Closing off inventory, scaled-back service, or having managers clean rooms are just some of the drastic tactics luxury hotels have been forced to use in the current labor shortage, where employee poaching and no-shows are common occurrences that leave management in the lurch. Lisa Williams the Executive Housekeeper at The Grand, a 207-room five-star hotel in York, part of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, has found a better way: flexible scheduling. Using a combination of short shifts, flexible shift patterns, an outside app-based agency, plus a robust schedule of fun perks for her team, Lisa has not only boosted productivity in housekeeping but also cleaning quality and employee morale.
Before you give away your secrets to success, tell us a bit about what brought you to The Grand, York?
In school, I started working part-time as a room attendant in hotels near Newcastle and at 18 moved to London to experience life in the big city! I began working in prestigious four and five-star hotels around London–Hilton on Park Lane, Grosvenor Apartments by Jumeirah Living, the W Hotel in Leicester Square, honing my skills and building my experience as a leader, working my way up to managing teams of over 50. Most recently, I was working for Marriott at the historic St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London.
I had been at the St. Pancras Renaissance for six years when COVID hit. COVID has been devastating for the world and our industry, but particularly for me personally, as my father passed away from COVID in March during the first lockdown. We couldn’t even hold a funeral for him, it was hard, and my hotel had closed. Feeling grateful to the NHS, I decided to volunteer at Kings College Hospital, working as a facilities assistant, which actually gave me incredible insight and experience into the highest level of cleaning standards.
Losing my father also made me realize I wanted to be closer to family, which is how I ended up moving to York to oversee housekeeping at The Grand. I knew the GM Simon Mahon and he shares my passion for housekeeping, he understands it is the heart of the house!
So sorry to hear about your father, that must have been so difficult. It seems he must be watching over you, as your move to The Grand has allowed you to make a great deal of impact in a short time. What challenges did you face?
Yes, it feels longer, but I started with the hotel in April just as the lockdown was being lifted. Like many UK hotels, between COVID and Brexit, staffing was the main challenge. After furlough, people no longer wanted to work the traditional five out of seven days, 40 hours a week. We decided to go completely flexitime, literally saying “any hours you want, you can do” we will train you and you can create your own schedule between our opening hours of 8 am to 10 pm. This is very appealing, we got lots of interest as we have many students in York and lots of parents who need to do the school run and be available to care for their family.
How has flexitime impacted how you run the department?
The scheduling is challenging but totally worth it as the fluid schedule is more efficient and my team is so much happier. We are leading the way in York on flexitime. We basically went from a team of 30 to about 50, with more fluid shift patterns and a flexible scheduling process. We aim to set the schedule a week in advance, so people can plan, but it changes daily. With more staycation customers, booking windows have shortened and we can pick up 10 or 15 rooms on the day. We’ve come to realize that being more flexible also suits the hotel better. Now, we can accommodate for last-minute bookings, late check-outs, and early arrivals as our staff are starting their shifts all through the day.
How has fluid scheduling impacted productivity?
Our productivity has gone through the roof. We can actually mirror the movement of guests more efficiently. I don’t have cleaners waiting around to clean rooms, our team has more energy and is able to pay better attention to detail and procedure. We lowered the rooms per shift from 12 to 9 and we deploy staff in teams of two. When we need help to clean extra rooms, I always have people that are still early in their shift and eager to clean more!
Do you ever need to top up with outside agency staff?
Yes, in April we started working with the Indeed FLEX UK app, which is a platform I learned about through the UK Housekeepers Association. Basically, I can fill slots last minute due to sickness, for example, by posting the job online. Team members can then accept shifts from their phones. Each employee is rated 1 - 5, and those with higher ratings get to see the job openings first. I easily fill whatever hours I need, and though the hourly rate is higher, we don’t pay the extra benefits so it is a similar cost to what we pay employees of The Grand overall.
How are the Indeed FLEX UK employees rated?
Being on time, attitude, following procedure are some of the rating criteria. We treat those from the agency people like they are part of The Grand, so I give them treats and small incentives so they always want to return.
What else do you do to incentivize your team?
To me, housekeeping is not the back of the house, it is truly the heart of the house. My GM Simon Mahon feels the same way. We have a whole host of things happening to keep the team happy, on top of trying to manage their workload, so that they are doing the best possible job and morale is very high. Examples would be gift vouchers if a guest mentions a housekeeper by name, goodie bags, and we do a lottery every month where two people get 500 GBP each. Names get taken out until everyone has a turn. We do little incentives to bring money up, 5 per extra room at the end of a shift, if we need it. We also do team-building outings three times a year, we’ve been to the London Zoo and we are going for Crazy Golf next.
Wait, how would a guest know the cleaner by name?
One of our SOPs is that each cleaner leaves a handwritten note to the guest wishing them a great stay. Sometimes this includes some chocolates or a small toy or keychain from York Minster, just a little something to show the guests we have thought of them. Working with the staff on personal notes helps them build confidence to interact with guests more in the hallways as well. We’ve seen a positive response from guests. We get lots of nice notes back from guests too.
Beyond changing your staffing program, have you changed cleaning protocols due to COVID?
Yes, we provide full-service cleaning but with limited contact, so this takes a bit of communication to plan cleanings for when guests are out of the room. Lots of educating the team on how to communicate this and new SOPs. Like everyone we have changed how we disinfect the rooms, all our team wears masks, gloves, and aprons. We spot-check frequently to make sure team members are cleaning with the correct materials, not using the same cloths to clean different areas, we are actually using color-coded cloths for cleaning different surfaces. This is something I picked up during my time working in the hospital. Guests have commented that they feel comfortable in the hotel because they have seen how the girls are working. COVID is still out there, so we need to remain really careful. We provide COVID travel kits for guests with anti-bac gels, wipes, masks, and gloves.
Wow, you really seem to have set some innovative housekeeping programs in place. Thank you for sharing, Lisa!