulatory costs. It also comes when the public is eager to resume travel after two years of being “cooped up”—adding more pressure to managers to increase occupancy even when their hotel may not have a full complement of staff to support all their guests.
This dynamic is fueling discussions at many California hotels that range the spectrum of “just get back to work” to finding and embracing solutions to this workplace cultural shift that may, in some cases, pit old-school managers against self-absorbed Generation Z-ers.
Fulfilling the 24/7 needs of guests and adapting to employees’ re-envisioned view of work can be difficult in hospitality where there are long-established management norms and inescapable daily must-do lists.
Fairmont Hotels from the San Francisco Bay Area and West Coast are tackling this challenge head-on with what is believed to be a first-in-the-region approach that upends some of those long-standing traditions and reframes working life for managers and leaders around flexibility, communication, and individual needs.
The shift has its roots during the depths of the pandemic when hotels were closed to guests and maintained only a skeleton management staff.
“It started for us when there were only a dozen of us working,” said Markus Treppenhauer, General Manager of the historic Fairmont San Francisco hotel on Nob Hill. “Every afternoon, we would have an informal get together, just sitting on the couch for 30 minutes. But that created a real connection with the people who were there.”
That connection turned out to be more important than they first recognized.
When the pandemic eased enough for the hotel to re-open and the informal sessions gave way to the busy life of the hotel, the team realized they missed the time they spent with each other and hearing each other out. So they formalized the process, and now spend 30 minutes every Friday as a management team on relationship building.
Those meetings are one part of an overall program the hotel developed for its team, many of whom were hired just before or just after the pandemic.
A new manager is invited to start a conversation with their supervisor about what motivates them about the work, how they feel about their career, what would help them create a work/life balance that works for them. The conversations are considered a “safe space” where the supervisor’s job is to listen and try to understand what truly motivates the individual and how to help them best use their talents on the job. The program seeks to connect with each person as an individual, to discover what gives them the sense of purpose that is a hallmark expectation of this generation of workers.
“We knew we would be looking at hiring a very diverse set of people, from different backgrounds, experiences, ages, who identify differently, disabilities, LGBTQIA+,” said Jackie Dacanay, Director of Culture & Belonging at Fairmont San Francisco. “It’s very complex. So, the big question became, how do you build a cohesive team, recognize and build talents, help them identify their purpose, and keep them connected?”
It became clear that the answers were different for everyone. Some people wanted to continue to work remotely; others wanted to spend more time on site. Some people wanted greater flexibility in working hours—being able to leave work during the day to go to the gym or tend to family issues, for example, and to make the decision themselves about when to do it. So, the Fairmont instituted flexible schedules for colleagues, encouraging them to take advantage of the policy without feeling guilty about it.
“The hotel industry has a reputation for unruly schedules, for people staying late, looking for the boss’ car parked in the garage or the lights on in their office, trying to prove how hard they worked,” said Paul Tormey, Fairmont’s regional vice president. “Those were success metrics, but those days are over. I want to wipe that stuff out.”
In the past, the company might have tried to deal with an unhappy employee or keep them from jumping to a competitor with a raise, that’s no longer enough. Hotels are competing for talent not just with one another, but with tech companies and employers in other industries where flexibility and work/life balance are well-established and attractive to employees.
“Collectively we’re being courageous and going to people who have come up in this industry where face time was the measure of your success and not taking vacation was a badge of honor and we’re having conversations with these same people about changing all that,” said Jose Zarate, Regional Director, Talent and Culture, Claremont Club & Spa and Northern California Region
One of Fairmont San Francisco’s most visible commitments to evolving its workplace culture occurred in July when it named Dacanay to be its first Director of Culture and Belonging. “I’ll be focused on connecting more deeply with our people and in turn, colleagues with each other,” Dacanay said. “Understanding each individual’s purpose will also allow us to best structure the work environment, positively impact hotel performance and create stronger ties within our community.”
Much of what Fairmont has created, although informed by research on diversity and job satisfaction and with the help of consultants, is still a bit of an experiment for leadership—and sometimes it can feel a bit odd to people who have been in the business for decades, like Treppenhauer, who started his career in European hospitality and said “martyrdom” in working endless hours was the expectation.
“We don’t know, and we have never known, what comes next. But we’re OK with that because that’s the culture we’re building,” he said. “The hardest thing Jackie and I learned is that, if we’re insufficiently comfortable with something we’re doing, we’re probably doing it right, because it’s something new.”
Instead of people racking up vacation time they never use, people are actively encouraged to take time off. There is a clinician on site to help people address their mental and emotional well-being, deal with the effects of stress, and in San Francisco, managers are given “vitality days”—an optional day each month outside of sick time and vacation time that people can use for wellness, however they define it.
“Some people want to go to the spa, or others want to hike or take a class, to do something they didn’t do before,” Dacanay said. “Some people just want to sit on the couch, eat a bag of chips, and watch Hulu. There’s no shame in what you choose.”
While other Fairmont properties in the region are adopting some of the programs developed in San Francisco, they are likely to implement them in different ways, depending on the staff and the property.
“It’s still a process,” Zarate said. “We’re all on the same road, but at different points.”
Because the program is in its early stages, it’s difficult to measure how it’s doing in keeping people motivated, attracting new talent and improving the guest experience. The goal is to keep listening to the team, trying new things, and checking in with people to see what’s working for them and what isn’t.
“I feel like, if this were a baseball game, we’re in the fourth inning,” Tormey said. “In our third month, the emotional quotient of this is working. Our KPIs are exceeding all expectations. But I can’t link them together yet.”
Even so, this new approach of true inclusion where everyone has a voice and feels valued for who they are is working for leaders who see it as a chance to redefine the Fairmont experience and to create a program that can be exported to the rest of the company.
Fairmont is measuring progress using anonymous surveys and one-on-one conversations and expect the process to continue to evolve to meet the new priorities of its colleagues. Although it’s a different way to manage, it’s a welcome one.
“The pandemic gave me the chance to go home in seven hours, and to build friendships and loyalties that will never go away,” Tormey said. “I am never going back to 2019.”
Rory J. O’Connor is a long-time Bay Area journalist and consultant who wrote this article for The Lodging News.