Could better staff engagement solve hospitality’s recruitment problem?

By Emma Eversham contact

- Last updated on GMT

Could better staff engagement solve hospitality’s recruitment problem?

Related tags: Staff, Human resource management

Despite its great prospects for growth the hospitality sector still has one of the highest turnover rates of any industry. 

According to skills and workforce development organisation People 1st, high staff turnover not only costs the industry £272m​ a year, but has an impact on productivity and affects the morale of the staff members who are left to pick up the extra work.

“A constant stream of faces in and out the door can be tough on morale for hospitality staff, so employers should be working harder than ever to really engage with current employees; happy, tuned-in staff often means higher retention rates,” says Lee Biggins, founder and managing director of job site CV-Library. 

“We know from experience that maintaining an engaged workforce is at the top of the agenda for the majority of UK hospitality businesses,” agrees Paul Watson of Fourth, provider of Fourth Engage, a new engagement platform for the hospitality industry. "Research from Deloitte demonstrates this, with 78 per cent of senior executives stressing that employee engagement is critical to business success."

Like Biggins and Watson, many companies cite better engagement of staff as the key to maintaining a happy workforce and ensuring staff stick around for longer, but what exactly does it mean, how do you go about it and does it really work?

What is staff engagement? 

It is tricky to find a clear definition for the term 'employee engagement'. However, the CIPD - the professional body for HR and people management - broadly defines it as 'being positively present during the performance of work by willingly contributing intellectual effort, experiencing positive emotions and meaningful connections to others'.

Moira Laird, HR director at hotel management company Valor Hospitality, a company which sees employee engagement as integral​ to its success, has a more straightforward definition:

"It’s about making sure that you’re ticking as many boxes as you possibly can for people at work so that their personal values fit the business's values. It’s ensuring that you’re creating an environment that works for them to work in and that’s right for them to progress in," she says.

There are numerous examples hospitality businesses can give of ways they engage their staff in the business, but, as Laird warns, engagement will only be successful if the business has clear values, communicates them and then recruits people who will share them.

"Our values are very clear, they are about driving commerciality through customer service and exceptional commercial expertise," she says.

"We hire reliable, driven and enthusiastic people who are proud to work within Valor. As a company, we're also dynamic, fast moving and fun, but if that's not how you want to work you'll never be engaged in our business."

At four-strong vegetarian restaurant group 1847, all staff are hired knowing that they will be sharing in the responsibility of growing the business. 

"Our core brand values are based around communication and making sure that the staff are aware of what’s going on within in the business. If they have all the information to hand, they can react to that and support us to build a better business," says HR manager Emma Burkitt

"We like our team to take responsibility for things.  It doesn’t matter what role you are or how many shifts you’re doing, if you work for us you have the responsibility for 1847. We don’t want to be just the senior team making the crucial decision about the business as more often than not it’s the part-time member of waiting staff working on a busy Saturday night who knows what works, rather than members of the senior management team in the head office.”

Focus on communication

The hospitality companies who feel they are winning in the employee engagement stakes credit one area as key in their battle to retain staff and that's communication.

By focusing on improving communication across the business, both from employer to employee and vice versa, staff feel informed and involved and have a better understanding of where they fit in, says Valor's Laird, whose company ensures staff have access to the latest news from the company through their employee development system.

"When they log in they'll find news snippets about the group alongside lots of other functions. We're growing all the time, so they could be about what the new reception is going to look like or the new restaurant designs. This is on top of the 10am meetings that happen every morning with GMs and department team meetings once a month," she says.

At 1847, where communication is cited as part of the business's values, all staff are given access to minutes from the Daily Dash, a 10 minute conference call between members of the senior management team. Much of what is discussed also forms the basis of briefings with restaurant managers at the start of shifts.

Burkitt says managers will often translate facts and figures for each site into tangible targets for staff which in turn helps motivate them ahead of their shift.

"The staff will be told how many covers they've got coming in that night and about dietary requirements, regulars or VIPS coming in, but they'll also be told about revenue, about what they achieved yesterday and if they didn't hit targets why not," she explains.

"More often than not the targets aren't given in figures, it will be more like 'if we’d have sold five more bottles of wine last week you might have hit your revenue targets'. It's about communicating figures in a way that makes sense to them. It gives them an idea of how they can help the business and their role to play in it."

As well as daily briefings, staff are also invited to take part in Open Hour, an initiative which makes senior management free for an hour each week to answer questions and listen to new ideas.

"It's not about solving problems over pay or issues with uniform, it's more a chance for staff to put forward their ideas of how we can attract more customers or better promote the business, says Burkitt. "It's another way to engage the staff by letting them tell us how we can improve the business."

Valor Hospitality offers a similar scheme which it calls Coffee Chat. However, it can connect anyone not just staff to senior management.

"Anybody in the business can request a coffee chat with another member of staff, says Laird. "We all have personal profiles on our employee development system where you can request one with someone else and there are a number of topics you can request from a drop down menu."

The scheme has so far been a success in terms of connecting staff which, hopefully proves they are engaged with colleagues and therefore the business.

"We launched it last year and we've had near on a thousand Coffee Chats in five months," enthuses Laird.

Easy communication

Giving staff a platform to communicate to others within the business was a key motivation in the creation of Collaboration, the latest functionality to be added to Fourth Engage, Fourth's staff engagement app.

The social media tool is designed to connect employees both with the business and with other staff on an accessible platform - an app on their smartphones.

As Fourth's Watson says, employers have to fight harder than ever to retain staff in an increasingly competitive market.

"One of the big challenges our customers face is that their employees aren’t connected to them anymore," he says. "Brand loyalty has diminished. Staff can get trained as a waiter with one restaurant chain and if they aren’t getting the shifts they want or they feel they’re not getting the development plan they require they feel they can walk out and go and get a job in another."

Watson believes that keeping staff up-to-date via Engage which allows employers to share HR documents such as staff rotas and pay slips with staff as well as handle holiday requests and share notes from briefings for example, can bolster communication within a business as it allows managers time to discuss other areas such as development when staff are on-site, rather than daily practicalities. 

"This tool doesn’t replace face-to-face communication it just bolsters it, because often the manager might do a shift briefing but they might not have all the team there because they’re starting at slightly different times or, similarly the area manager might want to communicate out results to their area and often it gets lost in translation.

Using this app means that every single employee has a direct line of communication to the employee and vice versa and keeping lines of communication open aids engagement which therefore provides better engagement."

Burkitt, whose company uses a facility called Shift Planner to share rotas to staff smartphones, agrees that using technology to communicate certain aspects of the job can improve relationships between staff and management. 

"When they come into work we're not having conversations about whose working what shift as that's already been sorted out," she says. "Instead, we can talk about training or how to up-sell while on shift."

Support and develop​ 

Ensuring lines of communication are left open is one way to aid engagement, but if employees don’t feel that actions are being made following issues they have raised or they are not being offered a chance to progress they won’t remain with the company for long. 

“We’ve done research which shows that an overwhelming 96.4 per cent of hospitality workers would be less likely to leave their current employer if they were offered comprehensive training and development opportunities. This, coupled with the fact that 57.1 per cent of the industry’s workers say they would feel happier at work if they had support from management, suggests that making staff feel valued and offering them the chance to progress their careers could solve a lot of the issues,” says CV-Library’s Biggins. 

Laird agrees that coupling communication with regular staff reviews is the secret to ensuring high levels of engagement, but, crucially it is essential to aid the business's growth. 

Staff are continually assessed through the company's Talent Toolbox system and given praise and recognition when scores are high. The system not only helps with reviews but is a way of identifying the right staff for promotion. 

"It shows us who our future leaders are. We know that to keep up with our growth planned for this year that we need a minimum of 10 per cent of leaders to be developed, so we'll really focus this year on developing operations managers into general managers. We have got to continuously develop them to move our business forward." 

The work in this area is already paying off says Laird, showing that high engagement can lead to higher retention. 

"It is having a positive impact on retention and was responsible for driving our engagement scores forward in 2015," says Laird. "It's great for others to see people being promoted internally. Last year we grew from 11 to 20 hotels and we grew two new directors, two first appointment GMs were promoted and others were moved into new properties as well as a number of other promotions through the business. We delivered on our promise."

A number of promotions have also happened at 1847 partly down to its focus on training which it does across departments. Notably too, promotions have been more common in the kitchen where many businesses suffer. Burkitt believes 1847's success is partly because chefs are encouraged to take an interest in front-of-house so have a greater involvement and understanding of the whole business. 

"Last year we had a sous chef based in Manchester who was promoted to head chef in Birmingham and we have a sous chef in Birmingham who was promoted to executive head chef and he moved to Manchester. Chefs are transient and generally if you get more than six months out of them that's a positive, but here chefs are with us for over 12 months," she says. 

"Two of our businesses are actually headed up by our head chefs who are also general managers. It means that there isn’t that typical divide where there’s the kitchen side and the front-of-house side and never shall they meet." She also says it has a knock-on effect on the daily business.

"Having cross departmental training gives them an appreciation of what’s involved in each role and respect for each others’ jobs so they can see if front-of-house are under pressure. It makes for a smoother service," she enthuses. 

Continuous assessment

While there are obvious areas a business can work on to improve staff engagement, as examples have shown, each business will have its own way of approaching them and as Laird says 'it's not a case of one size fits all' in the art of engagement. 

Even those who feel they have cracked staff engagement will not be resting on their laurels and hoping that the same systems will work year in and year out. With ever-changing work practices and employee needs, employers need to be engaged in engagement to make it work. 

"You've got to do a number of different activities to keep your staff engaged and it can’t always be what you’ve always done, because that becomes the norm and isn’t as exciting," warns Laird. "That does make it harder for you, because the more you do the more you have to keep doing to keep engagement scores high. You have to move that bench up continuously." 

This BigHospitality feature was sponsored by Fourth:

Fourth is the world’s leading provider of cloud-based cost control solutions to the hospitality industry. Our solutions enable you to maximise control, management and as a result, profitability, right across your business regardless of its scale or your location.

Related topics: Recruitment and retention

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