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Re-Thinking the Future of Hotel Work

Bruce Tracey Professor of Management, Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration

All of us want to move on, but the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rear its ugly head. As such, responding effectively to this extraordinary challenge will remain one of the top HR priorities in the hotel industry for the foreseeable future.

Over the past year, I have engaged with scores of hotel HR professionals to learn how they have confronted and responded to the disruption created by the pandemic.

Despite the enormous impact and ongoing fallout, there are many encouraging signs that the hotel industry will not only bounce back, but become a more compelling – and competitive – place to work.

The Big Hit

My first and perhaps most troubling observation is that the pandemic has provided another unfortunate reminder about the vulnerability of the hotel industry. The industry's workforce contracted nearly 35% since January 2020, and there is growing evidence that many of those jobs will not return. Additionally, consumer confidence remains low and there are expectations that half of US hotels will remain closed in 2021.

Hotel companies with a strong foundation – financially, of course, but also from a cultural standpoint – were much better insulated from the significant disruption and decline in demand. However, regardless of competitive position, everyone was hurt. Business-as-usual was no longer applicable and all companies have had to make difficult decisions within an evolving and highly ambiguous landscape.

Cuts and Clean

Most of the initial conversations focused on two topics. The first was on retrenchment, and firms that were decisive, overtly transparent, and demonstrated a humanistic approach to making difficult cost-cutting decisions adjusted to the new normal more quickly and effectively. Additionally, those who responded swiftly and in an open, empathetic manner were better able to maintain a positive employer image, especially among those who were negatively impacted by job losses.

For example, in addition to outplacement support and assistance in securing unemployment benefits, many HR professionals were able to convince hotel owners to preserve healthcare benefits and maintain access to property resources for everyone who was furloughed or laid off. Many firms also adopted more intensive, almost hyper-communication strategies to keep current and former employees informed about the company's responses to the pandemic and stay connected with each other. These and similar efforts were instrumental in supporting the psychological and emotional needs of everyone affected by the downturn, regardless of employment status, and sent a strong and positive signal about the hotel's staffing priorities when demand returns.

Not surprisingly, the second topic that dominated early conversations addressed cleanliness, sanitation, and social distancing mandates. Complying with the every-changing guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and various federal, state, and local governments was and remains a tall task, but paled in comparison to promoting confidence that hotels were elevating their game and implementing more comprehensive procedures to ensure a clean and safe workplace.

To manage and get ahead of this issue, several HR leaders started collaborating with institutions such as the School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University to develop resources for disease prevention and mitigation. For example, contact-tracing courses were implemented to educate employees about the transmission of COVID-19, as well as demonstrate that the hotel was taking a visible role in supporting a broader public health initiative. Similarly, many HR professionals referenced the American Hotel and Lodging Association's Educational Institute online COVID-19 training program as a tool for promoting a safer work environment and offering employees insights about ways to demonstrate "the spirit of hospitality throughout all interactions".

However, despite optimism about the vaccination rollout and subsequent operational implications, particularly loosening of social distancing and capacity restrictions, there was strong consensus that this issue isn't going away anytime soon, and that the respective resources and programs will require continuous updating and refinement.

Employee Well-Being

As the pandemic wore on, new priorities began to emerge and become acute. In particular, many HR leaders expressed increasing concerns about employee mental health and well-being, including their own. Jobs were becoming multifunctional, and not in a good way, more of a "do a whole lot more with less" approach to getting things done. Moreover, priorities varied on a daily and sometimes hourly basis, and the increasing asks to be "flexible" were taking a tremendous personal toll.

A number of initiatives were implemented to alleviate the pressures, from awareness-building campaigns to destigmatize mental health afflictions and encourage employees to take advantage of available services, to programming that helped address family-specific needs and challenges, such as after-school tutoring support and relationship counseling. However, the pandemic's lingering and projected long-term effects mean that this particularly challenge will remain at the top of the HR priority list for 2021 and beyond.

The Future of Work

The HR priorities that have become front-and-center over the past year leads to my second observation. We have witnessed yet again the fragility of the hotel industry, and the growing concerns associated with increasing job demands and the implications for employee well-being demonstrate that we need to re-think the nature of hotel work. If we go back to the good old days before the pandemic, recall that labor markets were fairly tight and many hotels had a very difficult time sourcing and hiring "top talent" for front-line and managerial positions.

Additionally, the low wage, low skill moniker that is associated with many operational roles, as well as the 24/7, 365-day nature of the hotel business, have been big deterrents to those who could can use their skills in better paying jobs that don't require working on weekends and holidays. Unfortunately, the pandemic exacerbated this problem in a very big way, and we are already seeing defections to other industry settings among those who possess transferable skills and knowledge. Additionally, the stress and burnout that results from "doing a lot more with less" will only make matters worse. Wholesale changes are needed.

Fewer Boundaries

Looking forward, some of the industry's HR thought leaders have already begun to challenge the traditional nature and structure of work in hotel settings. The new normal of performing multiple roles simultaneously, especially those working from home, has blurred the distinctions among hierarchical levels and functional boundaries. These developments have placed a heavy burden on hotel staff, and it is clear that the current version of job "flexibility" is not sustainable. The upside is that HR professionals discovered that the traditional reporting relationships and departmental divisions may not be necessary, and in some cases, get in the way of effective decision-making and problem solving.

Moreover, the efficiencies gained by better and quicker communication, as well as emerging technologies that have automated many back-office, administrative, and operational functions, will make some jobs, especially those with an "assistant" modifier, a thing of the past. Indeed, some HR leaders have predicted a marked contraction in the number of positions that will be needed in the future and as such, will continue to examine and distinguish the tasks that will be performed by people from those that will be performed by technology, and use that information to inform the design of work and future staffing plans. The aim is to create smarter, and hopefully more professionalized jobs that are more resilient to economic downturns, and thus, more attractive to the "top talent" hotel companies will need when the demand for labor returns.

Professionalized Experiences

Although the nature of professionalized hotel work is still evolving, one of key considerations is to leverage employee capabilities and interests in a more comprehensive and personalized manner. Many hotel companies utilize some fairly sophisticated tools to source and assess talent when making hiring decisions. Unfortunately, after prospective employees become new employees, most complete a one-size-fits-all onboarding program and then asked to perform a pre-determined set of tasks and duties that align with a small subset of their competencies, skills, and interests. Moreover, only after new employees demonstrate mastery of the pre-determined tasks and duties will they be offered extra-role and potentially more motivating responsibilities. There are many operational opportunities for improvement in this regard.

The need for better person-job alignment becomes even more acute when we consider the changes that have been introduced to manage the guest experience. For example, contactless systems are now widely available and provide smart solutions for check-in, in-room, concierge, and check-out functions. These service automations will continue to shift the need for labor away from traditional customer-facing positions to tech-support and even tech-development roles, which will require new and more advanced capabilities.

Additionally, and similar to the ways in which customer data continues to be exploited, data generated from new work technologies, such as real-time learning and performance feedback, will be used to amend and continuously update position profiles and align people with the work they do much more closely than current practices allow. As HR leaders continue to gain insights from the adoption of new customer apps, service robots, and digital work technologies, the hope is that hotel jobs will become more appealing and attractive to highly capable people, particularly those who can determine the best use of apps, robots, and technologies for delivering even better guest experiences.

Embracing the New Normal

I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the money, time, and effort that will be required to enhance the professionalization of hotel work. Significant resources will be needed to improve technology infrastructures that allow data to flow more freely across systems and platforms, and justifying any new spending in the current economic climate is an extremely hard sell. Additionally, wholesale changes to existing systems always take more time and involve many more headaches than originally planned, so the appetite for more disruption won't be high for some time.

Fortunately, many HR leaders have fully embraced the new normal and are finding ways to accelerate the use of data- and technology-based systems for designing better work. By reshaping and creating a much greater alignment between people and the work they perform, the hotel industry will become a more attractive, competitive, and sustainable place to work, and hopefully, less subject to the influences of future pandemics and similar environmental shocks.

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