New technology can make a difference in employee engagement and help you realize financial returns far in excess of added costs.
by LARRY MOGELONSKY, MBA, P.ENG.
The highly competitive hotel landscape at present has forced us to reexamine our operations to not only look for added efficiencies but also to see what we can do better. The overwhelming consensus is one of getting back to basics – that hospitality is and will always be a people business. Hence, improving our human capital will in turn have manifold benefits, both direct via improved productivity, for example, as well as indirect through, say, heightened guest satisfaction.
Nowhere is this reinvestment in our own associates and managers more necessary than for our housekeepers and other related departments, because they account for the most payroll-by-man hours. Further, these room attendants, maids, public area custodians and other back-of-house staffers endure workplace hazards that are far removed from other roles. As such, professional development for these team members will generate significant cost savings from a variety of underlying rationales.
Key to this pursuit is the deployment of new technologies that can streamline processes and provide the necessary continuing education to keep your team motivated and fully able to handle all responsibilities. Of course, because housekeeping is such a labor-intensive job, the department has been somewhat resistant to change. However, that’s no longer the case. But before we dive into solutions, let’s analyze the causes so that you have a broad understanding of what afflicts housekeepers.
A confluence of challenges
The housekeeping department is confronted by a series of issues stemming from both the need for management to heighten efficiencies and an individual employee’s desire for better working conditions. Because the customer is always right, understanding how the modern traveler judges the efforts of your housekeepers gives us a good perspective by which to decide what course of action you might take to improve internal processes.
First is the risk of unclean rooms tarnishing a hotel’s reputation on social media or review websites. All it takes here is one miniscule error to cause sizeable damage. Unlike the star or diamond rating systems where all aspects of a property are fairly weighted, guest reviews are more likely to be based on emotional whims. For example, a stained towel or frayed rug can yield the lowest score on TripAdvisor – one star out of five – with no mention of any other perceived flaws. With third-party travel websites playing such a prominent role during the research phase of the purchasing funnel, it’s this customer volatility and peril of negative reviews from housekeeping slips that should make any manager or owner only ever accept flawlessly clean rooms at all times.
Second is the desire for 24-hour room readiness. In stride with the diversification of the accommodations industry, airlines have likewise expanded. A host of budget carriers now offer unconventional routes with even more unusual departure and arrival times. The expectation for hotels has in turn shifted where the standard 3 p.m. check-in time is often deemed unacceptable for those reaching the property slightly earlier. To manage such demands means constantly updated room priority lists and being able to work under tighter deadlines.
The burden of demotivation
Moving on to the back-of-house, the housekeeping department is riddled with archaic processes that strain the workload of supervisors as well as demotivate the actual cleaners. While the morning lineup will forever be a great tool for teambuilding, the daily agenda established therein is obsolete the moment the meeting wraps. Moreover, a high rate of absenteeism makes shift scheduling more cumbersome than it should be, and increasing employee turnover translates to more lost productivity due to the requirements of onboarding and job shadowing. Lastly, legacy issues with older team members passing on bad habits to new recruits can cast a long shadow when trying to institute process improvements or mitigate cleaning errors.
From the housekeeper’s point of view, troubles are also brewing. The core problem is that nowadays the job isn’t seen as part of a career with a clear path of upward mobility. Even though there are exceptions and properties with excellent teams in place, for the most part the passion and motivation for going that extra step just isn’t there anymore. There’s the hourly wage and not much else to prevent this line of work from taking on a sharply transient quality, thus contributing to the high turnover and absenteeism rates currently tormenting this department.
Further aggravating this demotivation is the risk of repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). Cleaning 12 to 15 guest rooms per day takes its toll after many years on the job, especially when improper techniques or movement patterns are used. While the most visible and costly effect of an injury is a leave of absence due to a short-term disability claim along with any subsequent insurance premium adjustments, many staffers might opt to push through the pain as they know their truancy would only distress their coworkers who would have to pick up their shifts. Not only is seeing a colleague in agony discouraging, but the housekeeper who decides to stay on even with an RSI is likely only to exacerbate the injury to the point where it becomes debilitating.
Lastly, a problem specific to certain geographic areas and with a greater tendency to occur in housekeeping over any other department is the potential for a language barrier to affect communications. Many room attendants in North America are immigrants. Not only can a language barrier jumble constructive criticism from supervisors, but it can also interfere with customers interactions if, say, a guest makes a request from a housekeeper while passing through a corridor.
Tech solutions for specific problems
For each of the challenges addressed above, thankfully there is now a software or hardware platform that can be utilized. All of these can then be tackled in terms of whether the results are immediate or evident over a longer period of time. And for the purposes of this discussion, these solutions will be kept bipartisan by not citing specific companies. Rest assured, though, all are well within reach.
The most abrupt game changer you can implement would be a holistic upgrade to your housekeeping management system, giving supervisors a greater degree of real-time control over their subordinates as well as broader analysis tools. In effect, ‘real-time’ means instantaneous updates to housekeeper schedules and room cleaning orders for the most efficient handling of priorities and a drastic reduction in paperwork. Of course, these contemporary systems are all built upon integrations for more seamless cross-departmental communications as well as mobile apps to notify housekeepers already on the clock.
By connecting with the property management system (PMS), check-ins at the front desk can instantly be relayed to the executive housekeeper who can then automatically ping his or her team about the updated priority list. This alone helps dramatically to meet the demand for 24-hour room readiness, especially once the PMS is linked to airport timetables so hoteliers know when guests’ planes have arrived at the terminal. Additionally, mobile apps can allow housekeepers to directly send automated alerts and photos of odd situations to engineering, thereby letting them deal with any maintenance issues before guests notice. Similarly, lost and found can be immediately updated while security issues can be rapidly circulated for more effective coordination during onsite incidents or crises.
Another key benefit of building a dynamic management network between supervisors’ computers and every team member’s mobile device is heightened accountability. You know up-to-the-minute who has cleaned what room and when, as well as whether any supplementary service requests were inputted. Not only does this streamline room inspections, but errors brought up in online reviews can be traced back to specific team members for precise corrective retraining. Moreover, you will be able to identify which rooms take 20 minutes versus those that require extra attention in order to properly balance workloads and objectively assess output per room attendants, all of which in turn will decrease the average room turnaround time.
As for operational analytics, the same modern software that will help you automate shifts and staff communications will also allow you to better track cleaning times and more easily identify gaps in performance, floor routes or inventory. When combined with your customer relationship management (CRM) database – most likely via PMS integration – these tools will allow you to make staffing and service adjustments based upon specific guest preferences. Combined together with real-time management, this translates to significantly improved productivity levels as you are able to hone your processes within months of accumulating metrics.
Educational apps to build a better team
Even with enhanced back-end systems to hone management of your team, housekeepers still need to be trained, retrained and motivated to perform at their best. It’s a backbreaking job with wages that are never exceptionally lucrative, so continuing education can go a long way to lifting team spirits. Luckily, there is an array of tech startups with products capable of offloading many of these professional development responsibilities from managers’ and supervisors’ plates. Much like the advantages of deploying new software interfaces, the key benefits here are heightened accountability and huge savings in labor costs.
At the most basic level, there are mobile apps that can be white-labeled for your organization and used as instructional compendiums for new recruits. Such platforms act as online access points for standard operating procedure manuals, training videos, assignments, quizzes, company bulletin boards, forums and private messaging. With easy swapping of electronic files, all information can be kept fully up to date so you teach only the most current brand standards as well as block potential legacy issues.
Not only do these reduce managers’ time devoted to onboarding, but they also facilitate a microlearning environment where associates can study in bite-sized portions, like when in transit going to and from work or just before bed. Millennials are especially fond of this style of self-guided education. Next, such add-ons like a forum and internal surveys help to form a community around the app, thereby making every employee feel more a part of the team. This last part is doubly true when managers and senior executives are also actively participating on the app because this type of direct access to the corporate level can act as a form of career mentorship and an incentive against departure from the job.
Looking beyond a bolt-on app with plug-and-play functionalities, more advanced systems can be used to teach proper language skills in a hospitality context. Using voice artificial intelligence, such platforms can not only correct basic pronunciation mistakes but also help refine conversational abilities to aid in direct interactions with guests. While this niche is still in the budding phase, any investment to help your employees with their communication skills will drastically help to increase self-esteem as your team will realize benefits that go far beyond just the job itself.
Onsite injury prevention
As should be obvious by now, housekeeping is grueling work. If you haven’t already done so, spend a full shift cleaning rooms to earn credits in order to fully realize the risk of injury these associates face each and every day. Fortunately, technologies have now aligned with the physiotherapy community to offer platforms that can train employees on proper corrective exercises that can prevent the onset of an RSI or reduce chronic flare-ups. These rehabilitative stretches that promote good posture and join alignment are commonly referred to as ergonomics, and they are what will let your housekeepers truly thrive.
As a start, ergonomics training can be added to any white-labeled app in the form of instructional manuals or exercise videos for associates to follow along on their own time as well as information on proper techniques to utilize while performing specific motions related to cleaning a guestroom. The focus of these materials can be either to increase one’s understanding of the importance of proper bodily movements or exact exercise regimens for associates to follow.
However, unlike other aspects of an associate’s curriculum where his or her aptitude and accumulated knowledge can be explicitly measured via testing and grading, the benefits of ergonomics are only truly realized upon daily practice – muscle memory requires repetition, after all. Moreover, you may not be able to afford to have a full-time, certified group instructor to lead multiple shifts of workers through a series of exercises right after lineup.
To ameliorate this issue, there are now a few state-of-the-art vendors utilizing motion capture training stations to emulate the role of an instructor. While you could simply put your team in front of a big screen and play an exercise video for them to follow, motion detection technology gives your associates immediate feedback on their form so they can improve. In addition, all movements can be recorded so you can track performance and monitor for improvements, all without an instructor present.
All this will add up to fewer onsite injuries, translating to less time off work and fewer disability claims. But ultimately, and much like one of the positives of increasing your team’s language skills, the benefits of a pain-free team extend far beyond the hotel. Any activities you take to promote your associates’ overall health and wellbeing will not only make them more productive on the job, but they will be thankful for how you are helping alleviate issues that may be affecting their home lives as well.
With technology deployment already proving to be exceedingly effective in other departments, it’s time to make it work for housekeeping. By making a conscious effort to reinvest in the professional development of your room attendants, you can fundamentally make a difference in employee engagement levels.
While the abovementioned platforms represent a wide swath of what’s available to you insofar as management software, analytics tools and training platforms, the key is to commit to long-term change. Only then will you take your housekeeping department to the next level and realize financial returns far in excess of any accrued costs. ■
Larry Mogelonsky is the owner of Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited. His experience encompasses hotel properties around the world, both branded and independent, and ranging from luxury and boutique to select-service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t miss our education session, Technology to Improve Housekeeping & Maintenance Efficiency, March 29 at AAHOACON18.
To view an AAHOA webinar on this topic, go to: www.aahoa.com/events/aahoawebinars.
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